Matthew Fredericks is a seasoned AP U.S. and World History teacher and Teach for America veteran. A high achiever with degrees from Princeton, Georgetown and Wake Forest, he likes to tell his surprised students that he did not learn to read until the age of eight. While branded a “slow learner,” he overcame his challenges by learning to break massive and daunting subjects like “world history” into smaller chunks. Here, he shares his thoughts as both an AP history teacher and lifelong history buff on how students can start preparing to succeed on the May AP history exams!
Tip 1: Master the basics of physical and political geography.
Geography is the periodic table of history. Without knowing the map of the world, you will struggle on both the U.S. and World exams. Chemistry will always be confusing without knowing the periodic table of elements. Similarly, history will always be confusing unless you understand that physical and political landscapes have defined our planet.
Consider the statement: “Alexander the Great, a Macedonian prince, conquered an area that includes modern-day Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan!” This phrase is meaningless unless you can identify these countries on a modern map.
How do you acquire basic geography skills? Check out “old school” methods like globes and world map placemats. Or consider a more modern, fun approach like purposegames.com, which challenges students with engaging geography quizzes. Students learn geographical muscle memory by identifying countries, rivers, landmasses and empires at an increasingly fast pace. Challenge yourself or a friend to compete on the “countries of Asia map quiz.” Or just start with the “countries of the world!”
Tip 2: Arrange the timelines of important events, people, or regions into understandable blocks. The biggest complaint AP history students have given me over the years is “do I really have to memorize so many dates?” But dates are easy once you know one chronology, and can connect it with others.
Let’s say your topic is military history. A good starting point would be to learn about wars fought by the United States. Put the major ones together, then connect this chronology to the presidents and generals associated with each. AP exams rarely test specific battles or military strategies, so the important thing is to remember who won, who lost, why they were fighting and how it fits into the broader sweep of history.
You can play this game for world history as well. Possible world history timelines include: great inventions, philosophers and religious leaders, empires of China, empires of Mesopotamia, history of Britain, epidemics, and plagues, and economic history. Learn one timeline, and then connect other timelines to get a “big picture” understanding of history.
Tip 3: Memorize and discuss the 25-50 essential ideas or vocabulary words.
Several dozen ideas govern the study of each AP history course. For the upcoming AP exam, you could also view these ideas as vocabulary words to put on a flashcard to memorize. For AP World, key ideas include: trade, migration, currency, urbanization, the spread of religion, irrigation, epidemic, environmental degradation, empire, and nationhood.
For AP U.S. History, indispensable vocabulary include: colony, charter, religious freedom, tariff, constitution, federalism, manifest destiny, abolition, monopoly/trust, secession, and the judiciary. Any of these are also connected to current events. For instance, in the U.S.-China Trade War, tariffs are an important topic. To master each idea, place the idea within the contemporary world, and talk about these ideas with parents, fellow students or teachers.
There is an unlimited number of online resources out there for both AP exams. The key is focus and selectivity: find a few good resources that work for you and really learn them inside and out. Here are a few suggestions:
During April and May, Tungsten Prep offers prep classes for all major A.P. courses, including for U.S and World History. My colleagues and I are looking forward to helping students master the format, content, and strategies needed to conquer the A.P. exam.
This online article discusses the recent changes in the history exam that de-emphasize facts (steps 1 and 2 of my blog) and emphasize concepts (step 3). Placing less emphasis, however, does not mean the basic facts are not important. Indeed, with fewer facts, it is all the more crucial that you know the difference between Pakistan and Iran, or that James Polk served as U.S. president before Theodore Roosevelt.
This short article outlines the structure and the important categories for A.P. World.