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Department of History

Succeeding in History Courses


"In the seaways of Tierra del Fuego," 1834.

"In the seaways of Tierra del Fuego," from HMS Beagle at Tierra del Fuego. Conrad Martens, c. 1834.

By Professor Ben Zajicek

History courses often require reading. Lots of reading: textbooks, articles, works of fiction (like novels), monographs, and different kinds of texts written in the past such as letters, laws, even poetry. Some history courses will also bring in film, pictures, music, and artifacts - but with few exceptions, reading is still the main way we learn about history. For students, therefore, it is very important to learn the reading skills that are needed to succeed in history courses.

A first step is to understand different types of readings - different kinds of texts. We will divide these into three basic types: primary sources (original documents), secondary sources (articles and books written by people who have read original documents), and tertiary sources (articles and books written by people who have read secondary texts, but not original documents). Most history courses require students to read all three types of source: primary sources (letters, laws, diaries, etc), secondary sources (articles or books written by historians), and tertiary sources (textbooks). Students need to understand the specific kinds of information that they can learn from each type of text. A second step is to gradually increase every semester the amount of reading done for your courses. Proficient readers are able to read several hundreds of pages for each course. Reading skills, like any other skill, require practice.

Reading Textbooks ("Tertiary Sources")

At the most basic level, history classes are about learning what happened in the past. Advanced courses usually focus on very specific periods of time (the 1960s, the Nineteenth Century), specific events (the French Revolution, World War Two), or specific topics (the immigrant experience, the invention of writing). But to get the most out of these courses, students need to have a strong “scaffolding” of basic knowledge: the “who, what, where, when, why, how” of the past. Textbooks provide this “scaffolding” that enables students to go on to build a more complete and more complex understanding of the past.

For many students, however, reading textbooks can be difficult. Like most of us, students are used to reading novels, newspapers, magazine articles, and blog posts – texts that are usually written to entertain, texts that have a hook to pull us in. Texts that are often short. Textbooks are most definitely NOT written to entertain. They are written to convey a large amount of information, and they are usually written in a dry style. They are packed with dates and names and numbers. Worse, textbooks are often written by a committee of three or four people and so they often have no clear point of view. As a result, students often have a hard time figuring out what is most important for them to know. When the test comes, they find that, even though they spent hours and hours reading, they don’t remember very much at all. What was the point?

Be Clear About Your Goals

To get the most out of reading a textbook, students should be clear about their goals. A textbook is not a novel or a poem and should not be mistaken for one: students need to remember that they are not reading the book for its own sake or for its entertainment value; they are reading it to build a basic understanding of what happened in the past. They should not be surprised, therefore, that the techniques that work for reading a novel do not work for reading a textbook.

A textbook chapter is not something that should be read straight through. Before reading the chapter, students should figure out what the author thinks is most important. Read the chapter headings. Read any summary at the end of the chapter. Read any review questions that are provided. Try to figure out what the textbook’s author thinks are the most important events, concepts, terms, ideas and people. Are there any words or phrases in bold or italics? Are there any sections of text where the author says things like "The three most important factors are…"? What does the author want you to learn from the maps or illustrations?
Before a student reads the chapter, he or she should have a rough sense of what is most important in the chapter, and therefore what he or she should focus the most attention on understanding.

Take Notes

Students need to take notes on textbooks. Reading a novel is fun; no notes need be taken. Students who do not take notes on textbooks, however, might as well have not read them at all. No one can retain that much information simply by reading a chapter once. Students therefore must learn to take notes about key ideas and key events – notes that they can then look back at to help them recall the important material covered in the chapter.

Students should take notes as they read, not just when they have finished the chapter. This is called “active reading,” and it is a critical study skill. Does the chapter suggest that "The Treaty of Westphalia" was a key event? Then note down "Treaty of Westphalia" and jot down key information that can be looked up later: when was that treaty? why did it matter? Actively taking notes while reading is an indispensable part of reading for college. Students should always do it.

Ideally, students should write notes right in the margins of their books. Underline or circle key ideas and terms, but do not only underline or highlight: write out "the gist" in the margin of the book. If students are not comfortable writing on the book itself, they should experiment with other systems of active note taking. Notes can be written in a notebook or on a sheet of paper laid over the textbook page. Increasingly, e-readers like Apple’s Ipad and Amazon’s Kindle include features that allow students to take notes. In any case, students should be sure to write down enough information so that they can go back to the exact page of the book they got their information from. Include book title, author, and page number in any notes!

Review the Chapter

Students should not assume that they are done reading when their eyes get to the end of a chapter. Again, this is not a novel. The student’s task is to make sure that he or she understood the key points just covered in the chapter so that the student will be able to remember them in the future. The human memory is not very good: never assume that you will remember what you have read. Write a brief note to your “future self” (the you of the future who will have to take the exam). In this note, summarize:

  • What changed over time? What stayed the same?
  • Why was it important?
  • When and where did it happen?
  • Who were the most important people involved?
  • What were the key terms that might be on the exam?

What is the Textbook Leaving Out? What Story is the Author Trying to Tell?

Finally, students should consider the source. Textbooks are usually written in a very authoritative voice: the authors write as if they were simply presenting “The Truth.” But of course every textbook author must make choices. They include the events and people they think are most important, and they leave others out - not everything can be included, even in a 1,000 page textbook. Remember, the author of your textbook is probably an expert on a very specific period of history: he or she may know more than anyone else about seventeenth century French merchants, or nineteenth century Chinese sailing ships, but no one is the foremost expert on everything. To write textbooks, historians rely on historical research done by others. The choices the authors make will affect how they present the past, and you will find that different textbook authors sometimes have strikingly different takes on what was important or why key events happened.

This means that many expert historians will inevitably disagree with what is written in the textbook. Put even more strongly: expert historians think your textbook is wrong. Every textbook. When students read their textbooks, therefore, they should always check to see when it was written, where it was written, and who the author was. They should try to think about what “story” or "narrative" of the past the author tells and what he or she might be leaving out. Who are the main “characters” in the textbook? Are events mainly the work of individual presidents or kings or generals? Are events mainly caused by changes in society or economics? Are events mainly caused by changes in environment or climate? What do these choices say about the author’s assumptions about how history “works”? Is the author biased in some way? Is he or she trying to make a point?

Reading: Journal Articles, Essays, and Monographs ("Secondary Sources")

Historians almost never agree 100% with one another about why things happened. And so their books and articles are not meant to simply tell each other what happened – they are meant to persuade one another. One historian wants to prove to the other historian that THIS s version of what happened is the CORRECT version.

For readers who are not experts, these arguments can be difficult to understand. Often the historians writing these articles do not come right out and tell the reader what parts of the article is controversial. Instead they write as if their version of history was absolutely true. And they are writing for other experts, other professors who have spent decades writing, researching, and teaching about the same historical topics, and so expert authors often don’t stop to explain basic terminology. This often leaves non-experts scrambling for dictionaries or reference books to figure out what the experts are talking about. The following are tactics that undergraduate students can use to help crack the code and identify key parts of historians' arguments.

What questions is the author asking?

Every book or article that a professional historian writes begins with questions. The historian is curious about the past: what happened, why? And he or she has specific questions that led to this particular article. The reader needs to figure out what those central questions are. Sometimes this is easy: a historian will simply state, "the question is." When a historian has done his job, however, readers can figure out “the question" even without such a straightforward statement. To do this, begin by identifying the "problem" or "puzzle" that the historian is trying to solve. A "problem" is just that - something that the historian doesn't understand, or that his or her readers don't understand. A problem is something that needs to be solved. (If it were already understood, there would be no point in writing any more about it!).

There are many different kinds of problems that historians identify and try to solve. One type of problem is “a gap in the record.” Perhaps a historian has discovered a new trove of letters written by Hitler. The historian is therefore writing an article in which he analyzes those letters. His audience of Hitler experts can’t resist: they haven’t learned anything new about Hitler in years, so they’ll spend the time to sit down and read this. They have a “gap in their knowledge” and the author sets out to fill it.
More common that this is a problem of “interpretation.” Perhaps most historians agree about something – say, how Hitler made his decisions. Now here comes our historian. She has not discovered any new documents, but she has discovered something: she thinks her colleagues have been misinterpreting the sources. By reading her article, they will learn why their interpretation was wrong, and the author will (she hopes) convince them to agree with her new solution to the problem of interpretation.
When historians write their books and articles, they almost always will explain the problem or puzzle to their reader to help the reader understand why the article is worth reading - and to explain what question the historian is asking. Any time a student reads an article or a book, they should take note of the central question and the "problem" it is related to.

What is the author claiming to prove?

Once a student has identified the problem the author is trying to solve and the question that comes out of this problem, the next key question to ask is: what is the author's solution to the problem? What is the answer to the question? Having convinced his or her readers that they have a problem, the author then claims to have solved it. This main claim is spelled out clearly in one or two sentences, the formulation referred to as “a thesis statement.” FIND IT. CIRCLE IT. BE ABLE TO TALK ABOUT IT IN CLASS.

How does the author support this central claim?

Once a student has figured out (1) what problem the author is trying to solve, what question he or she is asking; and (2) what he or she is claiming to have proved (the solution or answer), the next question should be, (3) How does the author support this argument? The author cannot just tell readers that their old way of understanding was wrong and they should snap out of it. The author has to convince readers, persuade them. The process of convincing the audience to agree with a thesis is called argument. The author needs to show readers why, logically, they really ought to agree with the author’s thesis.
Good historical writing can be very smooth and very compelling, but fundamentally these articles are implicit dialogues with expert readers: the author is trying to convince the reader to agree with his or her interpretation. In our fictional article about Hitler, our author might start off by explaining why the old interpretation shouldn’t be believed. This back and forth would go something like this:

  • Author: The old interpretation was based on the faulty idea that Hitler was trying to do [ fill in the blank].
  • Expert reader: That’s not a faulty idea, I spent 10 years writing a book about that!
  • Author: The reason that you should agree that this idea is faulty is that… [cleverly constructed thesis]
  • Expert reader: I don’t believe that thesis for a second. Prove it!
  • Author: My evidence that this is true is … [examples from Hitler’s writing, or maybe psychological research => anything that supports the idea that the interpretation is wrong]
  • Expert reader: Hmmm. Well, I still don’t buy it – I think your assumptions are faulty.
  • Author: Seriously? Ok. Let me convince you: the reason I think that this supports my claim is … [our author will have to spell out his assumptions about human nature, how society works, how texts can be read … whatever it takes]

The authors of real articles, of course, rarely come right out and declare, “this is my thesis,” or, “the reason you should agree is.” In fact, authors often write as if they were just presenting the truth as they found it, not trying desperately to make people agree with them. Do not be deceived! Every author of an academic article is making an argument, trying to convince other experts of something. Your task is to figure out what it is.

Reading: Historical Documents (Primary Sources)

Historians call some texts “primary sources” because these are sources that were produced by people living in the time and place that the historians want to study. They are “primary” in the sense that they are “first-order documents,” just like a glove found at a crime scene would be considered “evidence.” Like the glove, texts written by people in the past give us evidence linked to the “scene of the crime” that we can use to deduce what happened and why. These “primary source” traces of the past may be books or letters, but they may also be paintings, or photographs, or buildings, or bits of pottery.

For instance, if a historian wanted to study the history of Baltimore in the 1920s, he or she would look for primary sources like newspapers published in the 1920s, diaries written by people who lived in Baltimore at that time, government laws that were on the books in the 1920s, photographs that were taken in the 1920s, buildings that were built in the 1920s, and so forth. The historian is looking for things that were created at that time, things that the historian can use to reconstruct the “scene of the crime.”

Students often find primary sources confusing at first because they initially read them the way they would read any other type of book or essay: for content. When historians read primary source document, they not only read for content, they also “source” the document, think about its “subtext,” and try to place it in historical “context.” These are key skills that must be learned by students in history courses before they can use primary sources effectively.

Sourcing Historical Documents

“Sourcing” a historical document simply means asking questions about where the document came from (its source). When historians try to figure out the source of the document they often go further than just figuring out where and when it was written: they want to know who wrote it, what sort of person he or she was, why they wrote this document, who it was intended for, and what was happening at the time. They want to understand “the why” of the document.

As an example, let us consider a short excerpt from a “On French Colonial Expansion” by French politician Jules Ferry.

The policy of colonial expansion is a political and economic system ... that can be connected to three sets of ideas: economic ideas; the most far-reaching ideas of civilization; and ideas of a political and patriotic sort.4

As readers, we might assume that our first task is to figure out what Ferry is saying: the content of his text. Stop! First, we must identify the source of the document. Who was Jules Ferry? When did he write this? Why did he choose this title? What kind of document was this originally, before it was anthologized in our textbook?

If we follow through on this, we find that Ferry was a very important politician - he was the Prime Minister of France. He wrote this in March 1884. The title "On Colonial Expansion" gives us a pretty big clue about his topic - this is obviously someone who is talking about the French colonial empire, and to my ears the title sounds positive. This text was originally delivered as a speech in parliament. So now we know that this was not just any old article about French colonialism: this was a speech delivered by the Prime Minister to the Parliament of France. Clearly this was a speech that was intended to make a point, maybe even convince politicians to support a policy.

Reading for the Content of the Text

Now that we have done a preliminary "sourcing" of our document, we go on to read and analyze the content of the document. Since our excerpt is short, this task is pretty straight forward: Ferry is saying that there are economic reasons for colonization, there are cultural (“civilizational”) reasons for colonization, and there are political reasons for colonization. Since we know he is the Prime Minister and that this is a speech, we can probably assume that he is laying out reasons that the French politicians should support colonization.

Reading for Subtext

Once we have figured out what the text explicitly says, we now need to examine its "subtext.” Subtext is a term that comes from theater, where directors tell actors that they need to understand the "subtext" of their characters' actions - the hidden back-story that helps the actor understand his or her character's motivation. Why is Lady Macbeth so bad? What is her back-story? Shakespeare doesn't really explain it - but we can make guesses based on the text that we have, and the actress playing Lady Macbeth can use these guesses to help inform her portrayal of the character.

Historians use the concept of subtext to think about why a document was written. Consider an advertisement or a billboard showing a picture of a man smoking a cigarette, and try to read it like a historian. "Source" the document: who paid for it? Analyze the content: what is the man on he horse doing? Now consider subtext: why did the author of this document make this particular picture? Who did the author hope would see it? What did the author hope the person would do when he or she saw it? In the case of advertising this is all quite clear: a tobacco company paid for the advertising, and they created a picture that they thought would make people want to smoke. Perhaps this particular picture is aimed at young men. The subtext: "hey, you, if you want to be confident and rugged and manly, you should smoke this."

A similar "subtext" can be found in almost any historical document. (Though hopefully most are more subtle and less cynical!) What were Ferry's motivations for delivering this speech? Who did he hope would hear it? What effect did he want the speech to have on them? The excerpt we have here is too short to make anything more than very preliminary guesses about subtext. But even using just these brief lines we can make some guesses. Ferry seems to want to convince someone - maybe a group of politicians in parliament? - that colonialism is justified and necessary - maybe even morally good. He gives not one but three different justifications - he does not want people to think colonization is just about politics or money, he insists that it is also about "civilization." Are there people in France at this time who have argued that colonization is not justified, or that economics alone does not justify French imperial conquest?


Reading for Historical Context

The next step in our analysis is to ask questions about "context." Context is a term that comes from the study of language. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as "The parts which immediately precede or follow any particular passage or ‘text’ and determine its meaning." When historians talk about "context" they are referring to events and ideas that might have influenced the author of the document, or the material realities and circumstances of the making of an object or a building. Unless we understand what was happening at the time, the thinking goes, we cannot really appreciate why the author said the things he said, use the words he used: we need to understand the historical context of a document in order to determine its meaning.

To do this, we ask questions about what was happening at the time. What events were going on in Paris where Jules Ferry was living and working? What was happening in France? What was happening in Europe and the rest of the world? What ideas were particularly influential in Paris at that time?

To answer these questions, we may need to do a bit of research in a textbook. Our goal is to place Jules Ferry and his speech in a specific time and place: what ideas about colonialism were circulating in France and in Europe in the 1880s? Were there wars going on in Europe? Economic depression? Population increase or decrease? Bad weather? Was Jules Ferry facing reelection?

Reading Primary Source Documents

Source the document

  • Who was the author?
  • What is the title of the document?
  • When was it written?
  • What kind of document is this? (For example, a letter, a report, newspaper story)

Analyze the text of the document

  • What are the main points that the document is making? What is happening here?
  • Who are the main people that are mentioned?

Analyze the subtext of the document

  • What motivated the author to write this document?
  • Who is the intended audience? What is the author trying to make the reader believe?
  • What is the author’s point of view? (What is his or her job? age? ethnicity? wealth?)
  • Is the document biased? Does the author’s point of view interfere with the truth?

Evaluate what the historical context of the document

  • What else was happening around this time? (in the world, nation, region).
  • What sort of language does the author use? (Stuffy and official? Casual, full of slang?)
  • What is the author NOT saying? (This will be hard to answer but give it a try.)
  • What are the limitations of this document? Whose views are not represented here?


  1. Academic Skills Center, Dartmouth College. "3 R's for Academic Survival." (2001).
  2. Barnet, Sylvan, and Hugo Bedau. From Critical Thinking to Argument: A Portable Guide. 3rd ed.: Bedford/St. Martins, 2011
  3. Berkhofer, Robert F. "Demystifying Historical Authority: Critical Textual Analysis in the Classroom." Perspectives in History (1988).
  4. Bloch, Marc. The Historian's Craft: Reflections on the Nature and Uses of History and the Techniques and Methods of Those Who Write It. Translated by Peter Putnam. New York: Vintage Books, 1953..
  5. Drake, Frederick D., and Lynn R. Nelson. Engagement in Teaching History: Theory and Practices for Middle and Secondary Teachers. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Merrill/Pearson Prentice, 2009.
  6. Graff, Gerald, Cathy Birkenstein, and Russel K. Durst. "They Say/I Say": The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing: With Readings. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2011.
  7. Williams, Joseph M., and Gregory G. Colomb. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 10th ed. Boston: Longman, 2010.
  8. Williams, Joseph M., and Lawrence McEnerney. “Writing in College: A Short Guide to College Writing.” University of Chicago Writing Program, online resource.
  9. Wineburg, Samuel S. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.



4. Jules Ferry, " On French Colonial Expansion," in The Modern History Sourcebook (Fordham University Website).]. [back to text]


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