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Strategies for Teaching the

U.S. History DBQ

© 2002 James L. Smith


What is a Document-Based Question?

A Document-Based Question (DBQ) requires students to


write an essay in which the defense of the thesis comes
from an analysis of original source documents as well as
outside knowledge of a specific time period and topic.

How Can a Teacher Best Prepare


Students to Answer a Document-Based Question?

1. Help students feel comfortable with the process of writing.

a. Require students to write often.

b. Use short writing assignments to isolate problems and develop one skill at a
time.

2. Help students feel comfortable with the process of analyzing historical


documents.

a. As a routine part of the class, ask students to analyze charts, graphs, diaries,
paintings, photographs, speeches, political cartoons, etc.

b. Ask students to analyze documents using the acronym APPARTS.

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APPARTS 1

Author

Who created the document?

Does the author have a viewpoint that affects the meaning of the document?

Place and Time

Where and when was the document created?

Do the place and time affect the meaning of the document?

Prior Knowledge

What do you know beyond the information provided in the document?

Audience

For whom was the document created?

Does the intended audience affect the documentʼs reliability?

Reason

Why was the document produced at the time it was produced?

The Main Idea

What is the document about?

What point is the document trying to convey?

Significance

So what? How does the document relate to the topic you are studying?

Why is the document important?

1For more information on how to use APPARTS see the AP Vertical Teams™ Guide for Social Studies,
pp. 16-33. (Available from the College Board at apcentral.collegeboard.com)

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Sample DBQ: To what extent were the laissez-faire policies of the U.S. government in
the 1920s responsible for the Great Depression of the 1930s?

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Writing the DBQ: A Five-Step Process

Step 1: Read the question, making sure you understand all parts of the question.
Sample DBQ: To what extent did differences over the idea of “equality,” as stated in the
Declaration of Independence, lead to the Civil War in 1861?

Step 2: Construct a preliminary thesis statement. The thesis statement should be


a single sentence that answers the question. Create a “Yes / But” chart
that you can use to test your thesis.
Sample Thesis Statement: The idea of equality, as stated in the Declaration of Independence,
was the primary cause of the Civil War.

Step 3: Read and analyze all documents using APPARTS. Circle information that
catches your attention. Jot down outside information. Fill in the “Yes /
But” chart.

Document A
Source: John C. Calhoun, A Disquisition on Government, 1849

It is a great and dangerous error to suppose that all people are equally entitled to liberty. It is a
reward to be earned, not a blessing to be gratuitously lavished on all alike—a reward reserved
for the intelligent, the patriotic, the virtuous and deserving, and not a boon to be bestowed on a
people too ignorant, degraded and vicious to be capable either of appreciating or of enjoying it.

Document B
Source: Abraham Lincoln, Speech Criticizing the Dred Scott Decision, 1857

[The authors of the Declaration of Independence] meant to set up a standard maxim for free
society which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly
labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby
constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of
life to all people of all colors everywhere. The assertion that “all men are created equal” was of
no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain and it was placed in the
Declaration, not for that, but for future use. Its authors meant it to be, as, thank God, it is now
proving itself, a stumbling block to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people
back into the hateful paths of despotism.

Document C
Source: Stephen Douglas, Speech at the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, 1858

Mr. Lincoln, following the example and lead of all the little abolition orators, who go around and
lecture in the basements of schools and churches, reads from the Declaration of
Independence, that all men were created equal, and then asks how can you deprive a Negro of
that equality which God and the Declaration of Independence award to him…. I do not question
Mr. Lincolnʼs conscientious belief that the Negro was made his equal, and hence his brother,
but for my own part, I do not regard the Negro as my equal, and positively deny that he is my
brother…. I do not believe that the Almighty ever intended the Negro to be the equal of the
White man.

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Document D
Source: Chicago Times, Editorial Response to Abraham Lincolnʼs Gettysburg Address, 1863

It was to uphold this constitution, and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave
their lives at Gettysburg. How dared he, then, standing on their graves, misstate the cause for
which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government. They were men
possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to
equal privileges.

Document E
Source: Howard Zinn, A Peopleʼs History of the United States, 1980

Behind the secession of the South from the Union…was a long series of policy clashes
between South and North. The clash was not over slavery as a moral institution—most
northerners did not care enough about slavery to make sacrifices for it, certainly not the
sacrifice of war. It was not a clash of peoples (most northern whites were poor farmers, not
decision makers) but of elites. The northern elite wanted economic expansion—free land, free
labor, a free market, a high protective tariff for manufacturers, a bank of the United States. The
slave interest opposed all that; they saw Lincoln and the Republicans as making continuation of
their pleasant and prosperous way of life impossible in the future.

Step 4: Put everything together. Make final adjustments to your thesis. Select
information to defend your thesis. Acknowledge and prepare to destroy
counterarguments.
Final Thesis Statement: Although some may argue that economic differences led to the Civil
War, the war was caused primarily by political disagreements over the nature of equality.

Yes But
• Calhoun, a spokesperson for the • Not all northerners agreed with
South, did not believe all people were Lincolnʼs views on the Declaration of
entitled to liberty. Independence.
• Lincoln, a spokesperson for the • Some historians see the economic
North, viewed the Declaration of differences between northerners and
Independence as the central idea of southerners as more important than
the United States. philosophical differences over slavery
• The anti-slavery developments of the and equality.
1850s—as seen in the publication of
Uncle Tomʼs Cabin, protests against
the Fugitive Slave Law, protests
against the Dred Scott decision, and
the raid on Harperʼs Ferry—were
increasingly seen as a threat to the
southern way of life.

Step 5: Write the Essay.


Students should take 60 minutes to answer a DBQ. Students should spend 15-20 minutes on
the first four steps. Writing the essay should then take 40-45 minutes.

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Rubric for Evaluating
DOCUMENT-BASED QUESTIONS

Student Name:__________________________________________________ Final Score:________

8 – 9 (High)
a._____ Well-developed thesis that addresses the question
b._____ Considerable specific and relevant outside information to support the thesis
c._____ Effective analysis of a substantial number of documents
d._____ Well-written and clearly organized
e._____ May contain minor factual errors that do not detract from the overall quality of the essay

5 – 7 (Medium)
a._____ Acceptable thesis
b._____ Some specific and relevant outside information to support the thesis
c._____ Effective analysis of some of the documents
d._____ Acceptable writing and organization
e._____ May contain factual errors that do not seriously detract from the quality of the essay

2 – 4 (Low)
a._____ Thesis is nonexistent, confused, or unfocused
b._____ Little specific or relevant outside information
c._____ Little or no analysis of the documents
d._____ Problems in writing and organization that detract from the quality of the essay
e._____ Contains major factual errors

0–1
_____ Incompetent or inappropriate response to the question
_____ Little or no factual information; substantial factual errors

U
_____ Completely off topic; the paper is blank or not turned in

Comments:

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Rubric for Evaluating
DOCUMENT-BASED QUESTIONS

Student Name:__________________________________________________ Final Score:________

8 – 9 (High)
a._____ Well-developed thesis that addresses the question
b._____ Considerable specific and relevant outside information to support the thesis
c._____ Effective analysis of a substantial number of documents
d._____ Well-written and clearly organized
e._____ May contain minor factual errors that do not detract from the overall quality of the essay

5 – 7 (Medium)
a._____ Acceptable thesis
b._____ Some specific and relevant outside information to support the thesis
c._____ Effective analysis of some of the documents
d._____ Acceptable writing and organization
e._____ May contain factual errors that do not seriously detract from the quality of the essay

2 – 4 (Low)
a._____ Thesis is nonexistent, confused, or unfocused
b._____ Little specific or relevant outside information
c._____ Little or no analysis of the documents
d._____ Problems in writing and organization that detract from the quality of the essay
e._____ Contains major factual errors

0–1
_____ Incompetent or inappropriate response to the question
_____ Little or no factual information; substantial factual errors

U
_____ Completely off topic; the paper is blank or not turned in

Comments:

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Helping Students Improve Their Scores on the DBQ

1. DBQ essays with no outside information or no analysis of the documents will receive a score
no higher than four on a nine-point assessment. A thorough analysis of the documents with
an adequate thesis and no outside information will generally receive a four. Students who
add some outside information will generally receive a five or higher.

2. Students should use specific names, terms, and events (i.e., proper nouns) as outside
information.

3. Making an inference from a document can count as outside information.

4. Students should make sure they stay in the time period required by the question.

5. Simply restating what a document is about is not enough. Students should make sure they
analyze documents and make inferences from the documents.

6. Students should avoid writing a “laundry-list” analysis of each document.

7. Students should avoid quoting long passages from the documents; this leaves little time for
analysis of the documents.

8. Students should make sure they keep returning to the main topic of the essay.

9. Students should use the introductory paragraph to define terms, provide historical
background, define the time period, and state points of validation. In most cases, students
should not write an introduction that is too long; introductory information should be kept to a
minimum.

10. Errors in grammar and style are not a serious problem unless they detract from the
comprehension of the essay.

11. Students who make “Yes/But” statements will probably drive their scores into a higher range.

12. Students should refer to documents within the text of their essay (e.g., “According to the
Census Report of 1890 …” or “As evident in John Kennedyʼs Address to Congress in 1961
…”). Note: student scores will not be hurt by referring to documents in parentheses using
the letter of the document (e.g., Document A).