Causation in the AP Histories

7 min readjune 24, 2020

Jennifer Dumas

Jennifer Dumas

AP World History: Modern 🌍

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📘College Board Description

Causation is one of the historical thinking skills focused on in AP World History.  Understanding causation is important, as much of AP World History deals with understanding the causes and effects of historical developments and/or processes.
The causation historical thinking skill asks students to examine the following:
  • The causes and effects of a specific historical development or process
  • The relationship between causes and effects of a specific historical process or development
  • Understanding the difference between primary and secondary causes and between short-term and long-term effects
  • The relative historical significance of different causes and/or effects
The purpose of this study guide is to examine each of the above reasoning skills in a bit more detail.  So, let’s get to it!

Causation Historical Reasoning Skills

🔗Causes and Effects of a specific historical development or process

In terms of causation reasoning skills, this is what we might call the “base level” skill.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that it is easy, but that this is the first level of understanding causation.  
When College Board asks you to find the causes and effects of a specific historical event or process, what they want you to do is to identify SPECIFIC causes and/or effects of said event or process.  No generalizations here!  
For example, if you are asked to find a cause of World War I, you couldn’t just say relationships between countries - that is too vague.  In all honesty, anybody could say this about any war, and it would be true. This doesn’t show that you know the specific causes of World War I.
So, Instead, say a cause would be entangling alliances.  You see, entangling alliances are specific to World War I, and this shows College Board that you know exactly what you are talking about when it comes to one cause of World War I.
💭Practice:  See if you can find the causes and/or effects of ONE of the following events or processes
  • The rise of Islam (process) 
  • The Opium Wars (event)
  • The Russian Revolution (event)
TIP:  To help you identify causes and effects, it’s really beneficial to use some type of graphic organizer that will help you organize your information.  The easiest one to use, and one of the most effective, for causation is a simple C/E chart

🤞The Relationship between Causes and Effects of a specific Historical Event or Process

When looking at the relationship between causes and effects of a specific historical event or process, College Board wants you to go beyond simply identifying a cause and/or effect.  It wants you to be able to EXPLAIN the “why” behind the cause or effect.  
Simply put, it’s the next step in the causation process.  First you have to identify the cause and/or effect, and now College Board wants you to explain WHY something is a cause of the event/process, and/or WHY the given effect happened.
💭PRACTICEBreaking curfew😳😨😱
So, it’s 11:30 on a Thursday night, and your curfew was at 11:00.  You knew you had to be home at 11:00, but you were hanging out at the coffee shop with your friends, and simply lost track of time.  When you walked in the door to your dwelling at 11:30, your parents were standing right there, and within 2 minutes they had taken your cell phone and grounded you for a week.
In this case, breaking curfew was the event.  The cause - losing track of time. The effects - losing your phone and being grounded for a week
Now that we have identified the cause and effects, we have to explain the “WHY” or the “HOW”
WHY did you break curfew
  • You lost track of time
  • Left cell phone in your car
  • So busy talking, you forgot to ask your friends what time it was
  • No clock in the coffee show
Why did you lose your phone and get grounded
  • Parents felt that if you couldn’t responsible for your phone, then you shouldn’t have one
  • If you couldn’t be responsible enough to keep track of time at the coffee shop, then you shouldn’t be going to the coffee shop
See how the causes and effects are related? And that you’ve done more than just identify the cause and effects - you’ve EXPLAINED the why behind both.

🧠Understanding the difference between primary and secondary causes and between short-term and long-term effects

Ooooh, now we are getting into the nitty-gritty of the causation reasoning skill. So far, we have learned how to:
  • Identify a specific cause or effect
  • Explain why something was a cause or effect
Now, we need to dig a little deeper, and differentiate (recognize) the difference between primary and secondary causes, and recognize the difference between short-term and long-term effects.

Primary cause

The principal, the main cause of an event or process

Secondary cause

A less important cause of an event or process

Short-term effect

An effect that happens a short-time after the event/process

Long-term effect

An effect that happens a significant amount of time after the process/event
💭Practice:  Let’s take a look at World War I and see if we can identify both primary and secondary causes, and short-term vs. long-term effects
World War I
Primary Cause
Secondary Cause
Short-Term Effect
Long-Term Effect
The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand
Military build-up in European countries
The ending of the Ottoman Empire
The rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis
In the above example, the primary cause of World War I was the assassination of the Archduke. His murder caused Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia, and from there, the rest of Europe exploded into war
A secondary cause of World War I was the military build up in most European nations. Though this was not the MAIN cause of the war, the military build up led most European nations to believe that if they went to war, they had a strong enough military to be successful.
For the short-term effect, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire happened in 1922. World War I had weakened the empire to such an extent, that it simply couldn’t recover.  As well, the division of Ottoman territory among the victors ensured its collapse
The rise of Hitler and the Nazis was a long-term effect of World War I because it happened nearly a decade after the end of the war. And, it was the Treaty of Versailles, that came out of World War I, and the conditions placed upon Germany, that allowed a leader like Hitler to gain the support and backing of the German people. 
Does this make sense? Want to take a shot at applying this skill?  (Get it? Shot? Like the archduke got shot? 😂)

The Historical Significance of Different Causes and/or Effects

And here we are, the final step in the causation thinking skill process, at least for AP World History.
You will often hear, or be asked, about why certain events or people or causes/effects are historically significant.  Well, to be able to answer that, you have to know what historical significance means
Historical Significance, to College Board, means “why should we care” or why is this important, or noteworthy, in history.
For you, this means you will have to be able to explain, usually through discussions or essays, why the causes, or effects, of a specific historical event or process matter.  Why are they important to know? How will they impact future history?
Let’s take a look at the long-term effect from our example on World War I.  One long-term effect of World War I was the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany.  So, I ask you: why is this important to know? Why was it significant in history? Why should we care?
Well, let’s answer that, in a variety of ways.  That is what’s so cool about historical significance - there usually isn’t just ONE simple answer
  • The rise of Hitler the Nazis led to the Holocaust - a mass genocide that led to the deaths of 11 million innocent people. As a result of the Holocaust, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created by the United Nations, guaranteeing human rights to almost every human on the planet.  That’s significant
  • The rise of Hitler and the Nazis led to the destruction of a large part of Europe and Asia, leaving two main superpowers standing after the war:  the United States and the Soviet Union. Due to differing viewpoints on government and economic decisions, a 45 year Cold War impacted nearly every nation of the world between 1945-1990.  That’s significant
In the end, determining historical significance is the highest-level causation reasoning skill that you will have to do. It will require you to apply all the other causation reasoning skills in order to determine the importance of an event or process.
💭PRACTICE:  Explain the historical significance long-term historical significance of the Korean War, 1950-1953
So that’s it for the Causation historical thinking skill in AP World History. Hopefully you have found this guide informative and it hasn’t “caused” you any anxiety (do you find that punny?!). Thank you for taking the time to read this, and good luck on the exam!
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🐎Unit 1 – The Global Tapestry, 1200-1450
🐫Unit 2 – Networks of Exchange, 1200-1450
🕌Unit 3 – Land-Based Empires, 1450-1750
🍕Unit 4 – Transoceanic Interactions, 1450-1750
✊🏽Unit 5 – Revolutions, 1750-1900
🚂Unit 6 – Consequences of Industrialization, 1750-1900
💣Unit 7 – Global Conflict, 1900-Present
🥶Unit 8 – Cold War & Decolonization, 1900-Present
✈️Unit 9 – Globalization, 1900-Present
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