DBQs Aren’t Just for AP Students!

Michael Ochs is a history/social studies teacher at Chaminade College Preparatory School in West Hills, CA and a longtime TeachRock user. Recently, Michael contributed two Document Based Questions to Teachrock.org (available here and here), and we’ll be publishing two more of his DBQs in coming weeks as well. In the following article, Michael discusses how DBQs, which are most often associated with Advanced Placement History courses can be an excellent teaching tool, even outside of AP classrooms.


DBQs Aren’t Just for AP Students!

By Michael Ochs

With the approach of the Advanced Placement exams in early May, many teachers and students are scrambling to find the best way to approach the DBQ (Document-Based Question) essay. In 60 minutes, students are required to analyze a number of primary source documents, formulate a thesis that responds to a prompt and write an essay that uses the documents and the students’ own knowledge to support their thesis. The rubric awards points to students for demonstrating important historical thinking skills. These include contextualizing the time period, examining the bias of primary sources and supporting a thesis with evidence.

These skills are vital for all students, not just AP kids. History teachers can adapt DBQs to help their students meet the C3 and Common Core standards for historical thinking skills like use of evidence and argumentation. Here are some ways that teachers can incorporate DBQs and their accompanying documents into their curricula:

  • The group DBQ: Rather than writing a timed essay, students will work in groups of three to collectively write a DBQ essay. Every student will read the prompt and the documents. This should take roughly 15 minutes. Students will then discuss and write a thesis statement that responds to the prompt. They will also determine the topic sentences of each of their body paragraphs. Each student will then write one of those body paragraphs, incorporating two or three of the documents from the packet.
  • The cocktail party: After reading background information on the topic, divide the documents amongst your students. Give them eight minutes to read their individual document and determine how it contributes to their understanding of the topic. Who wrote it? Is there an evident bias to the document? Is there significance to where, when or how it was created? After the eight minutes are up, students will mingle and tell one another about their documents.
  • Document analysis: Assign students one or two of the documents in the packet. They will use the HIPPO process to analyze the document. (HIPPO chart hand-outs can easily be found online or students can use a blank piece of paper.) They will determine:
    • Historical context: When was the document produced? What major events were happening at the time? Were there any major social or cultural movements happening at the time?
    • Intended audience: Who was this document intended for? Does the intended audience change the way students read the document? If so, how?
    • Point of view: Who is the author of the document? If students do not know the specific author, what can they infer from the context? Is the perspective of this author significant to students’ understanding of the document?
    • Purpose: Why was this document created? Was it meant to persuade? To inform? To change the law? How does the purpose of the document change the students’ understanding of the document?
    • Outside information: What do students already know that helped them understand the meaning of the document? Does it connect to another period of history?
  • Support the thesis: The teacher will write a thesis statement on the board that responds to the prompt. Students will then work in small groups to read and analyze the documents. For each document, students will need to discuss how they would use each document to support the thesis.

Finding creative ways to adapt the DBQ for all learners can help students learn important historical concepts like perspective, evidence and argumentation. In addition, developing historical literacy skills helps students to appreciate history as a lived experience, rather than simply a series of events written in a textbook.