If an exam in any subject tests anything, it's your ability to make the subject matter stick in your head long enough to complete the exam.
History exams are true memory busters. Success in them thus depends on strengthening your powers of recall. The best way to do this is not simply to remember names, places, dates, and events, but to remember the context in which these things came to achieve their historical importance.
An appreciation of context is especially important in college-level history courses. Instructors expect that you should not simply be able to regurgitate facts, but to situate these facts in a meaningful context in order to demonstrate your understanding the "big picture."
This emphasis on the "big picture" is one reason history courses can prove devilishly difficult. A cascade of battles, treaties, palace plots, and political maneuvers can overwhelm you if you're not equal to the task of directing this torrent into the tamer course of a historical narrative.
Making a list of important dates, personages, places, battles, and treaties can go a long way toward allowing you to excel in your history course. Instructors will often supply you with such a list. In the event that your instructor doesn't, however, you must take the time to compile this list yourself. You'll be sorry if you don't.
Once compiled, this list may strike you as intimidatingly long -- too long, at any rate, to memorize, let alone to situate in proper contexts. You'll discover, however, that once you review your notes these names, dates, and event will be already somewhat familiar to you.
Using your notes as a guide, begin grouping together terms that belong together -- "William the Conqueror, 1066 A.D., Battle of Hastings, Norman Conquest," for example.
Having grouped your terms, you'll notice that you have the basic elements of a sentence that communicates a historical fact: "William the Conqueror led the Norman Invasion of England, the success of which came with the Normans' victory of the Battle of Hastings that took place in 1066 A.D."
Your object is then to elaborate this sentence into a larger paragraph that demonstrates to your instructor that you understand the historical importance of the historical fact in question. For this you must return to your lecture notes to discover the larger implications. To guide your search it may help to recast your sentence as a question: "What followed as a consequence of William the Conqueror's leading the Norman Invasion of England, the success of which coming with the Norman's victory of the Battle of Hastings that took place in 1066 A.D.?" or "What conditions made possible William the Conqueror's leading the Norman Invasion of England, the success of which coming with the Norman's victory of the Battle of Hastings that took place in 1066 A.D.?"
Studying your notes to find an answer to this question will force you to consider the "big picture." Once you have found contextual information, write a complete paragraph in which you nest the historical fact in this other information. You may find it helpful to adopt a journalistic approach to developing your paragraph. Journalists often use what is known as an "inverted pyramid" style of writing in which they present the facts of the matter first, other important details second, and general background information third.
Once you have written this paragraph, write it a second time in different words. Then write it again in different words. This re-writing and re-wording will not only allow you to refine your understanding of the big picture, it will also help the historical facts to stick in your memory.
Notoriously difficult, history classes require a lot of work. Yet this work pays rich dividends. Not only will you get a good grade, but you'll come away with a greater knowledge of the vast and fascinating tale of the whole of humanity.