Students struggle with how to understand history (or any other complex subject area or topic). History classes are packed full of facts, dates, people, places, and ideas that students need to remember. It is easy to become overwhelmed with all of this information, let alone figure out its significance to the past and present. When it comes time for students to do something with all of that information (like write about it), it’s not uncommon to see them shut down and avoid completing their work.

History Homework Demons

When it’s time to start their history homework, students are unsure where to begin, especially if their textbook is challenging to read or they have a lot of information to digest from class. If students don’t have the confidence in their ability, they may end up procrastinating or not doing their work at all. It is easier not to do it than struggle with those history demons.

I get it. As a teacher, I saw many of my students struggle. It wasn’t that they couldn’t do it, they just didn’t know how to approach it in a way that made sense to them. They needed to feel comfortable; they wanted to feel like they weren’t going to fail.

One of the ways that I guide students to become comfortable with how to understand history is to think of it as a puzzle. We have a bunch of pieces (facts, dates, places, etc.) and need to figure out how to put them together. Except with this puzzle, there is more than one way to put it together.

To Understand History: It’s Like a Box of Puzzle Pieces

Often students think there is only one right or wrong answer in history. They aren’t at fault with this notion. Many of us were taught this way in history class. It was all about facts and not about interpretation and understanding. History is about putting the puzzle pieces together to get a perspective on the past. Depending on the pieces we have will shape that historical understanding.

To see what pieces we have, we need to organize all of the facts, dates, ideas, and other pieces of information at our disposal. This may be from a textbook, documents, a video, or other sources. One method that works for students is something they might have learned in their reading and writing class: the 5 Ws. You know, the parts of a story: who, what, when, where, and why. Now, I like to add an additional detail: the H = How. The “how” helps to tie together the other pieces.

This same concept can be applied to history. Take a section out of a history textbook; perhaps it’s the chapter on World War I. In the first section, the authors discuss the causes of the conflict (which there were many). Between all the names, countries, terms, ideologies, and so on, it can become mind-boggling to make sense of it all. If this is the case, create a chart with six categories: Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why. I like to put How before the Why because the How connects the first 4 Ws. This way, I can see how the pieces connect, which will inform the final W: Why. Why did it happen and in that sequence of events? Why was it significant then and now?


To help you or a student you know, complete the form below to get a one-page student cheatsheet that outlines step-by-step how to use the 5 Ws + 1 H to understand history and other complex topics.

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