Studying history isn’t as easy as opening a book and reading. To understand key historical events on a deeper level and link one period to the next, it’s essential to know how to study history as a subject.
In this guide, we’ll share four practical tips that you can use to study any historical period or event – from the Roman Empire to the Cold War – at a deeper level and become a better historian.
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Use a wide variety of primary and secondary sources
Two types of sources are used in history: primary sources and secondary sources. In order to gain a balanced understanding of history, it’s important to use primary and secondary sources in your research.
Primary sources are documents, films or objects that are from the period or event you’re studying. They give you a direct view of what happened from a person that was there during the event that you’re studying.
An example of a primary source is the United States Constitution – it’s a document that’s directly related to the founding of the nation. Another is a the Diary of Anne Frank, which was written during the events of World War II and the Holocaust.
Primary sources don’t necessarily need to be documents – they can also be objects such as pottery or sculpture or creative works like a novel or poem. Anything that’s directly related to the event you’re studying is considered a primary source.
Secondary sources are publications or films that study primary sources. An example of a secondary source is a history textbook. Because secondary sources study a wide range of primary sources, they can offer a wider perspective on historical events.
Both primary sources and secondary sources can be biased towards a specific ideal or historical interpretation. For example, a primary source can be an autobiography written to give a historical figure an improved reputation that doesn’t match reality.
Likewise, secondary sources can be biased towards a certain idea or narrative. For example, the author of a textbook could specifically choose to only include primary sources that supported their perspective of a historical event.
Because of this, it’s important to study events using primary and secondary sources in order to gain a full understanding. It’s also important to study a range of different sources, since only using one source makes a biased interpretation possible.
Do you need help picking sources for your historical analysis? Learn how to choose the right sources for writing historical papers or simply forming your knowledge of history in our College Writing Essentials course.
Focus on retaining key dates and names
Although there’s far more to history than just names and dates, retaining key data will help you better understand historical events in detail. Having hard data on the details of history also allows you to easily write persuasive historical essays.
Retaining information isn’t always easy, particularly when you’re studying a long and nuanced historical event. From WWII battles to the American Revolution, the key events of history often involve a large variety of people and occurrences.
One of the best ways to retain information is by using simple memory techniques to make absorbing lots of information easier. From flashcards to mnemonics, ideas and tactics that seem too simple to work can actually be incredibly effective.
Would you like to make memorizing historical dates, names and events easier? Master Your Memory to make researching events and memorizing their detailed effortlessly simple.
Focus on topics and periods you’re interested in
Are you obsessed with Ancient Egypt? Do you love studying World War II? Almost every historical specializes in a certain period or event. If you have an interest in a particular period of history, try making it the focus of your studies.
Many people develop an interest in history after watching a documentary or movie that covers a historical event. From Cleopatra to Napoleon, many people develop an interest in a particular historical figure and their origins and life.
Don’t feel ashamed of specializing in a certain period of history or person. Many of the world’s top historians specialize in one subject, and if you’re interested in one period of history it’s often a great motivating force to study the subject as a whole.
Sometimes the best way to start your historical education is by learning about one of the great historical civilizations. From Egypt to Greece to Rome, much of modern culture was founded in some of the world’s oldest civilizations.
Would you like to jumpstart your historical education? Start learning about some of the most important historical figures of Ancient Greece in over 53 detailed lectures in our Lectures on Greek History and Culture.
Preparing for an exam? Use productivity hacks
Are you preparing for a history exam? From the dates of a certain military battle to the economic principles of history’s greatest empires, writing a historical essay can often require memorizing hundreds of important facts and figures.
Without a productivity system, this means spending hours in the library or surfing the Internet searching for sources and taking notes. With a productivity system it’s often a far simpler – and far quicker – process.
Do you want to speed up your study process and prepare for exams and essays in a fraction of the normal time? Learn how to become a more productive historian with our Productivity Booster course.
Why should you study history?
It’s easy to write off history as a subject that isn’t useful today. However, learning about the history of human society gives you a perspective on the culture that we have today and the way in which it was developed.
It also gives you a deeper understanding of historical trends and the way in which they often repeat themselves. You might begin to notice parallels between events occurring today and those that occurred hundreds of years ago.
Are you considering taking history as a college major? Learn more about the value of a historical education for enhancing your career and your personal knowledge in our blog post on why history is important.