The Continuity and Change-Over-Time Question: Teaching Techniques

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From Global to Local, and Back Again

Sometimes I think that we history teachers are crazy. We keep teaching one way to write change-over-time essays and continue to be disappointed with the results. Maybe we should reconsider some of our approaches, to help our students absorb the different way of thinking that change over time requires. Our teenage students naturally want to think in terms of the present; that's what they know best. Our students also want to see world history connected to what they know happened locally. How can we help our students see the past in terms of processes of change and continuity?

Most history teachers want their students to write essays that analyze a specific issue or topic. Oftentimes we ask students to analyze cause and effect or explain differences between two opposite types of political, economic, or social systems. Then some of us are disappointed when the essays are narrowly focused and don't display a broader understanding of change over time. In world history, we require students to be able to write what the AP World History Course Description calls a "continuity and change-over-time" essay. How can we teach students to write continuity and change-over-time essays? Is it an impossible task?

Those of us who have been trying to teach the continuity and change-over-time essay for the AP World History course know theoretically that students gain important skills when they must alternate from sketching the big picture of a large time period to the smaller picture where they analyze a particular event or region in depth. I hope you noticed that I said "theoretically." It is very difficult for most people to switch from the larger picture (global) to the smaller picture (local). It seems to many world history teachers to be an especially challenging task for teenagers and young adults who are just feeling comfortable with defending their presentism, i.e., their views of the world as it exists today (Wineburg 2001). It is natural, therefore, for them to use that newly articulated view of their world to analyze the world of the past. It is our task to help them begin to move beyond presentism as the best way to interpret the past.

There is a small amount of research and plenty of anecdotal experience that shows how some teachers are being successful in showing students how to write change-over-time essays by identifying the right sort of questions that highlight the larger patterns of world history. I suggest two types of such questions, which can be used to great effect in world history courses.

The Big Picture and the Ripple Effect

The Big Picture question helps students focus on the beginning and ending of a time period, so they can see the major changes and continuities in that period. In most world history textbooks, large sections often begin with some kind of overview and a timeline that highlight the changes and continuities for a particular time period. By looking carefully at the timelines, students should notice the times of crisis and the times when few major changes happened.

The "right" sort of question students should ask is what kind of patterns do they see from analyzing the timelines. In AP World History, we have five themes that serve as the major patterns of the course: Interaction Between Humans and the Environment; Development and Interaction of Cultures; State-Building, Expansion, and Conflict; Creation, Expansion, and Interaction of Economic Systems; and Development and Transformation of Social Structures. We can use these themes to help students see the changes and continuities over time.

The Big Picture questions students should ask are about the causes of the changes or continuities in any of these themes over a long period of time. A Big Picture question would be: "From 1750 to 1900, did political or economic changes affect social structures the most in Europe? In East Asia? What happened to the social status of slaves and serfs from the beginning to the end of this time period in the Caribbean or Russia, respectively?" This Big Picture question during the period five of the AP World History course could have better prepared students to address the continuity and change-over-time question on labor systems.

The second kind of question we should help our students ask is, "What is the nature of historical change?" I use a metaphor that many of my students find helpful. I show them that any particular region of the world can be seen as a body of water that is "impacted" or "affected" by an outside force. That "impact" might at first glance seem like a meteor coming from outer space and leaving a big hole in the ground or causing a large tidal wave. Instead, I encourage my students to imagine that the outside force causes ripples in the water that spread throughout the region in larger or smaller ways. Moreover, if the ripples hit the edge of the region, they may even return in a wavelike fashion. Most importantly, my students have come to understand that the initial entry by merchants, imperial armies, missionaries, or pilgrims into a region is usually repeated many times, and sometimes becomes a regular interaction.

Using a Recent Example

For example, the continuity and change-over-time question on the 2003 AP World History Exam* asked students:


Describe and analyze the cultural, economic, and political impact of Islam on ONE of the following regions between 1000 CE and 1750 CE (West Africa, South Asia, or Europe). Be sure to discuss continuities as well as changes.

If our students were prepared well for this question, they would know that the nature of change caused by the interaction between Muslims and people of other religions and cultures was cultural, economic, and political and occurred repeatedly over the whole time period. Students would be able to suggest that the changes related in some way to the emphasis in Islamic civilization on scientific and mathematical knowledge and on trade.

The ripple effects students might have used as detail to support generalizations about changes could be about how repeated interactions with Muslims changed language, food, gender roles, social standing of different professions or ethnic groups, attitudes toward other belief systems, and bureaucratic structures that affected taxation or commercial law. Students could analyze how any of these changes happened in one of the regions at a particular time or from repeated interactions with or domination by Muslims. The students also could explain that the spread of Islam beyond the Arabian Peninsula to Spain and Eastern Europe, West Africa, and South Asia did not change every cultural, economic, and political feature in those regions. Some parts of people's lives remained the same despite interactions with Muslims.

Many students did not write essays that truly analyzed the patterns of change and continuities over time. My initial explanation for the poor responses is that many teachers are not sure what the Big Picture questions are for world history, and that their students did not have an understanding of the multiple times and ways that Muslims interacted with people in one of the three regions. When I looked at my own students' essays for this question, I saw that the students who did well on the exam also did well on class essays that required them to use Big Picture analysis and explain ripple effects. The students who continued to struggle with the habit of moving from global to local and local to global also did poorly on the change-over-time question.

Other Techniques

Many of us already use a technique called a change analysis chart, developed by Linda Black and Ellen Bell. The change analysis chart helps students take notes as they proceed through a unit. They can record the changes from key crisis events. They also can keep track of the major continuities in the time period.

In the past year, I have found two more techniques to help students prepare to write change-over-time essays. They are the graphic organizer and the swingometer.

  • The graphic organizer can help students prepare for the specific essay they will write. The graphic encourages them to recognize the theme, time period, and region addressed in the essay question. It also helps students identify in the time period at least three major events that demonstrate the major changes. Moreover, the organizer emphasizes the key transition points between the major events to help students analyze the causes of change in the period. Finally, the graphic reminds students that they are creating an argument about the major changes and/or continuities that should be presented in the thesis statement.
  • Another graphic organizer, the swingometer, appeared in a June 2002 article by Steven Barnes, "Revealing the Big Picture: Patterns, Shapes, and Images at Key Stage 3," in the British journal Teaching History. The swingometer guides students as they study the smaller questions of a unit to make hypotheses about how to answer the Big Question for the unit. For example, if the Big Question is about the nature of progress in the period 1750 to 1914, then the students can record examples of progress, regression, and continuity on the swingometer. When the unit is completed, students can see their assessments of the major crises' contributions to change or continuity over the whole period. In an essay on the nature of progress during the long nineteenth century, students will more likely be able to use the local events as examples to support their understanding of change and continuity over the whole period.

These techniques can be used together to foster students' ability to see the larger patterns in world history.

Seeing Broader Patterns

When we look at any world history curriculum, we can see patterns of outside forces that caused dramatic changes: the rise of large empires, the spread of pandemic diseases, the forced migration of large numbers of people over a long period of time, or the spread of new political ideas. As we teach the content of the crises that punctuate our syllabi, let us try to help students see the larger patterns. Let us help students prepare to answer big questions about the nature of change and continuity over long periods of time. And let us try to use new techniques that will bring more assessments and judgments in our students' writing about the past.


Barnes, Steven. 2002. Revealing the big picture: patterns, shapes, and images at key stage 3. Teaching History 107 (June): 6-13.

Wineburg, Sam. 2001. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

* Please note that this exam question reflects an earlier course description prior to the course revisions implemented in the 2011-2012 academic year.

Sharon Cohen teaches AP World History and is a member of the AP World History Development Committee. This article is an expanded version of remarks she delivered to a session on AP World History at the 2004 annual conference of the National Council for the Social Studies.

Authored by

  • Sharon C. Cohen
    Springbrook High School
    Silver Spring, Maryland