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History Writing: DBQ Essays


While it’s true that DBQ (Document-Based Question) essays appear on the NY State Regents and AP History Exams, teachers—esp. history teachers—of EVERY grade should see them as a tremendous tool for teaching both content and critical thinking skills.

The "DBQ Approach" is as follows: Give students multiple documents (including various sources such as letters, paintings, political cartoons, articles, and texts of speeches, among others) to interpret and use in response to a question.  Students must then build an ARGUMENT using the documents as EVIDENCE.  Sound familiar?

Indeed, DBQ essays require many of the skills involved in writing a research paper: close reading and analysis, inference, summarizing, and synthesizing ideas.  But in this case, the teacher provides the research and the driving question.  So DBQ essays are like research papers with training wheels, or "add-water-and-stir" research papers.  And teachers of ANY grade can take the DBQ approach.  Because you control the question and the documents, you determine the difficulty of the assignment.  And as always, it’s good practice to model what you’re looking for before you ask students to tackle it independently.

Here are a few sample questions from “DBQs Main Page,” an AP History Website that offers more than 70 student- and teacher-created DBQs, along with general Websites for DBQ research:

“World War II was more important than the Great Depression in fundamentally transforming American society.  Assess the validity of this statement based on your knowledge of American society between 1930 and 1945 and the documents below.”   (by Mr. Steven Mercado, Chaffey H. S., CA)  (Found at: http://www.historyteacher.net/2001DBQsMainPage.htm)

“One of the ironies of World War I was that in a war 'to make the world safe for democracy,' the government attacked the civil liberties that make democracy possible.  Assess the validity of this statement.”  (Found at: http://www.historyteacher.net/2000DBQsMainPage.htm)

Here are a few more resources to check out:


Here are some additional helpful research-oriented Websites, which in turn contain links to other useful sites (Many thanks to Mitch Brenner at KIPP-Infinity for these leads!):

The keys to success on DBQ essays are the same keys as on any other essay: you have to 1) build an ARGUMENT and 2) support it with EVIDENCE.  And of course, in order to do that, you have to COMPREHEND the texts that you’ve read.  Check out Writing 101 for more on fundamentals of writing instruction, Comprehension 101 for more on how we comprehend, and Research Paper Guide if you want to move in that direction.  

For support on how to teach students to build "quote sandwiches" (context, evidence, and explanation), check out these TLC Blog posts on quote sandwiches.


***RELATED WORK: If you're interested in MOCK TRIALS, here's a link to a Mini-Mock Trial Manual.  (Thanks to George Mankbadi at Paul Robeson CSH for this link!) 

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