The Document Based Question

You can think of the DBQ as having three parts; the directions, the question and the documents. The directions are there to help you manage your time. You will be given a "big-picture" question, read it carefully, examine all its parts. Consider the implications of the prompt, don't assume you know what the question asks and inadvertently skip a part. Finally, you will be provided with 9 short primary source documents to cite as evidence in your response. The documents could be political cartoons, or speeches from Presidents and other politicians, or diary excerpts... you get the idea. You'll be given the documents in chronological order—Document A will have been written the earliest, while Document I will be the latest. Citing most (or better yet, all) of the documents is important, but it is critical that you also bring in your own knowledge about the time period.

Success is all about following the process.

Process ... Process ... Process

  1. Read the question 3 times, this will help ensure that you don't miss a part.
  2. Break the question into its parts, underline key words or phrases, circle clue words like
    • Evaluate
    • Compare / Contrast
    • Discuss
    • Explain
    • Illustrate
    • Interpret
    • Predict
    These clue words will help you to determine the focus of your analysis
  3. Now that you understand the question, make a list of prior knowledge. This should be everything you can think of that relates to all parts of the question. A good list is 20 or more items long.
  4. Now read and SOAPS the documents. As you work, make a note on your list of prior knowledge where each document is relevant.
  5. Perform your synthesis and analysis to prepare your thesis. Settle on a thesis and write!

What is analysis?
It is the synthesis of information to arrive at a decision. Your ideas and documents have informed your decision.

What is a thesis?
A thesis is the answer to the prompt or question and must answer how or why.

What is the structure of your essay?

A well written DBQ is at least 5 paragraphs in length.
The introduction should provide some historical background, then transition smoothly to the thesis. Finally, it should briefly discuss the synthesis of ideas that lead to your thesis.
The body of your essay should lay out a logical argument, demonstrating your command of the historical knowledge and the purposeful inclusion of documentary evidence. Cite your documents by referring to the speaker, the document title or if all else fails the document number or letter.
The conclusion must revisit your thesis and discuss your analysis. It is not enough to conclude with "and that's the reason ..." Your conclusion should also be a substantial part of your essay, and even propose a solution to the problem or a course of further action.

Pitfalls to avoid at all costs!

  1. Don't allow your essay to wander beyond the time period specified.
  2. Follow the 50% + 1 rule; use 50% of the documents plus 1 (usually means 5 total).
  3. Don't be afraid to use a contradictory document to your advantage.
  4. If you use subjective terms, like progressive, liberal or isolationist define it in context.
  5. Don't "Plop and Drop" quotes or document references.
  6. Don't explain the document or quote in your essay (we already know what it means), instead use it to support your understanding of the historical context.
  7. The documents are not the history, they only support your understanding and analysis.
  8. Do not write in the first person but do write in the present tense, particularly when discussing documents.
  9. Write as neatly as possible; if your essay is easy to read, the scorer will not have to work as hard to determine the meaning.