Students struggle with how to understand history. Have you ever seen your teen slouched over their history textbook with glazed over eyes? Do they have that imaginary big question mark dangling over their head? Do they want to do anything else, even chores, rather than their history homework? If so, they are not alone.

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. No wonder students’ eyes glaze over!

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 guided my 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 we need to figure out how to put them together. Except with this puzzle, there are multiple ways 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 dictate 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 many 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, it is common to see an additional factor to consider: the H = How.

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?

A Student’s Guide to Historical Understanding


This digital handout outlines step-by-step how to use the 5 Ws + 1 H to understand history. It is broken down into six easy steps that make challenging historical topics into digestible chunks to see how the puzzle pieces fit together. Sometimes we just have to break something down into its parts to see how it all goes back together. Remember with this type of puzzle, there are multiple ways to see the full picture.

Do you want a handy print out of these steps to put in a notebook or a class binder? Fill out the quick form below and you will receive a handy one-page version to print out or save on your computer.

Click here for more tips and tools on history learning, from taking effective notes to preparing for big exams.

About Histropolis Teaching & Learning | HTL was created out of a drive to develop purposeful, responsive, and transformative learning for all students through personalized student tutoring, teacher coaching, and curriculum development services.