Earning Complexity in AP World: The Power of However

A recent YouTube Short uploaded by the amazing Steve Heimler cites the word “however” as the secret to the complexity point on the AP History writing assessments. Although the complexity point is difficult for students to earn, it is possible. Depending on the historical thinking skill or topic being written about, there are some easy frameworks students can use in their arguments to make writing with complexity a habit.

Many of these strategies that I use to scaffold complexity and the power of “however” are embedded in the guideposts that I use to teach historical thinking skills.

Thesis Statements

Although the thesis point does not require a counterclaim or competing claim, I always require it from my students. Complexity begins with the thesis. Whether they start their sentence with “Although,” “However,” or some other qualifier, the thesis needs qualification. The claim and counterclaim/competing claim should be connected to each other through a frameworks for analysis. When students do this well, they produce a complex thesis with strong argumentative tension between the competing claims.

A framework for analysis provides the students with implied reasoning for why a claim is more significant than a counterclaim or competing claim. At its core, it provides structure to the process of prioritizing pieces of an argument. These frameworks and strategies are embedded in how I teach the various historical thinking skills in units one and two.

Of course, the thesis is only the first step. Whether or not a student successfully supports the thesis in the context of a DBQ or LEQ is the next challenge. My examples below come from student work this past year that I have cleaned up a bit in regards to grammar and word choice.


Short-term vs. Long-term

This framework is the most common in my classroom when building arguments around causation. Often, students replace short-term cause with “trigger cause” or “spark” when implying a lack of significance.

Example: Although World War One was triggered by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, this was merely one of several crises in the early 20th century that could have triggered war. Instead, the systemic causes of WWI are the complicated system of alliances that developed out of an increase in nationalism and imperial rivalries.

Internal vs. External:

Depending on the content, the concept of internal versus external pressures can help structure a complex argument. I find this framework best when considering the rise and fall of empires.

Example: Although the dissolution of the USSR was primarily the result of internal ethnic divisions, economic stagnation, and political reform, these trends were exacerbated by the external pressures being placed on the USSR by Ronald Reagan and the United States beginning in the 1980s.


Several DBQ guides and tutorials suggest using a thematic structure. Students should be able to apply these themes easily enough if the themes are present throughout instruction.

Example: Although the Columbian Exchange precipitated the downfall of Pre-Columbian states, the more significant impacts are seen in the cultural syncretism that exchange facilitated and in the establishment of the first truly global economy. These were more long-lasting and had impacts beyond the Americas themselves.


Similarities vs. Comparisons

Comparison tends to be the easiest skill for students to pick up. The challenge is making sure that comparisons are historically significant, or that they reveal insight on an enduring issue, theme, or pattern. Even if a prompt only asks for one or the the other, students should be trained to provide both through competing claims.

Example: Although all states responded to the economic difficulties of the Great Depression through increased government involvement, states differed in their strategies depending on national ideology. Communist states tended to rely on central planning and state ownership of key industries while democratic states preferred to use stimulus and targeted regulations within a free-market system.

Can something be a similarity and a difference?

Often, something that appears to be a similarity can actually be a difference when it is analyzed with a different lens or at a different scale. Depending on the topic or prompt this can be another way to embed complexity into a comparison argument.

Example: Although the Atlantic Revolutions appear similarly “revolutionary” in their application of Enlightenment ideas, in reality they were complicated by significant differences. The role of race in the Latin American and Haitian revolutions pushed the definition of equality beyond that of Europe and North America, while the French Revolution was unique in its anti-religious fervor.

Continuity and Change over Time

Continuities vs. Changes

CCOT tends to be the more difficult skill for students to master as it often requires a particularly large analytical lens. Any CCOT argument should be embedded with both change and continuity since they are always interwoven. In the same way that students struggle with finding significant comparisons, they struggle with significant continuities and changes that can be paired with enough

Example: Although both World Wars reflected similar patterns of European power dynamics and rivalries, the ideologies associated with World War II represented a significant change in the rationales of these rivalries and an increase in the strength and scale of associated nationalism.

Turning Point

Organizing a CCOT argument around a turning point is one of the easier ways for students to show proficiency in the skill. This strategy will not work for every prompt, but it should be one of the CCOT strategies in a student’s toolbox.

Example: Although the European colonialism and imperialism existed as early as Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas, the Industrial Revolution gave it a new sense of power and scale. Industrial technology allowed Europeans to conquer previously unassailable empires and unreachable lands while establishing a scientific and technological justification for political and cultural superiority.

The next challenge is making sure students select the best evidence, connect that evidence to their argument, and provide reasoning and analysis based on the identified skill. This is definitely a larger task than getting them to write complex thesis statements. However, it can be done if the historical thinking skills are scaffolded and take a co-equal place alongside content as the focus of instruction and practice.

Good luck on exams in a few weeks!

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