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Thinking Like a Historian

3 Strategies for Approaching DBQs and Historical Analysis Writing

Jill Crivelli
Jill Crivelli
Senior Instructional Innovations Specialist
Teaching and Learning Innovations Team






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Writing is often viewed as a summative evaluation of student learning. However, having students practice the skills of constructing a written response is a powerful process that can support historical thinking. We know that students need to be able to defend positions on historical topics and analyze primary sources, as both skills fit squarely in the domains of the C3 Framework and the US literacy standards for history and social studies. But where do you begin?

As a Social Studies teacher, your focus should be on the content of your domain, not on teaching students how to write. There is a balance, though, in teaching students how to respond to Document-Based Questions (DBQs) while keeping the focus on social studies learning.

Consider the following strategies before, during, and after students write responses to a DBQ in order to strengthen their historical analysis skills:

  • Before students write responses to a DBQ, help them practice the skills of categorization and analysis. Using predetermined labels, have students categorize images, objects, events, or ideas to familiarize them with recognizing similarities, patterns, and trends (labels could be topic-specific, i.e., the Vietnam war, or ask students to determine their own).
  • Once they are comfortable with this task, introduce source texts into the activity. Ask students to categorize information in the sources (as references to geography or religion, for example) or to categorize the sources themselves. Consider incorporating these activities into your weekly routine as bell-ringer activities or a recurring “DBQ Day” to focus on these skills.
  • When you are about to assign the first DBQ of the year, consider allowing students to collaborate on the tasks leading up to the response (or perform a “practice DBQ” on a related topic).
  • Review the prompt with students, focusing on what is expected in the response. Have students who hold similar positions on the topic work in pairs or groups to craft a claim and highlight relevant evidence from the sources together. Then have students draft responses independently and share for peer review. As time progresses or as student needs dictate, remove these scaffolds one by one to allow students increased independence as their familiarity with the DBQ process and their skills improve.
  • There are valuable learning opportunities that can happen even after students have submitted their DBQs. Extract a few examples of students’ claims and ask students to evaluate their strength. How precisely did they address the task? What made one claim stronger than another? Such activities can benefit teachers as well.
  • Perform essay score calibration with a PLC or grade-level/content area partner. Together, clarify the criteria from the rubric (What is the difference between a “clear” and “significant” claim? When is the evidence “sufficient?”). Evaluating essays can be just as nuanced as writing them, and both can benefit from collaboration and practice.

The more opportunities students (and teachers!) have to practice these skills in isolation, the less daunting it will be to perform them as part of a high-stakes DBQ assessment. Implementing activities such as these in small increments will provide a safe environment for students to hone their DBQ skills while exercising their knowledge of Social Studies content. By synthesizing these elements, you’ll set them on the path to thinking like historians.

For more ideas on how to incorporate DBQ skills into the Social Studies classroom, check out 10 Activities to Practice DBQs and Historical Analysis Writing.