The DBQ’s Use in the College Classroom

What methods from high school history courses are useful in the college classroom? I’ve been trying to understand how history education in college connects to that of the secondary and primary level. One of the clearest areas of overlap is the Advanced Placement (AP) history curriculum offered in many high schools. These classes culminate with an exam administered by the College Board to assess if a student has sufficient subject mastery to be awarded college credit.

A key part of the AP exam is the Document-Based Question, or DBQ. For those not familiar with AP exam, the DBQ requires students to answer a historical question with a series of short documents that the test provides. For example, a student might be asked to discuss the effects of the New Deal on American society, and be given a series of documents that include parts of legal opinions, political cartoons, photographs, and political opinions (for examples, this pdf includes the DBQs used on the AP exam between the years 1973-1999). Students need to use most but by no means all in order to answer the question. In fact, realizing which sources are useful or extraneous to an argument is part of what the DBQ is assessing.

The DBQ has been part of the AP test since 1973, but until recently the rest of the exam consisted of multiple choice problems and free response essays that focused on content knowledge. However, recent reforms have shifted the test away from being a series of random history questions. Most of the multiple choice questions now require students to draw conclusions from primary sources, graphs, and chunks of historiography (I was impressed looking a model AP test to see that high school students are asked in the multiple choice sections to look at historical analysis by scholars like Mae Ngai and Alan Taylor).

This shift from evaluating purely content knowledge to historical literacy was partly behind the controversy that the reforms have sparked (mostly due to the perceived political bias of such a shift). While college instructors definitely paid attention to the reforms and mostly defended them, less attention has been paid to how we can use techniques from the AP curriculum in the college classroom.

I suggest that something like the DBQ would be useful as semester midterm or exam. One downside of the DBQ is that students need time to read through the sources to determine which would be helpful to answering the question. Given this, I think the DBQ would work best as a take home exam. Since the DBQ requires that the student use a specific set of sources to answer a given question, there is less of a chance that students will plagiarize with a generic essay on a historical topic.

Of course, many college instructors do a variety of things similar to the DBQ. We ask students to analyze primary sources or to include them in research papers. Primary source readers like Major Problems in American History thematically or chronologically sort chunks of primary sources along thematic or chronological lines. However, a set of DBQ documents are not chosen to provide an overall view of something like the era of the American Revolution, but to help students answer a specific historical question.

There are a few possible dangers to using the DBQ as an exam or assignment. By design, students will only be seeing snippets of historical sources, or at least ones cherry picked to be useful to answering a given question. On the AP test, the documents tend to be short, no more than a couple paragraphs. At the college level, these sources could conceivably be longer, but adding too much could lead to a student feeling overwhelmed.

More than the length of the sources, instructors constructing a DBQ would need to make sure to include sources with a variety of different perspectives. The set of documents should allow students to present different answers to the historical question, without the student feeling railroaded into a particular interpretation.

One problem that the DBQ has raised since its inception concerns how much historical knowledge is actually needed to craft an answer. There is a chance that a bright student with good analytical ability/BS skills could scan the documents, use them to answer the question in a cogent way, and know virtually nothing about the historical topic. An instructor using the DBQ approach should be sure to require students to use both the documents and content from the course to answer the question. While the strongest essays in class will probably already do this, it’s important for students to clearly understand that incorporating context with sources is at the heart of the assignment.

Some people might worry that assigning a student a DBQ eliminates the chance for a student to develop the research skills necessary to find their own primary sources. There are some ways to mitigate this. Drawing on his experience teaching AP history, educator Daniel Kotzin has suggested having students create their own DBQ. Kotzin describes how he had students craft a question on the Civil War and then choose sources from the Valley of the Shadow Project in order to answer the question. On a smaller scale, an instructor could require students to use one or two self-discovered primary sources in the essay along with the primary sources given in the DBQ. In fact, already having a set of primary sources might help students reason what type of additional sources might be productive to add.

Obviously the same techniques used in the secondary and primary classrooms education won’t always translate well to the college level. Still, we should be trying to steal from each other whenever possible. Has anyone done something like the DBQ for an exam or an essay assignment? For anyone who has taught AP US History, what are your opinions of the DBQ? How have you had students practice the skills necessary to answer that part of the AP exam?

One thought on “The DBQ’s Use in the College Classroom

  1. The AP is the equivalent of college level studies. When you compare it versus the survey courses, the AP tends to stand out better in my opinion. I’ve already shifted my exams more towards DBQ type questions along with comprehensive essay questions. A mixture of the two is something I’m pushing and the instances I’ve done this have had some interesting results.

    A key factor here is time limitations. The more emphasis put on essay questions, the more time required for them to be answered. What I have done so far is to give the students a primary source and ask them questions about it that connect to the course content. Then I ask an essay question involving the primary source which is sort of subjective. This can also reflect back on how well the instructor has delivered the content.

    We can be very creative with the exams. I focus heavily on the learning-based environment and my exams tend to reflect that approach. The use of a DBQ fits right in with that concept. However, for this to work out well, documents need to be given to students throughout the course to work with that fit in with the course content. I also do this with formal essay assignments which help prepare them for the exams.

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