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The Date Doesn’t Matter: Getting Past Simple Date Memorization in History Classes

Dec 15, 2022

While this may shock some people, Historians in academia don’t require students to memorize dates, and you shouldn’t either. This blog post discusses pedagogical reasons for freeing your students from the rote memorization of dates, allowing you to focus on the exciting aspects of history and test students in a more effective manner that helps them remember the importance of history long after the course has finished.

As a teaching assistant during graduate school, my U.S. History students often said that their high school classes had been nothing more than memorizing dates and facts. Memorizing dates makes history boring and gives the false impression that history is entirely factual, devoid of interpretive bias. Certainly dates are important because you need to know when events occurred, our world lives by dates, and specific days are important to memorialize. I do my fair share of date memorization, and there are a handful I know like the back of my hand, but those almost always pertain to my own research, or I’ve memorized them by accident. The truth of the matter is, knowing specific dates rarely matters. Context can be found without specific dates. Having a rough timeline of events in your head is profoundly useful, and knowing the context for an event is incredibly valuable. 

Students should memorize what matters. Students will struggle to remember dates past the class. I would much rather help them create a timeline of contextual events that they can roughly pull together. For instance, knowing that WW1 led to the Roaring ‘20s, which led to the Great Depression, which led to WW2, is far more important than knowing WW1 lasted from July 28th, 1914 to November 11th, 1919, the stock market crashed on October 28th, 1929, and so on and so forth. Most importantly though, I want students to know why an event we discussed is important. In a 15-week class that covers all 200+ years of American history, why did I think this event was important enough to discuss? Why is this event still important today? Dates are not all that history is, and our testing should reflect such a simple understanding.

It’s okay to make students give you a timeline, but ask them to get within ten years or ask them to pick a decade. Being able to order things, even if you aren’t exact, is far better. 

If you do feel some banal need to do so, here are some that you should probably know off the top of your head: July 4, 1776; The Civil War, 1861-1865; World War 1, 1914-1919; and World War 2, 1939-1945. That’s it. Don’t worry about anything else. Your students will thank you, and I hope that you’ll find they remember far more from your class.

Claire Pattonenjoys teaching history and various electives for middle school and high-school students. Her classes combine detailed lectures about the history, art, literature, religion, and politics with dynamic in-class discussions about important sources from the era. Claire is passionate about showing students why the past matters to the present and how the past affects them today. She realizes that when students leave her classroom, they may not remember every detail about the Balfour declaration, but she seeks to teach every student how to find information, read and understand primary sources, interrogate data, and communicate well. Mrs. Patton values an active learning environment. Rather than just reading from a textbook, Mrs. Patton teaches students how to understand the material they read, synthesize material from multiple sources, and summarize those items effectively.  Rather than question such as “What color were the curtains in Chapter 5?” Mrs. Patton loves asking questions that help students work through the broader themes of the text and show how people of the past viewed their world and the situations they lived through.

Claire holds a Master of Public History and a Bachelors of History from Oklahoma State University. During her masters, she worked as a teaching assistant and she has independently taught a research writing intensive seminar for upper high-school students. Claire’s scholarly work focuses on women in the west from 1875 to 1945. Past projects include cleanliness and clothing in the Dust Bowl, the women’s Navy auxiliary service in World War 2, and clothing on the American frontier. She has extensive experience working in museums, setting up exhibits, and interacting with the public. During the summer of 2022 she worked at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Museum as an intern in the curatorial and education departments. Claire has published in Forma Journal (Summer 2021) and currently has a scholarly article out for review at the Western Historical Quarterly. She has presented at numerous academic conferences, including the American Historical Association.

Claire also enjoys teaching sewing to friends both young and old. She began sewing when she was nine and hasn’t let off the foot pedal yet! Claire loves to design her own clothes and bring her creations to life. She took this love into her scholarly work and as a part of her master’s thesis, Claire conducted extensive research and then recreated an original 1875-1885 dress held in the National Cowboy and Western History Museum.

The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the author and should not be taken to represent the views of Excelsior Classes, LLC or the consortium of teachers.