Preparing Students to Answer A DBQ

By Alice Grant
Pelham Memorial High School

Published in NYS4A Newsletter
Fall 1998

Grading the DBQ

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 resources.

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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Grading DBQs:

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.        


Teaching With Documents

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