Publication Date

March 1, 1990

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning


Teaching Methods

History teachers know they can’t cover all they want in a lecture or a course, and when they pack their lectures even more tightly students may not retain those last few facts anyway. Clearly, some history teachers could use HELP so their students can learn more effectively. HELP stands for Highly Efficient Learning Procedures, techniques which don’t take very long to demonstrate but nonetheless assist students in retaining what is being taught. When used properly, these techniques can also aid the teacher in keeping track of what students are actually learning.

Not all these techniques will help all students, because students have different learning styles. A few will help some students, while others may have wide appeal. We should not assume that all students learn history alike, or that they learn it as we did. Giving students the opportunity to learn in different ways promotes sound educational practices.

The first bit of HELP is the Focused Free Write. This is a bit of writing by the student, about five minutes worth, centered on a relevant course topic for which there is no right or wrong answer. The results do not need to be collected and read, but they should be from time to time. Or they can also be read aloud. Either way, they should not be graded. Their purpose is threefold: they give students practice in writing; they ask students to write about a topic freely so that they may discover what it is that really intrigues them about the topic; and they give the teacher an insight into what is going on in students’ minds. They can also serve to start a class discussion.

An example of a topic might be: “What was the most important point in the reading assignment for this class, and why?” A few students could read their responses so that the teacher can get a general idea of what they learned from the reading and see the degree of general agreement. Then the discussion could be continued or the lecture begun. Topics can also be created which are specific to the reading. In a class on the “Reign of Terror” ask students to respond to the question, “What advice would you have given Robespierre?” In a class on the late 1930s, have them write on “What should Wilkie have said to win the 1940 election?” Clearly, some answers will be more appropriate than others, but by pursuing the responses, especially the less appropriate ones, teachers can correct historical lapses or misunderstandings before an exam. Teachers who utilize this technique periodically don’t need to spend time discussing the question each time students are asked to write. Sometimes the lecture can begin immediately and students will already have focused their attention on the planned topic. They will have sorted their prior knowledge and maybe even have taken a position.

A related sort of HELP is the Class Summary Paragraph, written during the last five minutes of the class. Simply have students write the main points of the class on a sheet of paper. Collect them, let them be anonymous if desired, and see what they have extracted from the lecture. This is also very effective for discussion classes. As a variant, ask them to write three questions they have about the class just ended. These can be reviewed quickly and used to launch the next class. The students are writing, which demands that they commit themselves to paper, and the teacher is learning what they think. Another technique is to have students Write Exam Questions. Ask them to write an essay question which gets at the heart of the material. This is not easy, nor is it necessarily a brief exercise, but don’t expect students to spend much time at it. The goal is not finished questions, but to have each of them think through the material and search for critical issues. The process, rather than the result, is what is important. A few can be read aloud, and the class can criticize them, not as finished products, but as to what they reveal about the student’s understanding of what should be learned.

One dilemma for history teachers is whether to demand research papers from students. Part of the difficulty is the time devoted to grading. A basketball coach breaks the game into its components: fundamentals such as dribbling, passing, and shooting, and plays for particular situations such as zone or person-to-person defenses. History teachers can break the research paper into its components, too. While certainly no substitute for the entire research paper, a bit of HELP comes in the form of the Topic Paragraph. Have students begin as if they were going to write a complete research paper. They should do some preliminary reading, choose a subject, do additional reading, and write a topic or introductory paragraph. This forces them to become familiar with the outlines of the material and think what they want to do with it. By writing only the topic paragraph they don’t have to write a full paper, and the teacher doesn’t have to read a full paper. Of course there are opportunities for chicanery in what appears to be a flimsy assignment, but since research papers often can be purchased by the page on almost any campus, little would appear to have been lost. The hard part of doing research is conceptualizing the problem, and this is what is being focused on by having them write only the topic paragraph.

If another goal is to prove a thesis, which is different from conceptualizing a problem, try an alternative assignment. Have students select a topic, do the research, and then just Write an Outline for a research paper. Again, this is no substitute for the real thing, but it does provide an efficient way of checking on students’ ability to organize material in defense of a thesis.

Beginning students frequently have trouble handling sources in research papers. They tend to follow one main source and embellish the paper with tid-bits from others. Some HELP comes in the form of an Annotated Bibliography. For this exercise, have students select a topic and go to the library to gather sources. Have them peruse the sources and decide how each could be used in a paper. Ask them to write a paragraph about how they would use each source in a paper. Have them identify its genre (memoir, monograph, polemic, etc.), assess its reliability, and discuss its strengths and weaknesses in terms of the paper topic. Like the preceding bits of HELP, this focuses on one aspect of a complex process, and it enables the instructor to check on the students’ mastery of historical skills efficiently.

A technique that is especially useful in preparing Advanced Placement students for the exam’s Document-Based Questions (DBQ) is Paraphrasing in Pairs. Give students an old DBQ, or any other group of documents assigned. Have them pair up and take a minute each, more or less depending on the length of the document, to paraphrase the document aloud to their partner, but without criticizing each other’s paraphrase. Then have them take two more minutes to examine the discrepancies between the two paraphrases. They may be able to account for the differences by themselves, or they may ask for help. Teachers could spend a few minutes with the whole class discussing what happened in a few pairs, or go right on to the material planned for the day.

A related activity deals with Identifying Bias in documents or readings. After students have read the piece in question, pair them as before and give them a minute each to tell about the bias they found in the document. Then allow another two minutes to explore any discrepancies. Problems they may have had can be discussed with the whole class.

Some students lack confidence in their writing, so that when an essay question is assigned (e.g., “To what extent is the term ‘Renaissance’ a valid concept for a distinct period in early modern European history?” [from the 1985 Advanced Placement European History examination]), they tend to say that the concept is either totally valid or invalid. Although we as historians may adhere to one or the other poles, we also know there are valid points on the opposite side, and indeed part of the problem is definitional. We would like our students to be comfortable with the ambiguity of the concept of the Renaissance, and familiar with the historical scholarship which shapes the debate. Our students may know a great deal of what we want them to know, but their lack of confidence in their writing may push them toward an all-or-nothing response. We can help them develop confidence in writing about issues where there is something to be said on each side by using a Yes…But…question. For example, instead of the above question, ask them to write an essay with the topic sentence, “There are many reasons for thinking of a century or so in early modern European history as a Renaissance, but there are powerful arguments against this interpretation.” Yes, there was a Renaissance, but no, there wasn’t. Students can be asked to write a conclusion where they state their position. In this kind of question, a student has to handle both sides of the debate and show how the arguments interact. By demanding a personal conclusion, teachers also force them to take a position which arises out of their understanding of the terms of the debate. Students who have been fed on a diet of Yes…But…questions won’t feel the need to play it safe and take one extreme or the other of an argument. Essay questions that charge students to “compare and contrast” or “assess the validity” can be rewritten in the Yes…But… format. Teachers should be prepared to give additional instructions to students if they want them to practice specific tasks such as to analyze, compare, define, and so on. The following examples, all from the 1988 Advanced Placement European History Examination, show how it can be done. The question, “Describe and analyze the ways in which the development of printing altered both the culture and religion of Europe during the period 1450–1600,” can be rewritten by asking students to write an essay with the topic sentence, “The development of printing changed the culture and religion of Europe during the period 1450–1600, but in some ways the culture and religious weren’t affected at all by the development of printing.” This is, of course, a slightly broader question, and students may not have time to do justice to both parts in the time available, but it illustrates how a question can be rewritten.

Another question began with a statement and then gave a charge to the students: “In the eighteenth century, people turned to the new science for a better understanding of the social and economic problems of the day. Assess the validity of this statement by using specific examples from the Enlightenment era.” In the Yes…But…format students would be asked to begin with the topic sentence, “In the eighteenth century, many people turned to the new science for a better understanding of the social and economic problems of the day, but many did not.”

Some questions do ask students to deal with differences among ostensibly similar events or individuals. The following is an example: “Describe and compare the differences among Utopian socialists, Karl Marx, and Revisionist socialists in their critiques of nineteenth-century European economy and society.” The Yes…But…approach has students begin with the topic sentence, “Utopian socialists, Karl Marx, and Revisionist socialists agreed in their critiques of nineteenth-century European economy and society, but also disagreed in significant ways.” Again, this question asks the student for more information, i.e., what the various socialists agreed upon, than the AP examiners asked for. Two more questions from the 1988 AP European History exam can be revised as follows: “Assess the extent to which the unification of Germany under Bismarck led to authoritarian government there between 1871 and 1914.” Yes…But…revision: “The unification of Germany under Bismarck led to authoritarian government there between 1871 and 1914, but other factors in German history contributed.” AP question: “Analyze the extent to which the First World War accelerated European social change in such areas as work, sex roles, and government involvement in everyday life.” Yes…But… revision: “The First World War accelerated European social change in such areas as work, sex roles, and government involvement in everyday life, but these changes had their roots in pre-war events.”

A bit of visual HELP for students is the use of two Overlapping Circles, which mathematicians call Venn diagrams. Draw on the chalkboard two overlapping circles. Each circle indicates some event. The overlapping section indicates shared characteristics of the two events, while the other parts indicate characteristics which are unique to each event. Have students list the characteristics of each event and fit them into the relevant portions of the two circles. Obviously, some events will overlap quite a bit, like the French and Russian revolutions, while others will not overlap much at all, like the French and Glorious revolutions. Some students will be able to organize what they know far more readily by remembering the overlapping circles than from lecture notes or reading.

Part of the difficulty students have in writing has to do with a limited vocabulary in terms of the task at hand. Teachers like to use works of art in class to illustrate cultural movements and on examinations as a stimulus. Students’ working vocabularies can be expanded by a bit of HELP called Listing Adjectives. Use a picture that might ordinarily be shown, such as of the statue of David by Michelangelo, and have members of the class write down the adjectives that come to mind. Then go around the class, or call on students at random, having each state one adjective. Write their responses on the chalk board. Typically, the following adjectives will emerge: strong, powerful, muscular, athletic, vigorous, dynamic, youthful, confident, and so on. Few students will have thought of all of them, but all students will now know of words they might use to describe this statue. If they are confronted with an illustration on a test, they can list the adjectives which come to their mind on scratch paper, and they will have a vocabulary and a technique to make their essay more perceptive. As an added bonus, they now have a list of adjectives which can be applied to the concept of the Renaissance as well. Some students have delightful wits and excel in making epigrams about historical people or events. Have them make Bumper Stickers which encapsulate something studied. Even the silliest ones may be enough to help them remember what is desired. One student drew a sketch of a Oliver Cromwell being smashed in the head with a mace, and wrote “Crown Cromwell” next to it. Another sketched the head of Louis XIV and inscribed the phrase “Use it or Lose it.” A variant of this is to have them design Tee Shirts or Posters about what they have studied. By having the students share these in class, all get the benefit of the wit of a few.

This HELP is just that, help for us and for our students. It won’t get them to know all the details which fascinate us as historians, but it will help us in our roles as teacher to make the main outlines of what we are teaching more accessible. When I first began to employ these techniques, one of my students, who was obviously bright but had been struggling, suddenly blossomed. All I had done was draw overlapping circles on the board and have the class fill in events of the French and American revolutions. She just needed the key to what we were studying, and the course opened up for her. Students still laugh when we talk about how one of them characterized Queen Victoria as “Sticky Vicky.” These techniques will help our students focus on the essentials of what we want them to learn, and this is what we, as students and teachers of history, need to do with all the resources we can muster.

John E. Stovel is a history teacher at Mt. Greylock Regional High School in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He is a long-time teacher of Advanced Placement history, has served on the AP European History Test Development Committee, and conducts workshops on teaching the course.