Describing Historical Events

Learning Objectives

  • Describe historical events and use the DCS model to pull out the essential information related to historical events

The DCS Model

To better understand historical events, it’s important to know how to describe, or characterize, historical events, put them within their historical context, and then explain their significance. Description means to describe an event—what happened, where it happened; context means placing it within its given time period to connect it with other events, and significance means determining the importance, consequences, and impact of an event. Consider the following dialogue between two students.

What is DCS?

Chloe: Hey Ruben! How was your history class?

Ruben: I like my class and think it’s interesting to hear some of the stories about how people used to live and the choices they made, but I never know how to study for class.

Chloe: Yeah, it’s a lot of information.

Ruben: How am I supposed to remember all of the details? Am I supposed to just memorize all of the names and dates? You took this class last year, didn’t you? How did you keep track of everything?

Chloe: Yes, I hear you. It can seem overwhelming at times, but my TA taught us a trick that really helped me to remember the key concepts. It’s a mnemonic: DCS. It stands for description, context, and significance. See? I still remember it from last year!

Ruben: Awesome, what does it mean?

Chloe: DCS. Description, context, and significance. Description means to characterize something, or to describe what it is. It means just knowing the basic facts about an event or a person. This is the part where you will sometimes have to memorize things, but just focus on the important things, like the who? what? when? where? And why? For example, if the event were the 2021 Presidential inauguration, the “Who?” would be President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and the “Where?” would be in Washington D.C.

Ruben: That makes sense. And the “Why?” would be because he won the election and then “When?” would be in January 2021 in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

Chloe: Precisely. It sounds like you’ve got that part down. Sometimes for class, you’ll need to remember names and events or even make flashcards to help with some of the vocabulary, but for the most part, you just need to remember the general characteristics about the event. Then you can reference that information in essays, assignments, and discussions.

Ruben: Okay, I’ve got that then. DCS. What did the C stand for?

Chloe: The C stands for the context, or historical context. That just means putting the event into the context of what was going on in the world more generally and connecting it with other events. Like what happened before or after the event.

Ruben: Okay, I can give that a try. The context of the Presidential inauguration was, like I said, that it was happening during the coronavirus pandemic. Just a week or two before the inauguration, some radical nationalists stormed the capitol building. This led to Trump’s second impeachment in the House. There were also a lot of other issues going on in the U.S. related to things like racial and economic inequality. People were also debating about covid relief, how to roll out the coronavirus vaccine, and if schools could return to normal.

Chloe: Yep, that’s good. Try to take it even broader, too. Does it connect to anything else?

Ruben: I’m sure—I’d have to do some more research about what was going on in other areas and countries too. I know that in general, there had been a rise in nationalistic feelings, distrust of the media, and things like that.

Chloe: Perfect, you’ve got it. The last letter in DCS is the S. It stands for significance, as in the historical significance. This just means the importance of the event.

Ruben: Okay, that makes sense. So the significance of the presidential inauguration in 2021 is that it represented a peaceful transfer of power after a tumultuous year. It replaced the Republican President with a Democratic President and the first-ever female Vice President.

Chloe: It sounds like you’re an expert at this already. Thinking about the DCS—description, context, and significance of an event can really help you remember the crucial things for class.

Ruben: Thanks for your help!

Chloe: You bet!

Try It

Answer these questions to review DCS and test your hand at describing a historical event.


The DCS model works best if you can first describe an event. Generally, you’ll want to use multiple sources to help formulate an overall picture of the event and what happened. One way to describe an event is to answer the 5 Ws and How: Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? For example, say the event is the settlement of the Massachusetts Bay colony and the surrounding area. You are instructed to look at these two documents and then describe the event, based on these documents and other information you have about the founding of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies. As you read, search for the answer to the 5 Ws.

Try It: Description

Let’s practice DCS together and use the documents above to help describe the settlement of Plymouth and the beginnings of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.





When? and Where?: