A student works on a history thesis in the university library.
Article

How to Research and Write a Compelling History Thesis


History

Just as history is more than a collection of facts about past events, an effective history thesis goes beyond simply sharing recorded information. Writing a compelling history thesis requires making an argument about a historical fact and, then, researching and providing a well-crafted defense for that position.

With so many sources available—some of which may provide conflicting findings—how should a student research and write a history thesis? How can a student create a thesis that’s both compelling and supports a position that academic editors describe as “concise, contentious, and coherent”?

Key steps in how to write a history thesis include evaluating source materials, developing a strong thesis statement, and building historical knowledge.

The Importance of Research for Writing a History Thesis

Compelling theses provide context about historical events. This context, according to the reference website ThoughtCo., refers to the social, religious, economic, and political conditions during an occurrence that “enable us to interpret and analyze works or events of the past, or even the future, rather than merely judge them by contemporary standards”.

The context supports the main point of a thesis, called the thesis statement, by providing an interpretive and analytical framework of the facts, instead of simply stating them. Research uncovers the evidence necessary to make the case for that thesis statement.

To gather evidence that contributes to a deeper understanding of a given historical topic, students should reference both primary and secondary sources of research.

Primary Sources

Primary sources are firsthand accounts of events in history, according to Professor David Ulbrich, director of Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in History program. These sources provide information not only about what happened and how it happened but also why it happened.

Primary sources can include letters, diaries, photos, and videos as well as material objects such as “spent artillery shells, architectural features, cemetery headstones, chemical analysis of substances, shards of bowls or bottles, farming implements, or earth or environmental features or factors,” Ulbrich says. “The author of the thesis can tell how people lived, for example, by the ways they arranged their material lives.”

Primary research sources are the building blocks to help us better understand and appreciate history. It is critical to find as many primary sources from as many perspectives as possible. Researching these firsthand accounts can provide evidence that helps answer those “what”, “how”, and “why” questions about the past, Ulbrich says.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are materials—such as books, articles, essays, and documentaries—gathered and interpreted by other researchers. These sources often provide updates and evaluation of the thesis topic or viewpoints that support the theories presented in the thesis.

Primary and secondary sources are complementary types of research that form a convincing foundation for a thesis’ main points.

How to Write a History Thesis

What are the steps to write a history thesis? The process of developing a thesis that provides a thorough analysis of a historical event—and presents academically defensible arguments related to that analysis—includes the following:

1. Gather and Analyze Sources

When collecting sources to use in a thesis, students should analyze them to ensure they demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the materials. A student should evaluate the attributes of sources such as their origin and point-of-view.

An array of primary and secondary sources can help provide a thorough understanding of a historical event, although some of those sources may include conflicting views and details. In those cases, the American Historical Association says, it’s up to the thesis author to determine which source reflects the appropriate point-of-view.

2. Develop a Thesis Statement

To create a thesis statement, a student should establish a specific idea or theory that makes the main point about a historical event. Scribbr, an editing website, recommends starting with a working thesis, asking the question the thesis intends to answer, and, then, writing the answer.

The final version of a thesis statement might be argumentative, for example, taking a side in a debate. Or it might be expository, explaining a historical situation. In addition to being concise and coherent, a thesis statement should be contentious, meaning it requires evidence to support it.

3. Create an Outline

Developing a thesis requires an outline of the content that will support the thesis statement. Students should keep in mind the following key steps in creating their outline:

  • Note major points.
  • Categorize ideas supported by the theories.
  • Arrange points according to the importance and a timeline of events addressed by the thesis.
  • Create effective headings and subheadings.
  • Format the outline.

4. Organize Information

Thesis authors should ensure their content follows a logical order. This may entail coding resource materials to help match them to the appropriate theories while organizing the information. A thesis typically contains the following elements.

  • Abstract—Overview of the thesis.
  • Introduction—Summary of the thesis’ main points.
  • Literature review—Explanation of the gap in previous research addressed by this thesis.
  • Methods—Outline how the author reviewed the research and why materials were selected.
  • Results—Description of the research findings.
  • Discussion—Analysis of the research.
  • Conclusion—Statements about what the student learned.

5. Write the Thesis

Online writing guide Paperpile recommends that students start with the literature review when writing the thesis. Developing this section first will help the author gain a more complete understanding of the thesis’ source materials. Writing the abstract last can give the student a thorough picture of the work the abstract should describe.

The discussion portion of the thesis typically is the longest since it’s here that the writer will explain the limitations of the work, offer explanations of any unexpected results, and cite remaining questions about the topic.

In writing the thesis, the author should keep in mind that the document will require multiple changes and drafts—perhaps even new insights. A student should gather feedback from a professor and colleagues to ensure their thesis is clear and effective before finalizing the draft.

6. Prepare to Defend the Thesis

A committee will evaluate the student’s defense of the thesis’ theories. Students should prepare to defend their thesis by considering answers to questions posed by the committee. Additionally, students should develop a plan for addressing questions to which they may not have a ready answer, understanding the evaluation likely will consider how the author handles that challenge.

Developing Skills to Write a Compelling History Thesis

When looking for direction on how to write a history thesis, Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in History program can provide the needed skills and knowledge. The program’s tracks and several courses—taken as core classes or as electives in multiple concentrations—can provide a strong foundation for thesis work.

Master of Arts in History Tracks

In the Norwich online Master of Arts in History program, respected scholars help students improve their historical insight, research, writing, analytical, and presentation skills. They teach the following program tracks.

  • Public History—Focuses on the preservation and interpretation of historic documents and artifacts for purposes of public observation.
  • American History—Emphasizes the exploration and interpretation of key events associated with U.S. history.
  • World History—Prepares students to develop an in-depth understanding of world history from various eras.
  • Legal and Constitutional History—Provides a thorough study of the foundational legal and constitutional elements in the U.S. and Europe.

Master of Arts in History Courses

Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in History program enables students to customize studies based on career goals and personal interests through the following courses:

  • Introduction to History and Historiography—Covers the core concepts of history-based study and research methodology, highlighting how these concepts are essential to developing an effective history thesis.
  • Directed Readings in History—Highlights different ways to use sources that chronicle American history to assist in researching and writing a thorough and complete history thesis.
  • Race, Gender, and U.S. Constitution —Explores key U.S. Supreme Court decisions relating to national race and gender relations and rights, providing a deeper context to develop compelling history theses.
  • Archival Studies—Breaks down the importance of systematically overseeing archival materials, highlighting how to build historical context to better educate and engage with the public.

Start Your Path Toward Writing a Compelling History Thesis

For over two centuries, Norwich University has played a vital role in history as America’s first private military college and the birthplace of the ROTC. As such, the university is uniquely positioned to lead students through a comprehensive analysis of the major developments, events, and figures of the past.

Explore Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in History program. Start your path toward writing a compelling history thesis and taking your talents further.

 

Recommended Readings

Achieving Your Educational Goals: The Ultimate Guide to Getting the Most from a Master’s Degree
What Can I Do With a History Degree? Defining Different Career Tracks
What Is Digital History? A Guide to Digital History Resources, Museums, and Job Description

Sources:

Writing History: An Introductory Guide to How History Is Produced, American Historical Association
How to Write a Thesis Statement, Scribbr
The Importance of Historic Context in Analysis and Interpretation, ThoughtCo.
7 Reasons Why Research Is Important, Owlcation
Primary and Secondary Sources, Scribbr
Secondary Sources in Research, ThoughtCo.
Analysis of Sources, History Skills
Research Paper Outline, Scribbr
How to Structure a Thesis, Paperpile
Writing Your Final Draft, History Skills
How to Prepare an Excellent Thesis Defense, Paperpile