Published Date

October 4, 1998

Resource Type

AHA Resource, For the Classroom


Ancient, Teaching Methods

AHA Topics

Teaching & Learning, Undergraduate Education



On July 12, 1996, at the Aspen Institute for World History I made a presentation on technology in the world history survey. The way I treat technology is so closely related to the Doing World History Method and the attempt to involve students in the historical process that we spent much of the time that day talking about teaching methods. Assessing students’ progress also came up several times in the course of our discussions. When I returned home, the editors were kind enough to request that I write up a description of the Doing World History method and how I assess students’ work. The two are necessarily tied together as periodic assessments lead to improved student work, but for presentation’s sake I will discuss them in separate sections.


Given the overwhelming task of teaching all the civilizations in the year survey of world history course, it occurred to me that teaching students how to do world history would give them techniques they could use on any time period and any set of cultures. Offering them a foundation of what the basic work of world history is also seemed fundamental to their developing an understanding for what the course was attempting to do. This may seem obvious, but the reason for studying world history is to learn to think about the past from a cross cultural and comparative perspective.

This conclusion entailed a new problem: Just what does a world historian do? And how do world historians differ from other historians? For an answer, I turned to the professional publications in world history, the World HistoryBulletin and the Journal of World History. From my reading in these sources and various classics of world history (Alfred Crosby, The Colombian Exchange; Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History; Jerry Bentley, Old World Encounters), I pieced together a rough and ready hand-out that I titled “Doing World History.”

After a brief description of the nature of world history and how it differs from other histories, I offer 5 suggestions for doing world history: (1) Big Picture, 2) Diffusion (3) Syncretism, the result of cross-cultural contacts, (4) Comparison and (5) Common Phenomena. These are briefly explained in the hand-out, and I spend a few minutes in class explaining them and offering examples. See Appendix for a copy of the hand-out.

The Big Picture offers a broad overview, stressing chronology of major events and an explanation of their significance. Care needs to be taken here, for the students tend to list far too many events, often having no idea of their importance. I suggest that they choose only four or five events from any single assignment and that they zero in on what the ultimate significance of each event is. I also try to get them to include events from more than one culture on their time lines so they can do comparisons and understand what is going on in different places at any given time.

Often the ultimate significance will not be directly stated in the textbook, and the students will have to think for themselves to come up with an answer. Take the invention of writing as an example. From the textbooks it is easy to acquire the date of about 3400 b.c.e. and to attribute the invention to the Sumerians. The ultimate significance is not in most books, so the students must stretch to come up with an explanation. They usually come up with something to the effect that a tradition across many generations can be built through writing, history can be preserved, and communication with future ages is possible through written materials.

Diffusion involves the spread of natural entities, people and cultural items from one region to others. It is fairly easy to explain this concept by pointing to the contemporary spread of televisions and computers around the world, or to baseball’s popularity in countries like Mexico and Japan.

If enough items spread the result is syncretism, the most important result of contacts between cultures. Syncretism is from the Greek root for “mixing,” and in a historical context means the mixing of cultures to produce a new civilization. The easiest and most familiar example of this is the United States, and I spend some time discussing with the students some of the various cultural elements found in the U.S.A. We have some fun with the fact that sushi and nachos are both available in the refreshment stands at Dodger Stadium. Another historical example that can be easily explained is the Chinese influence on Japan in high cultural elements during the middle period.

As mentioned above, I think that comparison is an integral part of practicing world history. But what is to be compared? All the societal elements that historians are interested in, from social structure and religion to politics, technology and economics. Students are dependent on what is in the textbook, so to a certain extent the selection of possible comparative elements has been made by the authors. Students can still have some input here, however, because they must select from the plethora of facts that the book offers. The most difficult part of teaching this concept is getting the students to specify what is different and what is similar about the civilizations they are comparing. They have an almost natural proclivity to discuss two civilizations in tandem, merely juxtaposing their comments about them. Many textbooks do it that way, and it is an easy way to escape thinking about the assignment by merely copying or summarizing the text. I label this practice as “juxtaposition,” and suggest that they need to explicitly state what is similar and different about the societies. This process involves some translating of the book’s material and some analyzing of the facts in a new context of like and different. Other methods for helping students make comparisons include pointing out examples in the book and reading aloud appropriate student papers.

Common phenomena refers to natural or historical events that affected more than a single civilization. That is, two or more civilizations experienced something in common. Climatic change, disease, invasions or common developments all fall into this category. The idea of comparision is also implicit here, for although the events may be shared, the results or the way societies responded to the events will differ. For example, the Mongol invasions turned out differently in China in comparison to Japan. When students write about this concept, they tend to forget to express what is common, so this must be stressed, particularly at the beginning of the term.

The procedure I follow is to have the students keep notebooks in which they place their daily writing assignments. For each chapter, or sometimes even part of a long chapter, I ask them to use Doing World History on the particular civilizations being covered. Sometimes I ask them to apply the method to this week’s civilization and last week’s. I usually leave it up to the students to decide which technique to use, unless I see a method being overused or underused. Since comparison is such an important element of doing world history, occasionally I will ask them to compare two or more civilizations. Reviewing earlier material is critical to retention, so every few weeks I will ask them to cut through all the chapters from a certain perspective, say technology, using the doing world history methods. There is a danger here that students may neglect the specific historical material and offer only glittering generalities about the assignment. For the notebook assignments, I give no credit for such responses and write a comment on their papers explaining that generalities and specific information have to be balanced. For the review exercises, if the same thing occurs the grade is reduced, and I write a similar note.

By the way, I do have them read primary sources and write journal entries on them, but only occasionally do they use Doing World History on them. I think this is because we have to spend time explaining the texts themselves on a weekly basis. Only when a complete work has been digested are we able to put it in a world historical context and bring Doing World History into play. This seems appropriate as a text’s specific cultural context must be understood before it can be discussed in a more general framework.

When class begins, I ask the students to divide into groups to discuss the day’s assignment and to produce some kind of chart or graph to illustrate their consensus version of the homework. After about thirty minutes of work, they hang their work on the walls around the room, and one person from each group presents that group’s project. Each person is required to speak at least twice during the quarter. Extra credit can be earned by speaking more than twice. When all the groups have made their presentations, I comment on their efforts, stressing doing world history and offering criticism. Creative interpretations and those involving thinking skills come in for special praise. Any egregious errors are gently (I hope) pointed out. Usually I have ten or fifteen minutes left at the end of the 65 minute class period to offer my own interpretation of the material and to present background material for the next assignment.

For testing purposes, every two or three weeks I hold a review exercise, in which each student has to produce a chart or graph about the chapters covered in that period. Originally I allowed them to use the textbook and their notebooks, but through experience have found that they learn more if they are not permitted to use notes or books. The chart or graph can follow any format they choose–pictorial, written phrases, maps, time lines or whatever they come up with. Some students, although not many, choose to write traditional essays. The criteria are that they cover the material and use the doing world history methods. Often before the exercise they will ask me the answer or what I want, and I explain that history is an art and that they are responsible for finding meaning in the material. I also explain that their work will be judged on how well it utilizes doing world history and on its comprehensiveness and creativity.

At Cal Poly Pomona we offer a three quarter world history survey divided chronologically into Ancient (HST 101), Medieval–Early Modern (HST 102), and Modern (HST 103) units. I use doing world history in all three courses, but I have discovered some interesting differences in the way the various methods can be applied. Contacts in the ancient period are relatively limited, so syncretism is not as important as it is in later periods. Notable exceptions here would be the Late Bronze Age syncretism in the eastern Mediterranean and vicinity and Greece’s impact on Rome. Comparison, however, can be easily employed for the various cultures, many of which meet similar challenges and go through similar stages of development. For example, the Bronze Age in China has many parallel developments to those of the Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean. I also like to have the students compare the three great civilizations of antiquity, China, India and the Mediterranean, whose emergence I make one of the themes of the course.

In the Medieval–Early Modern period there is greater global integration, and I make the rise of the first and second global civilizations the theme (Islam and Western Europe). Here syncretism plays a much more prominent role, although comparison can easily be brought into play. I begin with Islam which clearly offers many opportunities to explore syncretism, both in its own response to more mature civilizations like the Byzantines and the Persians, and in the way it diffuses through much of Eurasia and Africa and affects the cultures it comes into contact with. The regional influence of China and India also offer good material for employing the concept of syncretism. The influence of China on Islam and western Europe, intensified by the spread of the Mongol Empire, is one of the contributing factors to the rise of western Europe as the second global civiliation which the students can treat from any of the several doing world history perspectives.

HST 103, the Modern Period, differs considerably from the Ancient and Medieval–Early Modern courses because the single theme of modernity unifies the material in a unique way. The Big Picture involves a definition of modernity and how it developed. It is a Common Phenomenon because all civilizations had to deal with it in one way or another. Diffusion and syncretism come into play because each civilization adapts to modernity in different ways. Comparison can be easily brought to bear as the process of modernization in various countries can be compared, or the consequences of decisions regarding modernization can be compared. For example, Japan and China in the 19th century made radically different decisions about modernization that led to all kinds of western interventions and internal problems in China, while Japan’s wholesale adoption of modernity allowed it to become a competitor of the West.

Although HST 103 hangs together thematically more easily than HST 101 and HST 102, I find similar problems in the early assignments–students do not understand the method and merely repeat what they find in the textbook. Often they will borrow sentences and phrases, even paragraphs and pages, straight from the book. This is plagiarism, of course. Doing World History requires thinking about the material in the book and recasting the information in the student’s own words. For example, many texts treat China and Japan in the modern period in the same chapter, without really comparing them. Students who merely borrow from the book go no further than juxtaposing the book’s material on the two civilizations. A true Doing World History paper carefully points out similarities and differences between the two societies. The actual information may be the same, but in the Doing World History process the student actually interprets the material and creates a historical product.

Getting the students to understand and use the methods takes a few weeks. In-class treatment of the assigned readings from a world historical perspective helps reinforce the Doing World History methods. It is necessary to demonstrate through in-class work that whichever method is chosen becomes the focus of the essay. After several practise essays, coupled with criticism, positive examples and group discussions, students soon begin employing the methods more successfully.

I think there is a period in every course when the students have to learn to translate their ordinary discourse into historical discourse. This takes a few weeks, and the instructor has to pay close attention to the process, offering criticism and positive examples of successful uses of the methods. To help the students maintain their focus, I also give them a guide called “Suggestions for Doing World History” which offers specific directions about reading the chapters, taking notes and the process they need to follow in preparing their notebook entries. It is included in Appendix 1.

In particular, Comparison and Big Picture awareness of the course framework become second nature to most of the students. Some of them becme creative in their use of the methodology, advancing on Bloom’s taxonomy to the interpretation and application levels and actually playing with the material. The groups begin to function more easily and their projects become more creative. Some students ask me if I knew that this was a very effective way of teaching.

As the developer of the method, it’s difficult for me to criticize it objectively. From my observations of the students and from their comments, almost all who make an effort learn to use the Doing World History techniques. The students claim the classes are more interesting and they learn more than they would in a traditional lecture class. That is because they have to work through the material themselves and discuss it with their classmates. Getting multiple points of view helps clarify the material and reinforce it. As my students like to point out, the requirement to write about the material, create a group chart or graph and speak about it brings multiple learning styles into play and helps everyone learn. The daily writing assignments help them develop historical writing ability, and the note-taking practice hones their research skills.

As for retention and performance on standardized tests, I have no data except from my students’ comments. They claim that in traditional lecture, memorize and test courses, they forget the material immediately after the test. With Doing World History they retain it longer. This makes sense to me from personal experience. If you work through something yourself and understand how all the parts fit together, you will retain more of it. From my own course work, the stuff I remember the most is from papers and presentations I had to produce, not from lectures I heard.



In assessing the students’ efforts, I emphasize their mastery of Doing World History and their attention to participating in the class on a daily basis. In particular I look at the notebook and the review exercises critically to see that doing world history has been applied to the assignment. Notebook entries usually need to be a page or two in length, and I can usually judge at a glance whether the entry is sufficiently long enough to cover the material. If the entry is long enough, I will read over it to see if the student’s chosen method was adequately followed. I grade these entries as either acceptable or not, awarding 5 points for each.

For the review exercises, I follow a similar process, although I offer partial credit for not so successful efforts. Each review exercise is worth 20 points, and I use three criteria for judging them, how well doing world history is applied, comprehensiveness and creativity. Like any other historical method, doing world history can be used in more or less effective ways. For example, if comparison is the chosen method, a very few obvious comparisons may be offered, or complex and thorough treatments of two societies could be sketched. My evaluation will reflect the student’s choice between those two options. Similarly, if the review assignment covers three chapters, how well the student integrates the whole assignment into the exercise is considered in awarding the grade. If the student makes an effort at creativity, in particular by going beyond the textbook and advancing to higher levels of thinking, I make an upward adjustment in the grade.

At this point let’s examine the work that the participants in the Aspen Summer Institute produced.

PHOTO OF “Technology of Flight” PROJECT

First of all, let me say that this group of teachers is more knowledgeable and mature than my students, and they have produced a chart far more sophisticated than anything my students do. You will notice a chronological overview that goes back to Greek and Roman mythology, then skips to Chinese kites and Leonardo DaVinci before moving on to the Wright brothers and twentieth century developments. All without the aid of reference books or advanced warning! On the right hand side is a list labelled “significance,” which fits the method called “Big Picture.” Since the chart also includes a time line of sorts, I would evaluate it as an excellent presentation using Big Picture. On Bloom’s taxonomy, which I also introduce to my students, I would say that the chart exhibits both interpretation and application, two of the higher orders of cognition that I am trying to encourage. My only criticism is that the chart leaves out the experimental glider flights of the 1890’s which were precursors to the Wright brothers’ flight. The inclusion of that element would helped depict the technological evolution of flight, one of the main concepts I emphasize in teaching technology in world history. But remember this group had no recourse to books and that omission is merely a factual matter.

In order to insure that students come to class prepared, I sporadically check to see if they have the daily notebook entry in hand. I give 5 points for each check, and I do this four to six times per quarter. Advance warning about this practice is included in the syllabus, but once I begin checking there is usually a dramatic increase in the number of people coming to class with the assignment written out in advance.

Each student is required to speak twice during the quarter, with five points being awarded for each presentation. Usually this involves presenting the group’s chart or graph. For many students, this is a very demanding requirement, and I have learned through experience not to be critical of any individual. After all the presentations have been made, I may come back to specific group efforts to offer constructive criticism, but without calling attention to their speaker. For extra credit a student may speak more than twice, but I limit it to ten extra credit points.

For the final exam, I require each group to create a chart or graph that employs doing world history to explain the significance of the course. This is different from their other charts in that it covers all the course material and in that they have to bring it into the final instead of working on it in class. As a result, there is much cooperative work outside the classroom and some very creative material emerges. Once the students have arrived for the exam, each group gets ten minutes to present its interpretation, and we have a contest to see which group presents the best chart. They are also required to bring their daily charts created during the rest of the quarter in case there is a tie on the final chart. The criteria for judging are the same as for the review exercises. The winning group gets 50 points, and the other groups receive points according to how they place in the contest, with two points between each place.

For a given quarter, then, there will be about 20 or so notebook assignments, two or three review exercises, four to six notebook checks, two required speaking assignments and a 50 point final exam. I use a 90% =A, 80% =B grading scale. A conscientious student should have no trouble making a good grade. As many of my students are general education students, some of them choose not to earn high grades, and that is usually determined by their performance on the notebook and review exercises.

Admittedly, there is a large element of subjectivity built into this assessment system. I believe this is inevitable in the light of history’s nature as an art. Higher grades will go to those papers and projects that I think best apply Doing World History. My students do not have a problem with that aspect of the grading system. ( Most questions arise about the bookkeeping) In fact, when I explain my evaluation of their work they are satisfied and try to improve the next time. The most important consideration is consistency. I teach them Doing World History and require them to work with it throughout the course. The evaluations of their work are based on how well, how thoroughly and how creatively they apply the methods. On the whole, students are happy about what they learn in the course and satisfied with the grades they earn. This is reflected in positive course evaluations and anecdotal comments from the students.