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Educator’s Guide for Analyzing Timelines 

Applying historical thinking to a timeline means a student can: decode its basic elements (Encounter), master chronological organization (Investigate), and understand the relationship between historical events (Build). Students need frequent experiences with timelines to develop these historical thinking skills.   

The following framework can be used with any timeline. Not all questions need to be answered: choose appropriate ones for your timeline and activity. When answering Investigate and Build questions, encourage students to provide evidence for their answers. 


Activate prior knowledge about timelines. Engage personal knowledge about timelines and how they can be used. This activity may be students’ first exposure to timelines as a representation of historical events. Encourage students to share what is most noticeable about the timeline to activate schema.   

Become familiar with the timeline by finding and interpreting its features. Practice locating and thinking about these features on timelines. Note that not all timelines will contain all features.   

  • Title. Describe this as the “big idea” of the timeline. What questions does it raise?   

  • Time span. Have students look at what years the timeline covers. Is it a large or small time span compared to a year or decade?  

  • Intervals. Notice with students how time is measured and marked within the timeline.   

  • Events. Have students look at the events on the timeline. Describe the kind of events and how they are presented. 


Explore how timelines are organized. Develop students’ understanding of chronology through the use of timelines, as well as the relationships between historical events. Are there other ways a timeline could be organized? Does the graphic representation of moments in time suggest causation between events or simply coincidence?   

Discuss timelines as arguments. The selection of events, as well as the events left out, on a timeline suggest the author’s intent and purpose. What was the author attempting to show with this timeline? Who is the timeline’s audience? For example, compare the timeline in this curriculum with the timeline that appears on the New Hampshire Historical Society’s website. How do they reflect different audiences? For an additional challenge, discuss how the author’s purpose and audience can reflect or create bias, particularly when the events depicted may represent both fact and opinion. 


Reflect on how timelines can be used. Why would timelines be an effective way to convey information? Are there other forms of graphic representations that would be just as effective? Or that would fulfill a different purpose? Use focus questions for the unit or new questions developed by students to drive inquiry to connect the timeline specifically to the objectives of the activity.   

Add to the story. Provide students with an opportunity to exercise their imaginations on the timeline. This activity also allows students to place themselves in history, leading to greater engagement.