Teaching the Document Based Question

Back in July, one of my early posts was focused on the importance of teaching source analysis skills early in any history class. My argument was essentially that this strategy helps students gain a deeper understanding of the nature of history, develops questioning and inquiry skills, and gives purpose to content. Once of the most common ways to teach these source analysis skills is, of course, the Document Based Question.

The DBQ reared its head into multiple teaching interviews this past year, with my approach to teaching it becoming a statement of my teaching philosophy and competency. The DBQ is not about teaching content, nor is it about finding the “right” answer. It’s about giving students the knowledge and skill to construct an argument after questioning and analyzing sources. I don’t want the DBQ to become a research essay, nor should it be a content dump where the document citations serve as nothing more than window dressing. This is neither its purpose not its potential.

However, this post is not an argument for the DBQ. Instead, its just a review of the strategies I have found the most success with while teaching it. I am writing this with AP World History in the front of my mind, though most of the strategies apply to any history course that uses the DBQ as an assessment.

Introducing Skills in Isolation

In my AP World class, units one and two are designed around DBQ skills. Students begin with primary source analysis, practice writing and contextualizing thesis statements, and frequently source documents with HIPP. These skills make great lesson activities or exit-tickets to assess content objectives.

Once students get to their first DBQ, the task is more manageable because they have already been introduced to the rubric without knowing it. Since the content of the first two units of AP World does not make up as big a percentage of the exam as later units, this is a great opportunity to introduce skills. Check out some of my posts on AP World lessons, like the one on topic 1.1 or on 1.4 for examples of this!

In a non-AP class working on these skills first offers opportunities for some creative lesson activities, quick and easy formative assessment opportunities, and a chance to show students that “doing history” is more active and engaging than listening to a lecture or memorizing content. These strategies are neither unique nor hugely innovative; they are just the result of trying to systematize many of the little things that too often get lost or forgotten when the craziness of the year gets underway.

Providing Constant Models & Exemplars

Every time my students write a DBQ, I write a DBQ. I generally do this before I assign it so I can predict both where they will struggle and how they might approach their arguments. Besides building trust and solidarity with the students, which is so often undervalued, this tactic allows me to prepare targeted feedback and examples. The feedback is always more effective when it is paired with an example. Saying “You did not explain how the source information you identified extends the argument” makes more sense when they can see three different examples of how I used source information to extend an argument. Year to year I tend to use many of the same DBQs, so realistically I only write one or two a year from scratch now.

Frequent Practice: Formative and Summative

Even after introducing full DBQs I often use thesis writing, contextualization, or a quick sourcing activity as an exit-ticket. Primary sources make their way into my lessons somewhere on a daily basis. The power of constant review and feedback is maybe the most powerful strategy.

I rarely time students on DBQs in class. I have found even my more challenged students able to show proficiency on DBQ skills if they are working without the anxiety that comes with a timer. From the first DBQ, students know the goal is to do everything in an hour. However, I put the onus of practice for speed on them. Occasionally, I have needed to work with individual students on strategies. Generally though, students find they are able to do it after so many months of practice. Over the school-year, my students will write somewhere around a ten full DBQs. I would rather make some “courageous deletions” of my content and squeeze in some extra practice time for DBQ skills any day.

Staggering Assessment of DBQ Points

The first time my students write a DBQ, I only grade them on the first five rubric points. Depending on how they do I may hold them accountable for the sourcing point on the second or third DBQ they write. I never hold them accountable for the “complexity point.” I don’t use a fancy scale or system that takes a 4/7 and turns it into a 75%. I just put in the raw score and give students an opportunity for reassessment, provided they meet the requirements. This has worked for the community of students and parents I work with in International Schools. I can certainly understand a counterargument regarding how this may struggle in public schools.

I still TEACH all the points. However, I have trouble rationalizing holding students accountable for the complexity point when such a tine percentage of students manage it on the exam. Instead I incentivize it with unicorn erasers (unicorn point…because its so rare), one of those silly little practices that has become hugely popular with my students over the years.

My student surveys show that students find this practice fair; especially considering it is paired with the possibility of reassessment. Having students on board with grading policies and letting them see that the grade is truly the result of learning makes my job so much easier and more enjoyable.

Allowing Reassessment

This one may not be for every teacher or every school context. If I still taught in a large Florida public school and had to grade upwards of 140 essays every time I assigned a DBQ, I’d likely rethink this strategy. However, I have noticed that allowing students to reassess encourages them to re-approach both the content and the skills embedded in the task.

I just mentioned that I write DBQs every time my students write one. You might ask, what is to stop them from plagiarizing my exemplar on the reassessment? I simply tell them if they copy me I won’t award points. The reassessment is an opportunity to earn back points, but it does not have to be easier. I have assigned different documents as a part of the DBQ in a handful of moments when needed.

No system, lesson, or strategy is perfect. There are a dozen variables that could be used to rationalize ignoring these or expanding them. The last seven years I have been teaching in International Schools with between 15-30 AP World students every year. This number, combined with significant planning time, has helped make many of these strategies effective. Many of these are easier said than done, especially when pacing starts getting tight and unexpected events cause lost instructional time. In these moments, prioritizing skills and taking a birds eye view of the curriculum will pay dividends!

Leave a Reply