The Ultimate World History Study Guide

Use this guide to learn how to study for a history test. Explore world history events and a timeline of world history, from ancient world history to modern world history.

Written by Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur

World History

World history looks at the past from a global perspective. Rather than focusing on a particular country or culture, the study of world history events focuses on societal, political, and cultural movements that impact a broader section of humanity. When examining world history, historians and students look at the big picture, finding connections and commonalities among various cultures and exploring differences.

World history encompasses the entirety of the earth's past. It begins with the Big Bang and considers all prehistory (before the origin of written records), ancient history, the middle ages, and the modern world. To learn about past events, historians use all available sources. These include archaeological discoveries, oral traditions, written records, or artistic and musical traditions. World historians may choose to focus on a specific time period, such as a given decade or century, exploring that period in detail, or they may wish to explore a vaster period of history but focus on one particular aspect or impact, such as the history of a particular commodity or idea.

World History Topics

While almost any topic can be considered from a global perspective, past events are often grouped into a few main world history topics. Some topics studied in world history include wars, diplomatic efforts, social movements, regional history focusing on several countries in a common part of the world, communications, trade patterns, and environmental issues.

  • Historical Eras: Because attempting to study all of history at one time is not manageable, studying the past is often divided into smaller historical eras. Historians can focus on prehistory, the ancient world, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the modern world.
  • Politics: Politics is the study of governments, the individuals and groups who have power and control how material goods are distributed among the people of a given area. It also includes the study of laws, ideologies, and identities. How do various groups define themselves and their positions on multiple issues? How has this changed over time? What happens when various governments, or factions within a government, disagree with each other?
  • War: Wars between various groups are major forces that shape world history. Understanding the causes of wars is a key part of world history. The study of war can include military history, how the battles were waged, various types of military armaments and tactics, and who won, but it can also encompass the impact of war on different societies, including its effect on the environment, economy, and culture. Some major wars in world history include the wars of colonization in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as World War I and World War II in the 20th century.
  • Colonialism: Colonialism is an integral part of the study of world history. Since ancient times, people have sought to conquer other lands and subjugate the inhabitants. Modern colonialism came to be as part of the Age of Discovery. As Europeans traveled to new lands, they declared ownership of these lands and conquered many indigenous people of the Americas, Africa, India, and Asia. While in some cases, this led to the positive sharing of culture and resources, there were also many negatives, including slavery and other human rights violations, forced religious conversion, and the destruction of native environments.

Cultural History

  • Cultures: Historians study various cultures to develop a greater appreciation and understanding of those cultures. They may also compare and contrast different cultures. Some cultures that may be studied include indigenous peoples, ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Asians, Africans, Europeans, and Americans. The study of culture can include written records, historical information, literature, and artistic and archeological evidence.
  • Art: Studying visual art from historical periods offers a window into what the culture that produced it valued at that time. Art often portrays significant people and events from a time period, offering another way to learn about a historical era. From the time of cave paintings to contemporary art, humans have recorded what matters to them in visual form. The study of art is often broken down into artistic periods. Some notable artistic periods include Romanesque (1100-1150), Renaissance (1400-1600), Romanticism (1800-1850), Impressionism (1870-1900), Art Deco (1920-1935), and Surrealism (1924-1945).
  • Literature: Reading the literature of a historical era serves as a primary source to understand that period. Written historical records, stories, news articles, journals, and biographies speak to the modern reader from the past, illustrating what mattered to people of that time and how they reacted to historical events. In English literature, some significant historical literary periods include Medieval (500-1500), Renaissance (1500-1670), Enlightenment (1700-1800), Romantic (1798-1870), Realism (1820-1920), and Existentialism (1850-Today).
  • Music: Much like the historical study of visual art, the study of music history provides insight into the culture of a people. Musical expression has changed throughout history and differs in various parts of the world. The history of music can be approached from a sociological or anthropological viewpoint. Some prominent historical musical periods include Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern.

History of the Sciences

  • Science and Technology: Scientific and technological developments have a tremendous impact on history. The invention of the printing press and the internet revolutionized how information is disseminated. The lightbulb changed how people lived and worked, allowing factories to run around the clock. Vaccines have limited the spread of life-threatening diseases. The development of new weapons changed warfare. No study of history is complete without learning about significant scientific discoveries and technological advances.
  • Philosophy: Philosophical thought and viewpoints have also impacted history. What people believe shapes what they do. It is valuable to study the philosophical underpinnings of an era to gain a fuller understanding of a historical period. Leading philosophical ideas that shaped the world include those about happiness and the soul, the sun-centered theory of the universe, the distinction between mind and matter, the idea that the world is governed by mathematical laws, economic movements such as capitalism and communism, and the theory of the unconscious. If religion is considered a subset of philosophy, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, have had a monumental impact on human history.

Why Study History?

When people think of the subject of history, they often think of lists of names, dates, and events, which may seem dry and uninteresting. However, studying history can introduce students to fascinating stories about the past and provide an understanding of historical influences on the present. So, Why study history? There are several answers:

  • Use Critical Thinking to Interpret the Reasons Behind Events: History is much more than a series of names and dates. While historians usually agree on the basic facts of history, there is often great debate about the reasons behind the events. Studying history allows students to use critical thinking to evaluate various sources, examine different viewpoints, and conclude why things happened.
  • Build Respect for Other Cultures: Studying history introduces students to different cultures worldwide and in the United States. Learning about various traditions and ideas can help build respect for other cultures, which is of utmost importance in a diverse culture.
  • Understand Present Social Issues: The present moment does not exist in a vacuum. It is a result of everything that has come before. Studying history gives students a better understanding of why things are happening today. They will grasp historical cause and effect and how today's decisions may impact the future.
  • Connect With Other Subjects: The study of history covers everything that has come before the present and is not limited to political or military movements. Art, literature, music, and science are all part of the historical story. What happens in one field of learning can impact other fields at the same time.
  • Interesting Career Prospects: College students who major in history have a wide range of career prospects. These can include positions in government, museums, and libraries, but many students use the skills they developed studying history to succeed in the corporate world.

How to Study for a History Test

Most students have to take history classes as part of their education. Some standardized tests, like the AP World History exam, also cover history. Here are some tips on how to study for a history test to get the best grade possible.

Take Good Notes: Successful studying for a history test begins with good note-taking in class. Write down anything a teacher puts on the board or emphasizes in class.

Set Up a Study Schedule: Next to not studying at all, cramming for a history test in one day is not recommended. Plan to study for several days before the exam. Studying for a shorter period over a few days will help memory retention and understanding much more than trying to stuff a brain full of information the night before the exam.

Create a Timeline: Make a timeline of the historical period being studied; highlight important dates and events; use the textbook and any class notes to focus on events and people emphasized by the teacher or the book. Get as familiar as possible with this timeline and try to recreate it as much as possible from memory. This can help students determine which areas need to be studied more.

Understand Important Vocabulary: Textbooks usually highlight key terms, so make sure to review all those terms and be able to define them.

Review Historical Movements: What changed during the time period being studied? How was the world different at the end of the period compared to the beginning? What were the causes of this change?

Study with Other Students: Some students find it helpful to study with other classmates. Other students may better understand some sections of the material and vice versa. Sharing notes can be useful to make sure all material is covered.

Timeline of World History

A timeline of world history can be broken down into the following major eras.

Time Period Approximate Years Covered Description
Prehistory 6 million years ago--3600 BCE The study of prehistory focuses on the earliest humans and civilizations. It looks at the characteristics that are necessary for civilization. The Paleolithic and Neolithic eras are examined. The Stone Age is part of this period.
Ancient World 3600 BCE--500 CE Studying the ancient world includes examining ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Ancient Asian cultures, such as those in China, India, and Japan, are also studied. In the Americas, one may learn about the ancient Mayan and Incan peoples. The Bronze Age is studied as part of ancient history.
Middle Ages 500--1500 CE The Middle Ages are sometimes referred to as a dark time in history due to the many wars and plagues that were present during that period as well as a relative lack of intellectual pursuits. It extends from the end of the Roman Empire until the beginning of the Renaissance. In the Middle East, Islam was developed and spread as a religious movement that often came into conflict with Christianity, leading to religious wars called The Crusades. The late Middle Ages featured the beginning of European exploration of the Americas and the Golden Age of Islam, which included flourishing intellectual activity.
Renaissance 1350s--1650s Beginning at the tail end of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance was a time of intellectual and artistic rebirth in Europe. The development of movable type for a printing press in 1436 meant that printed materials could be distributed to a broader audience. There was a massive increase in literacy and the spread of knowledge. The Protestant Reformation, which began with Martin Luther posting 95 Theses on the door of a Wittenberg Church in 1517, led to a split in the Catholic Church. European exploration of the Americas continued during this period.
Modern World 1650--today The modern world began with the Age of Enlightenment, a time of increasing focus and developments in philosophy, science, and math. During this time, the American and French Revolutions were fought. In the 1750s, the Industrial Revolution began, changing how products were made and impacting how people lived, worked, and traveled. The 20th century was a time of major wars, including World War I and World War II, and technological advances. The Age of Information began in the 1970s with the increased use of computers.

Ancient World History

The following are some prominent events in ancient world history (3200 BCE to 500 ACE).

  • 3200 BCE - Egyptians Develop Hieroglyphic Writing: Hieroglyphics is a form of writing that express events and ideas in pictures.
  • 2900 BCE - Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt :The 481-foot-high pyramid was built by about 4000 stonemasons and 100,000 workers.
  • 431--404 BCE - Peloponnesian War: The Peloponnesian War was fought between the Greek city-states of Sparta and Athens. Sparta won.
  • 221 BCE - Building of the Great Wall of China: The Great Wall of China is built along 1200 miles of the Chinese border.
  • 30 CE - Jesus Crucified: Jesus Christ, the central figure of Christianity, was killed by the Romans.
  • 476 CE - End of Western Roman Empire: Germans defeated the Roman Emperor and declared themselves rulers of Italy.

History of the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages (500--1500) are often referred to as a dark time in human history. Here are some of the major events.

  • 503--557 CE - Wars Between Persia and Rome: Three wars are fought between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Persian empire. At their conclusion, the borders between them were firmly established.
  • Around 1000 CE - First Novel: The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu is a Japanese work often considered the first novel.
  • 1096--1099 CE - First Crusades: Christian states attempted to defeat Muslims to gain control of the Holy Land. In 1099, the Christians captured Jerusalem.
  • 1347--1353 CE - The Black Death: Bubonic plague spread throughout Europe, killing between 19 and 35 million people.
  • 1450 CE - Invention of the Printing Press: Johannes Guttenberg's invention of the printing press revolutionized the ability to share printed material, increasing the distribution of information.
  • 1492 CE - Columbus Lands in the Americas: Under the patronage of Spain, Columbus attempts to find a westward route to Asia. He lands on San Salvador.

Modern World History

Modern World History begins in 1500 and lasts until the present day. It includes the following events.

  • 1775--1781 CE - American Revolution: The American colonies rebel against Great Britain and establish their independence.
  • 1821 CE - Mexican Independence: Mexico becomes independent from Spain.
  • 1826/27 CE - First Photograph: Nicéphore Niépce built a camera obscura and took the first known photograph.
  • 1845--1849 CE - Irish Potato Famine: A potato famine wreaks havoc in Ireland, leading many Irish to leave the country.
  • 1861--1865 CE - American Civil War: The American Civil War was fought between the Union and the Confederacy. The Union won. It led to the abolishment of slavery in the United States.
  • 1912 CE - End of Chinese Empire: The Chinese Empire ended, and the Republic of China was established.
  • 1914--1918 CE - World War I: Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated, beginning World War I. The United States joined the war in 1917.
  • 1929 CE - Beginning of Great Depression: The United States stock market crashed, leading to an economic depression that would last for the next decade.
  • 1939--1945 CE - World War II: In 1939, the German Nazi party led by Adolf Hitler invaded Poland and began World War II. The United States entered the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Twelve million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
  • 1945 CE - United Nations: In the hope of preventing another world war, the United Nations was founded.
  • 1989 CE - Fall of the Berlin Wall: The wall between East Berlin and West Berlin was torn down, and Germany reunited.
  • 1990 CE - World Wide Web Invented: The World Wide Web was invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, revolutionizing communication.