Assessment History Uncovering History

DBQs for everyone

In a decade of teaching AP History, first Euro and now World, I have developed an appreciation for the Document-based question.  Students will ultimately forget many of the historical facts that we cover in AP History. The skills developed practicing and writing DBQ should be much more durable and transferable, because students practice in my class and are more likely to transfer them to other classes.  The AP DBQ, in which students interpret ten to twelve primary source documents, mainly text excerpts, in short period of time and then write an essay under time pressure, is an intense experience for students.  I like to say that I can feel the intensity and almost hear the students thinking on DBQ day.

An activity that challenges advanced students seemed out of the reach of regular level, or so I thought.  But, a few years ago I began to realize that this is backwards.  Non-AP history students have almost no incentive to commit historical details to memory beyond a few days, but will need the same critical thinking skills for community, college, and career readiness.  One answer: DBQs for everybody.  Like the AP .

The first DBQ I created for regular World History was like an AP question:  students analyze several excerpts and visuals and write an in class essay, but without a time limit and with a lighter document load.  Mostly using documents about Stalinism from old worksheets and teaching resources from the National Park Service.  I literally copied and pasted nine images and excerpts under a prompt.  A student TA helped me to digitize this recently, and I’ll polish it before the next use.  One thing that stands out to me from this first attempt was my uneven provision of source information.  I was clearly expecting students to do less sourcing analysis than I now expect. I will be adding information on authors as a I revise.  I focused grading on corroboration of sources to support a thesis about Stalinism.  It was a good exercise and I will do it again.

This spring, however, I think that I took this notion up a notch with a couple of deeper, richer assessments.  These assessments–one on communism and the other about Gandhi–used documents that students read throughout the unit, thus adding authentic accountability for this work, along with images they had seen.  Students use the documents to answer historical questions.  I used these writings as evidence of students’ historical thinking, and deployed the full rubric to assess them.  The rubric contains five rows: thesis, evidence, corroboration, sourcing analysis, and historical context.

This is a lot of areas of analysis to do simultaneously, and I converted rubric scores to grades in a way that made the grades a measure of students aggregated, not averaged, historical thinking.  Each act of historical thinking could boost a student’s score.  I assigned the four columns values of 0-3, making fifteen the highest score.  Student scores became letter grades via a 12 point scale.  So, a twelve, three proficients and two superiors, was an A+ (3×2 + 2×3 = 12).  Any emerging historical thinking put a student at a D-.  Six students scored an A+, including two scale busting thirteens, out of about 100 essays.  For the Gandhi essay I made this one notch more rigorous, two=D- and thirteen=A+.  Despite the seeming lenience of such grading it actually produced overall lower scores than the objective final that students took yesterday and today.  Students also had an opportunity to revise.

I will continue developing such assessments in my collaborative team next school year.  Students need to develop critical reading and writing strategies, and history is an excellent setting for this work.  These assignments are authentic to the discipline and allow students to demonstrate analytic work.  The DBQ is for everyone.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

Let me know what you think!

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