Studying for history exams is generally one of the more painful tasks a high school student can take on. While history itself can be a fascinating subject, full of intrigue, drama, and betrayal, studying for a history exam is generally anything other the fascinating. It consists of memorizing names and dates and facts and keeping in mind that the 1500’s are the 16th century and that AD is now known as BCE and Beijing used to be called Peking.
While it’s probably impossible for students to completely avoid hitting the books in preparation for their World History final or the AP US History Exam, there are some things they can do to make studying more enjoyable. The first is to talk to someone from an earlier generation. This tactic is particularly useful for exams that focus on the 20th century. Talking to a grandfather who served in WWII or a neighbor lady who remembers voting for Franklin Delano Roosevelt all three times and ask them what their lives were like. Because if there is one thing octogenarians like to do, it is talk to young people about the past. This probably means getting subjected to a lecture about how things were simpler back then and they just don’t understand kids these days, but the personal connection that comes from hearing about historical events from someone who actually lived through them can add poignancy and make memorizing those dates and facts a little easier.
Mnemonics are another handy way to memorize dates and facts. There are lots of tips and tricks to keeping similar sounding names straight and remembering when and where key historical events took place. One way to do that is set a series of facts to a familiar tune like “Yankee Doodle” or “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” If it’s difficult to keep certain details straight (is Micronesia north of Melanesia or south?), the tune of a familiar song can help where regular memory fails.
Connecting names and facts to other, more familiar ones is another to do that. For example, when trying to remember that Jackson is the capital of Mississippi, it might be easier to think of Michael Jackson, as is “Michael Jackson, Mississippi.” It’s like the Before and After category on Jeopardy. If the Before and After trick doesn’t work, some people actually find it useful to make long, complicated connections between facts, like “Mississippi… Huckleberry Finn sailed down the Mississippi River with Jim…Jim, James, John, Jack….Jackson, Mississippi!” Of course it’s important for the studier to follow his or her own natural train of thought, but depending on the strength of the mental connections he or she is able to make, those stream of consciousness memory tricks can be surprisingly successful.
Nothing can take the place of putting in the time and effort to learn about important historical facts, like who signed the Magna Carta or the causes of the Vietnam War, but making personal connections to history, or utilizing memory tricks to keep facts straight can both decrease study time and improve success rates.