No student is too young to work Primary Sources. There are a variety
of age appropriate materials available. The key to success for the student is preparation.
If students are familiar with Primary Sources and have handled them before (and almost all
have), a DBQ will not be a mystery or source of fear. Here are some things to consider as
you prepare students to work with DBQs.
1. Early in the year plan a lesson based upon a single document or
resource. This could be a 1540 map of the world, a diary entry from Plymouth Plantation,
16th or 17th century drawings of Native Americans, or some other item depending on what
and who are teaching. Allow for some observation time, then ask some direct questions
about what they've noticed, why they think it is that way, who was the resource intended
for, whether or not that made any difference in the way it was presented, and so forth. If
you wish, this can be done in groups. Depending on the student's performance this exercise
may be repeated several times.
2. Infuse documents into your regular teaching. Read selections from
documents to the class, make students memorize portions of important documents, ask
questions about documents from the students readings or homework. Remember that maps and
pictures are documents, too. Get the students accustomed to working with primary
3. Early in the year, do a directed essay on a single document or a
comparison of two. Make it analytical. Have the students determine the author's point of
view and why he or she might hold that position. Have them place the document in a time
frame and relate it to events and issues of the day. If using two, compare the authors
differing viewpoints. Try to avoid a simple recounting of the document. That misses the
point of DBQs. The document is support material for thoughts about an issue or time, not
an end in itself.
4. You may wish to try a couple of group exercises using multiple
documents. Each group receives a packet of documents and uses them as an historian would,
drawing both obvious and implied conclusions. With certain students it prepares them to
work with several resources at once.
5. Once students are able to work with documents, introduce the DBQ.
Discuss expectations, the difference between a good and poor answer and how they are to be
graded. Do one for practice and then use the others as part of your evaluative process. Do
not assign them all the time. Every other test cycle or for a particular homework
assignment that lends itself to this format is enough.
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1. Develop a scoring scale that is specific to the question. General
ones are useful starts for example, utilizing a 0-10 scale with two numbers in each of
five categories ranging from excellent to fail. Look for an understanding of issues and
events, logical and intelligent argumentation, sufficient support and detail for the
points made, use of the documents, organization, and writing skills. Decide what you want,
and devise a grading scale. Here is where having answered the question yourself is
helpful, too. Your own answer should be a ten. You may be surprised when you grade to see
some that are better or as good. These should also be tens. Consistency is a must in DBQ
grading. We all like to pull for a nice student who works hart. In this system, if we bump
a real 6 to an 8 for effort, the grading mechanism is meaningless for everyone else.
Reward effort elsewhere. Set a standard and keep it, regardless of the data. Generally,
the 9rst grades are low but most students improve and rise to the expectations.
2. There is one definite wrong approach to answering a DBQ. An
answer is never to be a list of the documents. An essay that runs along the lines
"Document A, by whoever, says this...Document B says this...Document C says
this..." and so on, is a failed essay. It gets no credit, ever. The documents are to
be used in support of an answer to the question asked. They are not the answer.