The Secret Ingredient to Engaging Students in History

how to make history interesting

The Best Way to Engage Students Today is to Provide Them Meaningful Work

I have a crazy belief about students today. While the average student might be more disengaged than ever, I also think the majority of our students are genuinely desperate for meaningful learning activities. 

That’s why I think we must give students interesting problems to solve rather than just focus on ensuring they understand the content. And the right activities can do both- content mastery and meaningful engagement- all while helping them develop important critical thinking skills.

So, what does giving students “interesting problems to solve” look like in a social studies classroom?

how to make history engaging

Let me share this freebie activity my online APUSH students will be completing next week as an example.

For this activity, students are acting as an “executive committee” in Richmond, VA trying to come up with a solution to the contested issue of Confederate Monuments in the city. (If we weren’t in Hawai’i but instead in a state with Confederate Monuments, I would choose a local township or city.) 

Rather than just debate if they think the Confederate Monuments should be taken down or left standing, this task is a greater puzzle- a real problem worthy of wresting with! In their ‘committees,’ they must first examine a current event news story to see how this issue is impacting the community. 

confederate monuments activity

Then students analyze a series of documents, mostly primary sources, to understand why different Confederate Monuments were put up, the arguments for and against them, and the context in which they were made.

In their groups, after they analyze all the documents, the committees need to come up with a ‘workable’ solution for the city on what should be done with the monuments. They write a speech and deliver it to the class (since I’m only teaching online this year, they record a video on Flip for their peers to watch). 

The next part of the activity is my favorite! Each group must develop a proposal and design for a new monument that reflects what is most important to remember about the Civil War and its legacy on the nation. 

To me, this is meaningful work and my students love doing it - despite it being quite challenging. 

Or maybe, its because it is challenging. 🤔 

engaging activities for history class

History Labs are also interesting problems to solve. It makes learning history into detective work and makes inquiry fun and interesting. Yes, they are learning content- but in a way that challenges them to ‘problem-solve’ through different interpretations of a single event with different evidence and perspectives. 

Anytime students have to ‘wrestle’ with the content, they are solving interesting problems.

If you know me, you know one of my favorite activities is History Decisions Simulations. These activities put students in the past as they take on historical roles and have to navigate real historical crises! My students just finished this one on Reconstruction, where students acted as Lincoln and his advisors to come up with a plan for Reconstruction. Rather than just learn about the different plans for Reconstruction, students need to wrestle with things Lincoln had to consider and develop their own plan.

Other activities that involve solving interesting problems:

  • Congressional Hearings
  • Historical Trials
  • Investigative Reports or Exposes 
  • History Day Projects
  • CSI Investigations

Maybe to get students excited, we need to raise the bar on them and challenge them more than ever.

They just might rise to the occasion and find history more interesting than when they are simply given the answers and just have to remember it for a future test. 

strategies to engage students in history class

And if you are interested in learning more, check out my self-paced course, “Make History Engaging, Exciting, and Empowering.” The course is grounded in giving students meaningful work that engages even your most reluctant learners!

You’ll learn a ton of other ways to make history come alive and challenge students with meaningful and interesting activities!

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