Chronology: Making it stick

Asking students to understand chronology is part and parcel of any study of the past. Pupils are faced with a range of dates, events, people, periods and are expected to somehow sort them out, put them in order and develop an understanding of the sequence and setting. For many pupils the most basic element of chronology, the sequence, remains a challenge at GCSE and A Level. Here we have a range of activities that help to reinforce awareness of chronology. Some are based on recall of the sequence, some at sense of period.

Reinforcing chronological awareness: the basics, remembering order.

A simple but effective activity is the Washing Line Activity. It sequences events and allows continuities and changes to be identified quickly. These activities reinforce chronological awareness and can be adapted quite easily to turn them into living graph type exercises. Ian Dawson has an excellent overview of this type of active learning on

Chronology Games

These can be engaging and increase retention of knowledge.  Some games that focus on chronological awareness are:

Higher or Lower. This is an incredibly simple but quite effective game. It can be modified to make it a little harder, or more random. Take a series of key dates from a programme of study. Put the dates onto large cards, with the corresponding event on the reverse. Laminate the cards so that they can be reused. Arrange the cards in random order on a board with the events visible to the class. This could be as simple as using blu-tac to secure them to a board. The game is to progress through the cards by saying whether the next date will be higher or lower than the previous one. As events are visible this allows them to try and sequence each pairing of events. This game has featured in many game shows on TV. It can be varied by adding picture clues or additional facts.’ It can also be changed by having the information just on one side. Then as the card is turned from blank to event, the pupil has to recall their knowledge and work out the sequence within a timeframe.

Chronology. Another card based game. The more cards the better, perhaps replicating the suits found in playing cards but replacing clubs etc with relevant historical themes. In Chronology, someone else reads you a card’s topic and then you guess where it goes on timeline, with the first player reaching 10 cards in their timeline winning (if you guess wrong other players take turns to guess and add it to their own timeline). As a result, small groups or pairs are repeatedly checking the sequence of events. If the cards are put in suits based on historical themes, handy for medicine through time, then thematic timelines can be looked at using the cards.

Timeline. Using the same cards as in Chronology.  You are dealt a set of cards and place them onto another players timeline in the correct location. You can be challenged for an incorrect placement and have to pick up an additional card if you are wrong. The winner is the first player to have no cards left.

Chronology. Teaching ideas

A forgotten aspect of Chronology

Chronology isn’t just figuring out sequence. It’s also putting things into the right place in time. This has a broader meaning. It is asking for an awareness of the period, the sights, sounds and smells etc. Clearly the latter two are hard to mimic within the classroom but the sights is reasonably easy to address.

One of the easiest ways is to identify anachronisms in images. It gets pupils thinking about what was ‘in period’ and what wasn’t. There are thousands of images available that illustrate this, indeed, there is a society dedicated to creating them! Durham University offers a brief introduction here, including an easy example and one that is a little more taxing.

The games here provide discreet opportunities for differentiation by task. Chronology, particularly the aspect of ‘making the dates stick’ is pertinent to any study of the past, though is regularly an issue with thematic studies over a long period of time such as Medicine through time.

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