Guide to Taking History in College

Why take History in College? Many of you will find that you have to take at least one or two history classes in college. History classes along with English classes will be invaluable in developing your writing and critical thinking skills. Employers value these skills. Some of you should even consider minoring in either history or English even if you are a business or engineering major in college. Why? Because today’s employers want to know that you have command of the necessary communication skills as well as the critical thinking skills that History and English help you develop. Many employers are looking for well rounded graduates who are not only competent in business or engineering but can communicate and think. A History, English, or Philosophy minor will communicate this to a prospective employer and provide you with skills that will assist you in many different fields.


A Guide to Taking History in College

 (click above for a hard copy of this page)

Reading and Taking Notes

Getting a Historical Framework:One of the difficulties in studying either US or World history in college is that college professors assume you have already accumulated a certain level of knowledge so you may easily get confused or lost in the middle of a lecture. But there are many tools available that will help fill the gaps of knowledge

Before class:

  • Read the book & relevant chapters before class. This allows you to develop an overview of the main ideas, secondary points, and definitions for important concepts.
  • Identify familiar and unfamiliar terms. Look up terms before class. Be prepared to listen for explanations during the lecture. Ask the professor to explain unclear ideas.
  • Note portions of the reading that are unclear. Before class, develop questions to ask.  (Listen for an explanation during the lecture.)

During class:

  • Use an outline. Date and number every page, assignment and handout. This will help when you begin studying for an exam or preparing notes for an essay.
  • Do not try to write everything down. Make notes brief. The more time you devote to writing, the less attention you can give to understanding the main points and identifying the outline and argument of the lecture. Never use a sentence when you can use a phrase or a phrase when you can use a word. Use abbreviations and symbols whenever possible.
  • Be aware of the outline of the lecture. Most lectures are based on a simple outline. Listen for key phrases and words that identify what that structure is and recognize where you are in the outline at any given time.
  • Begin notes for each lecture on a new page. This allows for more freedom in organization, for instance, so that you can put the notes on a subject from the lecture with the notes on the same subject from the reading.
  • Generally, use your own words, rather than simply quoting the words of the lecturer. Formulas, definitions, rules and specific facts should be copied exactly.
  • Develop a code system of note-taking to indicate questions, comments, important points, due dates of assignments, etc. This helps separate extraneous material from the body of notes (for instance ‘!’ for important ideas, a ‘?’ for questions, or [bracket personal comments]). You might even develop your own symbols for commonly used words or ideas (for instance, ‘∆’ for change, or ‘C’ for century).
  • Watch for clues from the instructor. If the instructor writes something on the board or overhead, it is likely important. If the instructor repeats a point during the lecture, make sure to note it. Dramatic voice changes and long, intentional pauses usually indicate emphasis as well.

After Class:

      • Review your notes as soon as possible after the lecture. This dramatically improves retention.
      • Merge notes from the lecture and readings. Keep notes from the lecture with notes from the readings on the same topic. Look for gaps in your understanding in each and identify where they complement or contradict each other. Ask your instructor if you still do not understand a point.
      • Highlight key words, phrases, or concepts. This helps you reduce the amount of reading you have to do when studying. Use margins for questions, comments, notes to yourself on unclear material, etc. Color coding is often helpful for organizing material.
      • Recite by covering over the main body of notes and use only the key words in the margin to recall everything you can about the lecture. State the facts and ideas of the lecture as much as you can in your own words.
      • Reflect on the content of your notes. Consider especially how these notes relate to other things you have learned.

(Above adapted from the University of Iowa History Department; Taking Lecture Notes)

keep-calm-and-study-history-36 keep-calm-and-study-history-36

Study Groups

Study Groups can be a great help as well as a way to develop new friendships. A study group can be used in several different ways.

  • A group can review class lectures together; this can be a great help as it can bring out areas of the lecture you may have overlooked .
  • Read the textbook together. While everyone should complete their own readings a group can divide the readings so that different group members can take notes on the text.
  • Practice tests & quizzes. A great way to prepare for a test is to quiz each other and check your readiness.

Writing Essays

  • Historical and academic essays attempt to address an intellectual problems or issues so it is important that when writing a history paper that you analyze a position and not just describe historical events.
  • Write an outline before you begin your first draft. This will help give your paper structure.
  • Avoid colloquialisms and contractions when writing a formal essay.
  • Always give credit. Do not plagiarize. Use footnotes and bibliographies.
  • For more help see Boston College; Tips for writing History Papers.

Contact me if you need help:

Considering Majoring in History?

Visit the these links from Boston University, Barnard College, & UC Davis for help in deciding if you might want to major in history

Boston University: So, You Think You Want to Study History?

Barnard College: Why Major in History?

UC-Davis: What Can I Do as a History Major?



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