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Using DBQs to Teach History

Buzzle Staff
DBQs, or Document Based Questions, are a great way to teach history using primary sources and asking students to answer a question by synthesizing information.
Document Based Questions, or DBQs, are gaining popularity among history teachers because they make it easy to incorporate primary sources rather than textbook articles into the classroom, and they also make up a good portion of high school Advanced Placement tests. DBQs also ask students to synthesize information to answer a question, which is a skill all teachers want their students to know, making it a perfect activity for English or political science classes as well.

What is a DBQ?

DBQ stands for Document Based Question. It is a packet of primary source material - articles, stories, poems, pictures, quotes, and sometimes even videos - that all go with a certain theme or time period. At the top of these documents is a question that students need to answer using the source material in the packet.
This answer usually takes the form of a research essay where the sources in the DBQ are the sources they use in the paper. Students will usually cite these sources as "Document 1" or "Document 5" based on the order they appear in the packet.

How do you use a DBQ in the classroom?

Using a DBQ in the classroom is really easy. In fact, the most time-consuming part of the process is actually making the DBQ. You'll need to find the articles, poems, quotes, etc. that you'll want to incorporate into the assignment, write the question, and combine it all together for the students.
The first time you introduce a DBQ to your class can be a little time-consuming as well, because the students will have a lot of questions about it. Use the first DBQ as your gauge and do a lot of it in class so you are there to answer the students' questions.
After they get the hang of it that first time, you'll find yourself breezing through them each subsequent time you use them. You can use DBQs to replace a research paper, as an in-class essay exam, or as a multi-draft essay that requires students to edit and add sources as they go. It's a great way to teach the research process, too, without going in to the library.

What are the benefits of DBQs?

DBQs are a popular way to teach a subject in the classroom because one portion of the Advanced Placement test is a DBQ, so when you use them in class, you're actually preparing students for this important test.
It also helps students explore the process of writing a paper and incorporating research without added pressure of finding the sources themselves. DBQs allow teachers to teach using primary sources rather than textbooks, which can get students interested in reading about different time periods or issues because the writing isn't as dry as textbook writing.
It also exposes students to different kinds of literature that they may not be able to read in other classes. Finally, students are usually able to do DBQs at home, on their own time, without much effort on the part of the teacher, so that brings learning outside the walls of the classroom.

Are there any drawbacks to using DBQs?

As with any wonderful lesson, there are drawbacks. You will have to make room in your curriculum if you decide to use DBQs as they take a long time to introduce the first time you do one. It also takes quite a long time to grade the essays, since students are required to use the sources to prove the answer to the question. Of course, it also takes a long time to create a DBQ, but once you create it, you have it for years to come.