How to teach students to write document-based question (DBQ) essays

DBQ (Document Based Question) writing involves a great deal of skill which is difficult to teach students in the limited time period before the May AP exam. However, teaching students the right methods to approach these intimidating essays can bring comfort to their shaking hands. There are two types of DBQ essays: AP U.S. History DBQs and AP World History DBQs. These are similar in design, but require different skills.

AP World History DBQs

In AP World History, DBQs require a slight but not extensive knowledge of the subject matter. When teaching students how to write these essays, one must guide them in format and key points of the essay. The highest score that a World History DBQ essay can receive is a 9, but hardly any students make it past a 7. The 7 however, is a very high grade and is what most students aim for. Here are some tips to guide your students through these essays.

Read the prompt: Make sure your students know exactly what is being asked. Misinterpretation of the prompt can lead to an essay on a different subject.

Skim the documents: Ensure that your students quickly skim over the documents and begin to formulate connections between them.

Summarize the documents: Tell your students to summarize each document in the margins. Note the dates, authors, and points of view of documents.

Outline the essay: 

Allow each student to come up with a relevant thesis that directly answers the question. Use the information from the documents to make a brief outline. There should be an introduction paragraph, two or three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. The body paragraphs should be comprised of the information in a few documents grouped together to provide support for the thesis.

Write it!: Your students should then begin to write the essay using their outline.

Some useful tips for your students to scoring high on the essay are:

  • Include a strong thesis within the introductory paragraph. The beginning of the introductory should include relevant, necessary background information.
  • Address all of the documents within the packet and cite each one as it is used. For example: Document 3 depicts the struggles of the peasants during the time war due to the guerrilla warfare tactics.
  • Support your thesis with the information in the documents. Do not just summarize them.
  • Using the point of view in at least two documents, relate it to the tone of the documents and how they may be biased.
  • Be sure to group the documents in at least 2 or 3 ways which help support the thesis.
  • Identify an additional document that you think can be used and would be helpful. State why it would be beneficial.

Manage your time: You have 50 minutes to write this essay. The first 10 minutes are the mandatory reading period in which you can complete steps 1-3. Spend another 5-10 minutes for outlining your essay (step 4). The rest of the time can be allocated to writing the best DBQ essay possible.

Going above and beyond by using more documents more insightfully and strengthening your argument can get you those 2 extra points for a 9!

If your students may struggle with the essay, look for some samples at:

Most importantly, be patient with them. Many students don’t get this skill the first time, but with plenty of practice and instruction, they will succeed.

AP U.S. History DBQs

AP U.S. History DBQs differ from World History ones in the respect that they require a more extensive amount of prior knowledge. When teaching how to write these kinds of DBQs, emphasize that the students’ prior knowledge can guide them in writing the DBQ, and the documents are merely used for support and evidence. These steps can help you teach your students to become the best DBQ writers possible. Make sure that your students follow these guidelines.

Read the prompt: As with the World History prompt.

Outline your essay: This is where things get a little tricky. Before starting, formulate a thesis and make columns on your ‘scratch’ paper. Separate relevant facts ideas for your thesis from the time period stated into different columns. Let us suppose the question was as follows: When asked “To what extent did the American Revolution fundamentally change American society? In your answer, be sure to address the political, social, and economic effects of the Revolution in the period 1775 to 1800.” In preparing an answer you could separate all relevant information into columns labeled political, social, and economic.

Read and summarize the documents: Summarize all document information in the margins and then add it to your outline. Unlike World History DBQs, grouping is not necessary.

Write it!: Write your essay, following your outline. Only a short introduction with a sentence or two of background information and a thesis is necessary. Follow that with two or three body paragraphs depending on how you separate your columns. Each column should be the topic of each body paragraph. A conclusion is optional, but do not restate information in it if you include one. Use prior relevant knowledge to guide you through this essay and lead you to the highest grade.

A few extra tips:

  • Using a ‘substantial’ amount of the documents (as stated in the AP US history rubric) is about 8 or 9 of the documents.
  • Make sure your thesis addresses the question and is clear. It should be an arguable statement.
  • Date all important events. For example: “The Jay Treaty (1794) impacted foreign affairs with Britain.”
  • Fill your essay with as much knowledge as possible. If it seems like too much information, it’s just right.

Additionally, don’t forget to check online for rubrics for both types of DBQ.

All in all, these DBQs require a lot of skills as well. It is important to be patient with your students, and soon they will be masters of DBQ essays.