Historical Thinking Skills

Finding a Worthwhile Topic

As a student of history, you will want to find a historical topic or problem worth addressing.  First, you have to determine a general area in which you have an interest.  If you choose to write a paper "about the Civil War", you may run into difficulties with such a broad topic.  You may become "swamped" with information and feel a sense of "information overload."  The next step is to narrow your topic.  Are you interested in comparison?  battles? social change? politics? causes? biography? 

Once you reach this stage, try to formulate your research topic as a question.  Suppose for example, you decide to write a paper on the use of the films of the 1930's and what they can tell historians about the Great Depression.  You might turn that into the following question, "What are the primary values expressed in films of the 1930's?  Or, you might ask a quite different question, "What is the standard of living portrayed in films of the 1930's?  There are other questions, of course, which you could have asked, but these two clearly illustrate how different two papers on the same general subject might be.  By asking yourself a question as a means of starting research on a topic you will help yourself find the answers.  You also open the door to loading the evidence one way or another.  It will help you decide what kinds of evidence might be pertinent to your question.  South Arkansas Community College has put together a list of research paper topics in history worth perusing as you begin to choose a topic and frame your topic as a question.  Also of tremendous help is Professor William Cronon's site on "Learning to Do Historical Research:  A Primer How to Frame a Researchable Question."  His environmental history class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison put together an extensive set of resources applicable and helpful to all who study history.


Maris Pacifici:  Very old map of the Pacific Ocean with arrows representing voyages


Read and Compare Secondary History Sources

Being able to read and reconstruct the past helps you to develop a historical viewpoint.  It helps you to place people and events within a chronological framework.  This gives you a sense of time, continuity and change.  Chronology is an important historical thinking skill.  Using the Solano Napa and Partners (SNAP) Online Databases will provide you access to academic journal articles.  You can limit your results to full-text, and peer reviewed journals.  Refer back to Unit 4:  Online Databases (Articles) for more information on using these sources.  By reading scholarly articles and books, you will recognize the central theme of an historical source and be able to develop a range and depth of historical knowledge and understanding.

Historical comprehension gives you a knowledge of facts and terms, an understanding of concepts, principles and theories, as well as an understanding of the relationship between concepts.   For an excellent interactive on historical thinking created for teachers of history, take a look at America's History in the Making developed by the Annenberg Foundation. 

If Napa Valley College's McCarthy Library does not have a particular book or article, ask a reference librarian for assistance.  Through the Inter-library Loan (ILL) program, often a book can be procured from another library and sent to Napa Valley College for student use.  If an article is unavailable in SNAP databases, a reference librarian can help to locate a full-text copy.

Putting Sources in Conversation with Each Other

Learning history means gaining some skill in sorting through diverse, often conflicting interpretations.  It is important not to passively take the knowledge different authors convey to you.  Ask yourself, "Is this author's interpretation of this historical event accurate?"  "How does X author's views compare and contrast with Y author's views?"  Pay attention to assumptions that scholars make and whether other scholars have a significant disagreement about a subject.  Professor Cronon's class web pages on constructing arguments and positioning them are especially useful here.

As you begin your analysis and interpretations, keep in mind the following:

  • Differentiate between historical facts and historical interpretations
  • Compare competing historical narratives
  • Hold interpretations of history as tentative
  • Evaluate major debates among historians
  • Analyze cause and effect relationships

Historical Inquiry Continues:  Search for Primary Sources

After reading secondary sources to get a gauge on what is currently known about a topic, see if you can find primary sources.  (Refer to Unit 4 on primary sources for a fuller discussion).  It is important to remember that photographs, letters, diaries, yet to be analyzed can be sources of great historical significance.  Ken Burns, in his video series The Civil War, brought texture, emotion and depth to the battles of Antitem when he read letters from Civil War soldiers to their wives and mothers which anticipated the soldier's likely impending death on the battlefields.  

If the primary sources do not exist for your topic, interviews or oral histories either in a library collection or those which you yourself conduct can be very powerful.  If, for example, you are researching Napa valley history, you may want to interview a person in their 90's who remembers what life was like in Napa during the 1920's. 

Producing New Knowledge

The ability to organize your information and communicate your understanding of history using both secondary and primary sources is a necessary skill.  For an interesting article on how history research is changing, take a look at Changing History:  Four New Ways to Write the Story of the World. To provide you with help in crafting a paper in which you state a clear historical problem and then offer a thesis to prove your position, you will want to download and read the excellent "Reading, Writing and Researching for History:  A Guide for College Students".  

Scientific Information Literacy Modules
Unit 1:  What is Science?
Unit 2:  Scientific Information
History Information Literacy Modules