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What is a DBQ? Using Document Based Questions in hybrid or remote Learning

The Document Based Question (DBQ) is an essay question given to students taking Advanced Placement exams in the history subjects. These history exams covering World, Europe, and US History all have a 90 minute DBQ section. This article discusses how to use document oriented questions, specifically DBQ's, for  quality instruction in hybrid and remote learning environments. In hybrid and remote learning environments, DBQ's excel at flexing students' historical thinking skills because answering them requires students to do critical thinking that goes beyond looking up historical facts on Google.

Mindset for a DBQ

For students who are high school juniors and seniors, the DBQ should be treated as practice leading up to exam day. It may even be timed. Introduce a DBQ every 4-6 weeks to students as a longer assignment to be graded. To younger students who are new to essay writing and historical thinking skills, it's better to give a DBQ  assignment as a quarterly or semester paper. Although DBQ's take a bit more effort to grade, the insight into students' historical thinking skills is worth it. The DBQ’s educational objective is to test the student’s historical writing ability in 4 categories.

The 4 categories are:

  1. The ability to build a strong argument around your document backed thesis statement.
  2. The ability to draw parallels between the documents.
  3. The ability to recall outside historical information to support your points.
  4. The ability to review documents for features including main idea, purpose, audience’s perspective, historical context and author’s opinion.

By evaluating student abilities across the categories listed above, you can know the level of preparation required to get to a 90-minute written essay. For student tips on how to write a good DBQ, you can introduce it with a video like the one shown below.

What does a DBQ teach and why is it important?

One of the main benefits of a DBQ is not only its ability to assess, but also its ability to teach. Document based questions teach valuable document analysis skills that will help each student succeed because a student must look critically at the information presented and draw her own conclusions based on both new information and existing knowledge in order to answer a DBQ well. These analytical and critical thinking skills are transferrable to college and also professional life. Some other benefits are shown below.

Harder to "cheat". Since a DBQ requires one to submit her own analysis on the topic, it is harder to search for the answer online. Although students may look up supplementary information, the content of the essay has to be original. Combine this with some plagiarism detection software like Turnitin and you have a well-functioning environment for remote learning.

Go deep into a unit or period. Assigning a DBQ is also a good way to encourage students to become fully immersed in a topic. For units that are important or have a critical place in history, a DBQ provides the closure at the end of a unit. It can also act as a mini research project for concluding that time period with relevant historical documents. Among the four major historical thinking skills that a DBQ tests, two of them are directly related to documents. By covering a few of these documents and giving students a choice of which DBQ to tackle at the end of a major unit, it gives students a stronger scaffold to infer other documents from that period, even if they have not seen them before.

Ideal for asynchronous learning. Since some schools will operate in hybrid learning environments in 2020 and others will operate primarily online, DBQ's provide quality content that can be assigned as homework. Although there is more grading involved in giving appropriate feedback to student responses, some of the time can be made up in assigning video lessons instead of in-class instruction. Other grading strategies can also include peer review (students grading each other) with a very clear rubric for guidance.

What is the format of a DBQ?

Each document-based question is allocated a grand total of 90 minutes. The first 15 minutes of the DBQ are dedicated to reading the documents and analyzing the material. The remaining time is divided between 2 essay questions, each with a handful of historical documents. The first 10 minutes of each essay should usually be spent reviewing the documents, planning out the essay, and getting an idea of the historical period that these documents belonged to. When an essay has a solid outline and plan it tends to be much easier to put on paper. This gives 35 minutes for writing each essay.

The best way to understand the formatting is to view the question itself. Luckily, Collegeboard® released DBQ samples from 2015 that were graded with the new rubric. The content and format are likely to change every few years. Most recently Collegeboard® created a new AP world history rubric that features some interesting updates.

How is the DBQ scored?

You may find it helpful to review the online rubric by College Board®. For each DBQ that is presented, be sure to also have its corresponding rubric on hand to make the grading process as standardized, fair, and fast as possible.

The DBQ portion of the exam is made of 2 equally weighted essays that count for 25 percent of the total grade. The question is graded by the rubric, which dictates how the writer will be judged using the 4 categories mentioned previously.

Thesis and Argument Development – 2pts

Document Analysis - 2pts

Using Evidence outside the Documents - 2pts

Synthesis - 1pt

This means there are a total of 7 points up for grabs. Having a strong argument with a well-supported thesis is just as important as analyzing the key historical and literary elements. Having a firm understanding of the format and purpose of the DBQ makes it easier to strategize ways to ace it.

8 Student Strategies for Writing an Awesome DBQ

Here is a list of useful tips to make your essay better:

Read the instructions. Obvious but easy to miss if you are unclear on things like timing or how many questions there are.

Thoroughly analyze the documents. As discussed earlier, two of the historical thinking skills are based on the documents. Knowing which historical period you are dealing with and the context of the documents is paramount.

Re-Read the question. Surprisingly common mistakes can be avoided by reading the question two or three times. Especially with a DBQ, re-read the last few sentences to understand exactly what the question is asking. This allows you as a student to stay on topic and write a convincing argument in your essay.

Develop a thesis statement. This is the core of your argument that is usually introduced at the end of the introductory (first) paragraph in your essay. Your thesis statement summarizes your point of view and lays the foundation for what the rest of your essay will discuss.

– Organize your essay. The process of developing your thesis statement (above) should come from an understanding of what the rest of your essay will be about. Planning ahead with regards to the thesis, main body paragraphs (core arguments) and conclusion can take care of the hard parts of writing a compelling essay.

– Begin with a memorable introduction. In addition to having a strong thesis in the introduction, it also helps to have a hook to draw your reader in. This can be a unique perspective on the documents, an unusual argument, or any other appropriate gesture that fits the essay writer.

Use good support and references in your body paragraphs. To make a convincing argument, one of the rubric criteria, the ethos of your essay must by sound. You as a writer must seem credible and one of the best ways to do that is to cite reputable authors or other documents not included in the essay from the same time period.

– Conclude with a re-cap of your argument and your main points.

3 Tips for teachers to grade DBQ's

– Use a clear and fair rubric. The importance of a clear and fair rubric can't be overstated. It makes grading faster, fairer, and more thorough. Knowing what to grade against and telling this to students helps them understand how to improve their historical thinking skills.

Do plagiarism checks for verification. If your online submission portal doesn't have a plagiarism checker built in, you can do a google search of random snippets from your student's essay. If your essays are submitted online, it is easier to do this than if they are handwritten.

Grade for substance. Effectively this means don't deduct points for grammatical mistakes (but do point them out). Focus on grading the content of the essay, the strength, of the argument, references, etc.

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