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Student Engagement

7 Strategies to Captivate Students in History Class

These subtle tweaks to lessons can tap into the drama of historical moments and ignite student curiosity.

June 3, 2024

When high school history teacher Alex Brouhard mentions his job to other adults, he often hears a similar response: “I disliked the subject in school, but now I find it interesting.”

This left Brouhard with a nagging question: If people tend to enjoy history as adults, why do so many middle and high school students report feeling bored and uninterested in the topic?

Students often say that history lessons are full of “dates, people, and places which often require rote memorization,” Brouhard writes in an article for EdSurge. But “if taught with the intent to inspire and engage, history is far from boring or monotone.”

Over time, Brouhard developed strategies in his high school classroom to connect his students more deeply to the topic—such as starting units at dramatic moments in history and finding ways to bring family and local history into lessons.

Building on the approaches Brouhard lays out—and several others shared by educators—these subtle tweaks to existing lesson plans can help make your history classes more engaging to students.


History teachers too often focus on the big picture, says Brouhard, but the stories of individuals are typically more engrossing and “can help students feel more emotionally invested in the history they’re learning.”

For example, instead of lecturing students about military tactics used during World War I, have them read about it from the perspective of someone who was there: “Describing what trench warfare entailed is one thing, but reading a firsthand account of a soldier who lived through it—exposed to rats and standing in frigid water amidst piled-up bodies—is another,” Brouhard writes.

Making an effort to humanize historical figures—without shying away from discussing their mistakes and flaws—can help students relate to prominent individuals in our past and develop a better understanding of their decisions, says eighth-grade history teacher Lauren Brown in an article for MiddleWeb. “All the famous characters in history had key moments in their childhood or early adulthood that helped shape who they became—tell students about those moments.”  

To incorporate more first-person accounts into history lessons, educator and author Jennifer Gonzalez recommends presenting oral histories from witnesses of specific events or trends in the past—or even the present.


When covering a global historical event, showing students how other countries describe that same event—through old newspaper articles, textbooks, or other online sources—can help them broaden their perspective and discover that descriptions of the same event diverge widely depending on who is telling the story.

When teaching about the Vietnam War, John DeRose, a history teacher from Wisconsin, has students compare their textbook’s account of the war with that of a Vietnamese textbook or newspaper article. Students can be split into groups to discuss the differences between the accounts—or even debate which they think is more accurate and why, DeRose writes.

During a unit on the Spanish-American war, history teacher William Colglazier has students read excerpts from Cuban and Filipino textbooks, which suggest that the USS Maine was deliberately sunk by an explosion caused by American spies. The controversial claim—sort of like the conspiracy theories that kids may encounter online—tends to interest students, and Colglazier has them practice using the analytical skills of a historian to research the claim and attempt (unsuccessfully) to find credible sources that corroborate it.


Many history teachers feel that it’s most natural to teach a historical era chronologically. But often, the most exciting part of the story is in the middle, or even at the end. So, why not start there?

For example, when teaching World War I, “rather than explaining Balkan nationalism, start with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, which provides an immediate point of interest and relevance for students,” suggests Brouhard. Or, you could start a unit on the civil rights era with Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous March on Washington—then work backward to explore why such a march was necessary in the first place. 

“This approach is similar to a TV crime show that reveals the body in the first minute and then spends the rest of the show assembling evidence,” Brouhard writes.


If you’ve ever wished you could bring Abraham Lincoln or Albert Einstein to class as a guest speaker, artificial intelligence may be able to offer the next best thing, edtech professor Maureen Yoder said in a presentation at ISTE 2023.

AI chatbots like Hello History allow students to have text-based conversations with models trained to imitate historical figures. Students can grill Cleopatra about the specific challenges that women leaders face or ask Gandhi about what it felt like to go on a hunger strike. Hello History has dozens of figures to choose from, but the free version limits users to 20 messages per day. For longer conversations, students can turn to ChatGPT and prompt it: “For the rest of this conversation, please role-play as [historical figure].”

Given that AI-generated responses are far from reliable, historian and history educator Jonathan S. Jones drives students’ critical thinking by asking them to scrutinize history-related output from ChatGPT and look for “factual errors and information that was missing crucial context.”


To bring history to life, ask students to step in the shoes of the historical figures they’re learning about. (Use your best judgment, of course, as some figures and historical events may be inappropriate for classroom reenactment.)

One monthlong project-based learning project—developed in conjunction with Lucas Education Research—has students serve as delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Through discussions and debates, students develop their understanding of the founders’ goals and intentions and how those intentions still shape our lives today.

These activities can be modified for use in individual lessons, too. For example, in one class period, students can take the role of federalists and anti-federalists and debate how much power should be concentrated in the hands of the federal government and how much in the state governments. They can even consider how this debate is still shaping current-day issues like immigration policy.


When discussing global wars, Brouhard brings his great-grandfather’s World War I uniform into class (students are always fascinated by the dent in the metal helmet) and reads excerpts from his other great-grandfather’s journal detailing his time as a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II.

To connect his students to the history they’re learning about, Brouhard encourages them to bring historical artifacts from their own families to class for show and tell. This might include old photos, diaries, magazines and publications, or, according to educator Rebecca Alber, interesting keepsakes—like an older relative’s quinceañera invitation or a military lapel pin from the Vietnam War.

Educator and director of technology Kevin Brookhouser says students can also create their own oral histories by writing up questions and interviewing elders in their family or community to gain their perspective on important events and issues they might be studying in class. “This is not just about sharing family stories; it’s the academic work of a historian, creating primary sources,” Brookhouser writes.

Teaching students about the history in their own backyard can also make topics more personal, says high school history and government teacher Benjamin Barbour. There are a variety of local sites that can make for interesting history-oriented field trips, such as nonprofits and civic organizations, nearby colleges and universities, long-standing local businesses, and even cemeteries. Primary sources from the library or local historical societies are useful too. In a unit on slavery, Katie Durkin’s eighth-grade students in Wilton, Connecticut, visited the library to deepen their understanding of slavery in their town by “reading letters from townspeople, looking at paintings and images, and piecing together the role townspeople played as both enslavers and abolitionists.”


There are several free, online platforms that offer a wide variety of history and social studies games that can help enliven lessons.

Mission US: Mission US offers seven detailed, story-driven games based on different eras in American history. Each game takes an hour or two to finish, but they save players’ progress and can be completed in multiple sittings. For example, in “For Crown or Colony?” students play as a printer’s apprentice in 1770 Boston and interact with both patriots and loyalists to decide where their loyalties lie. “Along the way, they engage in empathy and explore issues of liberty, equality, and perspective,” writes educator Rebecca Rufo-Tepper.

iCivics: iCivics offers about 20 games with modern, animated graphics designed to teach kids about U.S. governance—such as “Do I Have a Right?,” a game that simulates running a civil rights law firm, and “LawCraft,” which challenges students to craft a bill and try to get it through Congress. The games boost interest in subject matter “that might otherwise be boring to 12- and 13-year-olds,” writes educator Matthew Farber.


History teachers, if you have a method for bringing historical subjects to life and boosting classroom engagement, please let fellow educators know in the comments.

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  • Student Engagement
  • Inquiry-Based Learning
  • Social Studies/History
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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