Basics of History Instruction: Strategies & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore history instruction and some of the techniques and activities that can help your students better engage with the material, develop critical thinking skills, and understand key concepts.

History Class

Everyone has had that interminable history class, the one where the teacher or professor drones on endlessly for the entire class period while the students are expected to take copious notes. Only on days when quizzes or long tests are given is there a break to the monotony. For decades, this was how history courses were taught, and in some areas, especially in post-secondary education, they still are.

But there are other ways to develop history skills and knowledge in your students. In this lesson, we will discuss a few creative methods you can employ in your classroom.

Anticipation Guides

Let's be clear: Nearly all history courses still require enormous amount of reading, writing, and discussion. After all, understanding historical events and important trends and concepts still begins by learning about the events themselves. But there are ways to help your students to better engage with the subject matter and reading material than simply having them take notes.

One of these methods is anticipation guides. Anticipation guides ask students to think about and express their opinions on a topic before they have fully tackled the material. These guides are comprised of a series of statements that are pertinent to the subject matter. For example, when your students study the Progressive Movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some good statements might include 'I believe the government should play a key role in solving social problems.' or 'Industries should be completely unregulated.' The statements do not have to be factually accurate or be representative of your beliefs, but they should be thought-provoking and take a clear stance on a key issue addressed in the material.

Students would then write in their guide, explaining why they agree or disagree with each statement. After going through the material, students should then be prompted to reexamine the statements and their responses, and determine if their thoughts have changed after reading the material. This can help your students develop critical thinking skills, better grasp the key concepts of the material, and can be a great jumpstart for class discussions.

Activating Prior Knowledge

Critical thinking skills are important to understanding long-term historical trends and concepts. This includes being able to connect seemingly disparate events and movements and how they interact with one another. Often, students are doing this without even thinking about it. Other times, they need help to develop this skill.

You can help your students through discussing material in class and talking through your thought process for connecting different concepts. For example, to continue using the example of the Progressive Movement, one can discuss how the movement affected various other topics like corruption, financial regulation, social welfare, and the role of journalism in society. If you feel your students are ready, you can even ignite class discussion with connecting questions like 'What do you think the New York and Chicago political bosses thought of Progressivism?' or 'What role do you think a book like Upton Sinclair's The Jungle played in Progressivism?'


But teachers cannot--and should not--spoon feed their students all the information. Instead, all teachers should try to give their students the tools so they can seek out information for themselves and arrive at answers with little guidance. This is called scaffolding, and just like physical scaffolding, the teacher tries to supply the support structure while the students do the heavy lifting of learning.

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