Teaching Students to Think Like Historians

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

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

In this lesson, we discover some of the teaching techniques and exercises you can use to get your students to begin thinking, researching, and writing like historians.

Thinking Like a Historian

Whenever folks ask historians about their jobs, the question usually comes up 'Don't we know everything that's happened already?' While the answer to that question is 'no we don't,' it assumes that all a historian does all day is teach others about events in the past. The work of a historian is far more dynamic, and it starts by having skills that translate well elsewhere in the world, like critical thinking skills and an ability to translate your thoughts into words effectively.

In this lesson, we will explore the important things to emphasize and some techniques you can use to help your students learn to think like a historian.

The 5 Ws

The stereotypical history course involves rows of students memorizing facts and figures out of a boring book, and a teacher who administers tests at the end of the week that asks questions like 'Who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo?' and 'What year did Columbus sail the ocean blue?'

Now, all good history courses do include a lot of reading about the past, and the dates and figures are certainly important. But even more important are the skills and thinking processes students develop when engaging in a discussion about history. Whenever your students have read about an important event, be sure to direct them in identifying the 5 Ws: who, what, where, when, and why.

The first 4 encapsulate the basic facts of any event - these are the memorized things that many consider the only parts of history. But the fifth W - the 'why' - can lead to engaging and important classroom discussions that help students practice critical thinking skills and think like a historian.

After all, no event happens in a vacuum. The 'why' questions help students recognize the important trends and movements that are integral to understanding history. For example, why were other countries fighting Napoleon? Why did Napoleon lose the battle? Why has the event continued to remain in the public consciousness more than 200 years after it occurred?

While asking these questions is important, a good teacher should also have a firm grounding in the popular historical literature surrounding the topic. This way, the teacher can guide each discussion, introducing students to competing ideas while still encouraging students to think for themselves.


While it's great for your students to understand history and think critically about it, it's even more important for them to take those skills and apply them to their own writing and research. Good research is perhaps the most important building block to good history.

To start, you should get your students acquainted with the idea of primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are generally first-hand accounts of an event. These sources include journals, eyewitness accounts, photographs, and the like. They are generally considered the most reputable.

Secondary sources are histories, news articles or other accounts that are not from direct participants in a historical event. While these are certainly important - indeed, most history books are second-hand accounts - it's important for your students to know the difference between the two, and that secondary sources necessarily represent the views of the author.

An important difference between the two lies in how students draw conclusions about the research. Secondary source materials often already present a conclusion written by its author. Students should do their best to draw conclusions in their own work based primarily on their own interpretation of the primary sources. Secondary sources should be used to aid the student's own conclusions only.

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