Learning History Concepts & Skills Through Writing

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

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

In this lesson we discover the importance of writing for knowledge retention, and the different techniques and exercises which can aid students' retention of history concepts and material.

Knowledge Retention

Do you ever feel like important information goes in one ear and out the other? You may have just listened to something very important, yet you go into the other room and can't for the life of you remember what it is. It happens to everyone.

For some students, this can happen particularly often during history class. Something about dates or abstract concepts simply doesn't stick well in their mind. But there are tools and strategies that you, as a teacher, can use to help your students. Writing something down, for instance, has been proven to aid memory and comprehension.

In this lesson, we will explore a few of these strategies and the ways they can help your students understand recently-learned history topics.

Activities and Tips

The following tools can be used in the classroom. Their design is two-fold: to help students retain knowledge and gain a better understanding of the course material, and also to develop better writing and written communications skills. All written responses, if you choose to grade them, should be graded instructively to both gauge and improve your students' knowledge and writing skills. This means ensuring you provide constructive comments and suggestions on how students can improve their writing and knowledge.

Admit/Exit Slips

Admit slips are rather straightforward. At the beginning of each class, give your students a slip of paper with a written question or two on it. You can also give them a blank piece of paper and write the questions on the board. The questions should be general and about the material from the last class. For example, if the last class you taught was on the first battles of the American Revolution, something like 'How did the Revolution begin?' is vague enough that students can take the question in multiple directions and demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of the concept.

Exit slips are exactly the same as admit slips, except they are done at the very end of a class rather than at the beginning and cover material just taught in class. These can be particularly helpful if you find your students are not retaining information well from class to class or are performing poorly on admit slips. Extra written repetition during the class itself can greatly aid knowledge retention.

Journaling, Dialogue, and Logs

In this case, you are not asking your students to write in the type of journal they might keep locked up from the prying eyes of their parents! A classroom journal, especially for history students, can be a great way for students to explore the concepts they understand and realize the questions they have about the material. You can prompt students to write journal entries daily or weekly. Sometimes, it helps to start them with a prompt, like 'What was the most interesting thing you learned today?' or 'Write about what you feel is the most important thing to remember from class today.'

The resulting responses can be beneficial for both students and teachers. It can help students retain what they learn, but also help them realize the gaps in understanding they may have and prompt them to ask the teacher questions to fill those gaps. Similarly, teachers can understand better what material their students understand well and the material with which they are having difficulty.

Another way to get students to write openly about the topic is to encourage students to write dialogue in pairs. One student writes an opening thought on the topic, and then the next student responds in writing. This type of exchange encourages critical thinking while helping students learn to communicate their thoughts better in writing. For example:

Student 1: A lot of people died during WWI.

Student 2: I know. Why do you think so many people died in such a short period of time?

And so on, as each student makes their thoughts known and asks questions of the other student.

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