Supercharging the DBQ Essay

The Document Based Question Essay is one of the more ubiquitous secondary social studies assignments in New York, and I imagine, in the US. It is a requirement on both New York State Regents Exams in History, each a graduation requirement, as well as on AP History exams. It’s one of the few things on standardized tests I do not have a problem with, and would use even if there was no test associated with it. While not a truly authentic assessment, DBQs accomplish exactly what most timed assessments should: it simulates the real work of professionals in the field through inquiry. Given that authentic inquiry in social studies takes a lot of time, the DBQ essay provides an appropriate bounded inquiry experience which can be used both as a formative assessment to help students learn more information, but also as means to assess students’ abilities to critically read, construct written arguments, back those up with evidence, access and integrate other knowledge, and write in a clear, organized manner. For the couple hours it takes, DBQs give teachers a lot of bang for their buck.

Since becoming a part of the pilot for new assessments to be used as part of NYC teacher evaluation last January, I’ve been thinking even more deeply about the uses of DBQs. Starting from the brilliant Historical Thinking Matters, the DBQs from the pilot forced students not only to construct arguments based on evidence, but they also asked students to learn to think and read like historians, by presenting them with contradictory evidence about the causation of events. This is something the NY DBQs never do; all documents can be read and used merely as a statement of fact. It also pushes students beyond the thinking of most AP DBQs, which focus on obviously subjective evaluations of the effects of historical actions, as opposed to forcing students to take an objective stand on the causes of events in the face of unclarity and uncertainty. Still, with all sources being primary documents, a key component of the work of modern research was missing.

Last year, it dawned on me that I could use the DBQ structure to teach and assess students’ abilities to evaluate all sources. On a DBQ I constructed about the French Revolution, I threw in a “document” from Wikipedia. I did not want students to simply discard the information — there was really good stuff in there — but I hoped students would question the trustworthiness of the source in writing rather than just citing it as fact (some did). The most astute readers even picked up that there was evidence in another primary document included that contradicted part of the Wikipedia source.

This year, as I put together a senior course that deals with major questions and understandings from government and economics, I’m envisioning using DBQ essays in order to simulate two additional authentic tasks from my students’ lives. One of these uses is a little more obvious: students will have to take a stand on policy matters based on contradictory data, newspaper reporting, and opinion pieces. I’m currently accumulating documents for an essay about the effectiveness of the stimulus for later in the year, and additional ideas would be great.

However, in dealing with seniors, I’m also looking for a way to simulate the experience of a college course, and attempted to construct a DBQ experience to give me an idea of where students are in terms of being ready for that. My first unit looks at identity formation, media literacy, and the connection between the two. So I’m asking students to write a DBQ essay agreeing or disagreeing with the statement, “Individuals‘ identities are created by advertising” using these documents (sorry, it’s a big file). I think this task will simulate the experience of having to take an exam based on course reading. I don’t just want to simulate this experience, though. In order to simulate the lecture hall, I will deliver a formal lecture on models of identity formation, and students will be allowed to use their notes on their essay. The next day, I will attempt to simulate the social aspect of studying in college by splitting up the documents between students, having them read them over, and then share their reading with their classmates. Only then, will students get all the documents, and have a couple of classes to write their essays.

One of the shared practices of my new school is the use of three interim assessments throughout the year using the same rubric in order to track students’ growth and to be able to target instruction to the areas where it’s most needed. This identity essay will be the first of my interim assessments, so I’ll post the data and my reflection on it once I have it in early October, as well as continued reflection throughout the year about addressing these specific skills.

One thought on “Supercharging the DBQ Essay

  1. These ideas look really good. I don’t teach social studies, but I have looked at DBQs because I do teach a pre-AP English class that is often taken the same year that our students take APUSH. I’ll be interested in reading your thoughts on how it went.


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