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Assessment Practice Analysis

Project Overview

Project Description

Analyze an assessment practice. This could be a description of a practice in which you are or have been involved, or plans you have to implement an assessment practice, or a case study of an interesting assessment practice someone else has applied and that you would find beneficial to research and analyze. Use as many of the theory concepts defined by members of the group in their published Work 1 as you can, with references and links to the published works of the other course participants.

Icon for The DBQ: A New Direction in the Field of History Assessment

The DBQ: A New Direction in the Field of History Assessment

Historically Problematic: The Memory-Based Legacy of the Traditional History Test

The Calvin and Hobbes cartoon above demonstrates a core problem with the traditional history/social studies  exam. Most public school students can likely recall many occasions on which they were asked to memorize countless tidbits of information for a test, as well as their level of success or failure with this task. Calvin(pictured above) has little difficulty with the exercise, but also declares it to be a waste of his academic potential. For every student like Calvin, however, there is one like this, who struggles significantly:

It is not uncommon for many students of this discipline to view it as an "endless parade of names and dates" (Grant, Gradwell and Cimbricz 337). Most fail to see its true potential as a subject filled with debate, conflicting perspectives, and almost-magical uncertainty. Unfortunately,the tendency to simplify history and rely on easy-to-grade multiple choice and short answer questions is a systemic problem. As of 2010, half of the states in the U.S. required a state-wide test on history of some kind. All of these included a multiple choice component, and thirteen of these(over half) consisted entirely of multiple choice (Martin, Maldonado, Schneider and Smith 35). 

With the emergence of the Common Core State Standards, however, approaches to history assessment are taking a turn towards the more authentic. Many history teachers are viewing the rise of these standards as an opportunity to change the typical testing methods. The Document-Based Question(DBQ) is one example of a technique that is being utilized to have students "do" history, as opposed to consume and regurgitate it. This work will outline the history of the DBQ, touch upon its philosophical and pedagogical influences, explore how it can be used with students of varying ability levels, examine how technology can support it, and analyze its overall efficacy. 

Document-Based Questions Defined and Described

The Document-Based Question was born in 1973, as the brain child of College Board Development Committee members Stephen Klein and Giles Hayes. Both Klein and Hayes "wanted students to be 'less concerned with the recall of previously learned information' and more engaged in deeper historical inquiry" (Henry,"The DBQ Change..."). Essentially, they were sick of students repeating what their teachers and textbooks had previously told them about a topic. Instead they wished to see a test-taker become a miniature historian during the text, and employ the skills of a professional "in sorting, weighing, and evaluating data" (Henry, "The DBQ Change...").

Initially known only to Advanced Placement (AP) history students, the DBQ "asks students to read 10 to 12 documents, formulate a thesis on their basis, plan an argumentative essay, compose that essay, and then proofread it for clarity, coherence, and correctness"( Breakstone, Smith and Wineburg 54). The documents seen on a DBQ, it should be pointed out, are typically rather short, and many include items, such as maps and political cartoons,that do not have much text at all. On an AP Exam DBQ, students are given only about 45 to process the instructions, read and analyze the documents and generate their essay. Here is an example of a prompt and some accompanying documents a student would be likely to encounter during such an experience:

This classic version of the DBQ remains a core part of AP history exams given each May, and the preparation for this component of the test consumes much of the instructional time in upper-level high school classsrooms across the nation. Within the past fifteen years or so,however, versions of the DBQ experience have been seeping into other non-AP environments as well. More scaffolding, more generous time constaints, and flexibility in output(debate notes as opposed to a full-fledged essay, for example) are key characteristics of these types of DBQs. The implementation of DBQs in real-life classrooms will be investigated in more detail later in this work. 

Theoretical Influences

Proponents of DBQs are quick to point to the many well-established educational best practices and pedagogical paradigms the model embodies.

Process-Oriented Performance Assessment/Authentic Assessment

One of these is process-oriented performance assessment, which "includes assessment of the student's learning process as well as the exhibition of an artifact created as evidence of learning in the form of a product or performance" (Fales). This defintion suits Document-Based Questions because students must learn a rather formalized process in order to be able to construct the final product: the essay. Process-oriented performance assessment is sometimes termed "authentic assessment." Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, the father of this technique,developed six characteristics of an authentic task. The task must be:

  • realistic
  • judgment and innovation-based
  • centered around students "doing"
  • a simulation of how adults are tested in the "real world"
  • complex enough to assess a student's ability to use knowledge and skills
  • based on rehearsal, practice, feedback and refinement (Grant,Gradwell and Cimbricz 318).

The Document-Based Question is intended to recreate the work that true historians undertake, but it also seeks to emphasize "the skills of a thoughtful citizenry capable of using factual data to formulate and defend ideas"("Authentic Assessment..."). Because of these ideals, it is a practice which may be classified as having the guidelines of authentic assessment at its core.

Rubric-Based Assessment

One of the key tools used to support authentic assessment is a rubric, which is meant "to evaluate complex and subjective tasks" (Crane). Among the advantage of rubric-use are the facilitation of formative assessment, the promotion of student participation and self-assessment, and the setting of clear expectations (Crane). Below are just a couple of example rubrics used to score DBQs. It is often at the teacher's discretion to develop a rubric they find suitable for their students when using this process.

Social Constructivism

Another theoretical influence on the DBQ process is that of social constructivism, which is "linked to Vygotsky’s theories and beliefs about the role society plays in educating its youth" (Clabough 34). Social constructivism posits that learning does not occur in isolation, but that a learner gathers knowledge and information about the world though his/her interactions with others. Because DBQs involve working with primary sources, the Vygotskian ideals are embedded in the process in the following way:

Social constructivism captures the concept of scaffolding that a teacher will have to use when introducing and training students how to analyze various sources. After this initial process of using primary sources is modeled in the classroom, students will be engaged in discussion of analyzing and constructing meaning of primary sources.(Clabough 34-5).

Essentially, because of its demanding nature, the work of a DBQ is one that requires collaboration and building of knowledge as a team between teacher and students.

Educator and Pupil Roles

Indeed, the DBQ is a practice that somewhat flips traditional roles of instructor and learner on their heads. The teacher's primary responsibility in teaching the DBQ is to model organized and systematic approaches to analyzing documents. Then, they must demonstrate how to craft arguments supported by inferences made about the documents. The DBQ teacher never tells students what to think, but rather teaches them how to think historically.

The lion's share of the work, then, lies with the student. They must apply the methods of critical thinking and persuasive writing their teachers have worked to help them develop in the context of the particular question they are attempting to answer. In other words, their teacher might have helped them interpret a document about the building of the Great Wall of China through a think-aloud, but they will have to utilize the same patterns and approaches when they encounter a document about warfare in ancient Sparta. The student must also work to build confidence in his/her ideas because the DBQ demands that each individual take a stand. As the class plunges further into the process, the teacher becomes very much a "guide on the side" (as opposed to a "sage on the stage"). 

Let's Get Writing! DBQs in Practice

The days of the Document-Based Question existing only in Advanced Placement high school classrooms are over. The DBQ Project is an Evanston, IL company created by two former teachers that works to bring the process to the masses. By creating binders of their own materials(including documents,questions and support materials), and offering teacher workshops, co-founders Phil Roden and Chip Brady have helped bring the DBQ to well over a hundred school districts throughout the country, including Chicago Public Schools and the Los Angeles Unified School District. Here is a video in which the company's philosophy is discussed and various techniques and tools they provide are shown:

The DBQ Project stands by its philosophy that anybody can think critically and clarify that thinking through writing. Mark Quinlivan, a social studies coordinator in Laramie, Wyoming, describes his community's success with the model: " We have been able to successfully use these materials with students in grades as low as fourth. Students like the openness of many of the dbq questions because it allows them to form their own opinions without a definite right or wrong answers."

Developing an age-appropriate process and tasks is key to undertaking the Document Based Question successfully. The below table provides some examples of how teachers at various grade levels might set up and execute the DBQ with their students:

Fourth Grade
  • Single paragraph responses
  • Simply worded questions("How has the role of women changed since colonial times?")
  • Primarily picture-oriented/limited-text documents
  • Guiding questions provided as part of the document interpretation phase
  • Four to six documents


Colonial Women DBQ

Railroad DBQ



  • Student debates on the central question(students prepare argumentative points and potential rebuttals) as opposed to essays
  • Group essays(collaborative crafting of thesis, introduction, and conclusion paragraphs, individual creation of body paragraphs)
  • Begin introduction of documents with bias, documents that involve data analysis (charts and graphs)
  • Six to eight documents


Dust Bowl DBQ

Columbus Day DBQ debate
Tenth Grade and Beyond
  • Students craft individual five-paragraph essay responses and self and peer-edit using rubrics
  • Students may develop their own DBQs and write responses to these
  • Ten to twelve documents
  • Rigid time constraints may be present (i.e. documents analyzed and essay created over one single class period)



Mongols DBQ

Techological Implications

Although the DBQ predates the digital age and the constant availability of devices and internet-access, the teaching of the process is not immune to benefits these technologies can provide. One simple way that computer-mediated classrooms may be better equipped to handle the DBQ process is due to the access they have to resources to support them in this endeavor. Everything from YouTube tutorials on how to teach the process step-by-step to sample DBQs and student responses can be located with a quick Google search. No longer must a teacher necessarily dedicate his/her personal time to attend workshops on DBQs, s/he may essentially teach him/herself at home.

Additionally, there is a new wave of "digital DBQs" that use tablets and other such equipment to make the intepretation of documents more natural. Instead of traditional paper copies, students can view documents on a screen, and using apps such as iAnnotate and Explain Everything develop multimodal interpretations to later use as they craft the finished project. Sabba Quidwai, who has had experience as technology coordinator and social studies instructor, explains her view on why these new tools can deepen student understanding: "Prompting students to record... forces them to elaborate beyond [written] summaries, and sharing the screencasts as a class helps students identify and evaluate different points of view" (Toner). Quidwai is so passionate about the potential for the digital DBQ that she and a partner have developed and published an eBook on the topic.

The internet also creates the potential for the DBQ process to become even more student-centric. Daniel Kotzin, a high school teacher in Baltimore, had his students create and answer their own DBQs using the web. Citing the fact that the "availability of primary documents on the Civil War, particularly on the World Wide Web, is limitless" Kotzin explained that having students conduct their own research was a game-changer (488). "Teachers can pass out primary documents for students to examine the voices of poeple who lived through the Civil War, " writes Kotzin, "but nothing can compare to students discovering those voices themselves"(492). 

One final way that technology can shift the DBQ practice is by enhancing opportunities for collaboration. Google Apps for Education provides a plethora of tools that can allow for students to engage in the DBQ process as a team. Last year, for example, my sixth grade social studies students used Google Docs to create group essays on the topic of Alexander the Great. Google Docs allows for the real-time creation and alteration of writing pieces. Each individual on a three-person unit was responsible for building one solid body paragraph, and collectively they created intro and conclusion paragraphs and edited and proofread for clarity. Although I had done the same activity last year, I was more impressed with the quality of the essays this time. This, I believe, was partially because the students struggling with the concepts could see peer examples of how the writing should be structured. Having students write group essays on paper(as opposed to computers) would've been a slower and more logistically complicated task. 

Collaborative Essay Utilizing Google Documents

Strengths and Weaknesses

As alluded to before, the DBQ process has many factors working for it. These include:

  • its flexibility. Teachers of students of all ages can adapt the process to be suited to their age and ability level.
  • its emphasis on authentic historical work. Discovery and analysis, as opposed to memorization and repetition, are prized.
  • its promotion of logical thinking skills. Students must construct arguments based on reasoning.There are no easy right or wrong answers, students are forced to decide for themselves.
  • its support of critical reading and writing skills. Informational texts and argumentative essay structure are utilized.
  • its belief in the value of historical empathy. In order to truly interpret documents effectively, students must look at things from the perspective of historical figures.

Of course, no pedagogical practice is completely without flaws, and there are indeed some issues to contend with when it comes to DBQs. These are:

  • its time-consuming nature. Scaffolding the process effectively and teaching students to analyze documents, craft theses, and write well-structured pieces is no small undertaking. Even if students are younger and are not writing full-blown essays, the process requires deep-thinking which takes time to model and practice.
  • its cost. If schools want to implement a program like The DBQ Project, it will be quite expensive. Binders full of resources can cost $350 each. Although the internet can yield many free resources, it might be difficult to find enough for multiple DBQs to be used at various points throughout the school year.
  • its potential exclusion of students with severe disabilities. Students in a classroom with significant learning delays might be completely overwhelmed or unable to engage in the process. Although it can be differentiated, the basic skills of reading and writing are relatively non-negotiable.
  • its only parital authenticity. Although it beats multiple choice  and true/false questions, the work students undertake when doing a DBQ is not completely the same as the tasks a historian undertakes. Some may argue that because DBQ features "a weakly articulated writing task" and "the preselection of documents," it is not a fully geniune historical learning experience(Grant, Gradwell and Cimbricz 337).

One element of the DBQ that could be argued as either a strength or a weakness is its challenging nature. Students and teachers alike, upon first encountering the job at hand, are likely to be a little skittish. There is patience required to use Document-Based Questions, and often a class must try three or four of them before they truly gain their stride. It can be a discouraging journey at times, but if teachers and students alike are willing to exhibit grit throughout, the payoff can be very powerful and rewarding because of the amount of struggle involved. 

Concluding Thoughts

The ability to read and understand a variety of sources on a topic, formulate an opinion on a controversial topic based on these sources, and synthesize a coherent argument generated by this opinion is a skill set worth having. It is of particular import in a democratic society. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, "Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education."

Document-Based Questions have this notion of teaching students to "choose wisely" at their core. Although there is room for improvement to the model and it can be extremely daunting to students and teachers alike when first introduced, it offers a far more authentic experience than traditional history assessments(which have often been centered around the rote memorization of "facts" instructors have deemed important). With technology paving the way to a more engaging and collaborative experience, the timing to dive into DBQs has never been better. 

Works Cited

"Authentic Assessment: Best Practice Alignment." Authentic Assessment: Best Practice Alignment. The DBQ Project, n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2014. <>.

Breakstone, Joel, Mark Smith, and Sam Wineburg. "Beyond The Bubble In History/Social Studies Assessments." Phi Delta Kappan 94.5 (2013): 53-57. Education Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 24 Sept. 2014.

Clabough, Jeremiah Curtis, "Educators’ Perceptions about the Uses of Primary Sources in Social Studies Classroom. " PhD diss.,University of Tennessee, 2012. <>

Crane, Malgorzata."Rubric-based Assessments". Scholar, 22 September 2014. Web. 24 September 2014. <>

Fales,Daniel. "Process Oriented Performance and Product Based Assessment". Scholar, 22 September 2014. Web. 24 September 2014. <>

Grant, S. G., Jill M. Gradwell, and Sandra K. Cimbricz. "A Question Of Authenticity: The Document-Based Question As An Assessment Of Students' Knowledge Of History." Journal Of Curriculum & Supervision 19.4 (2004): 309-337. Academic Search Complete. Web. 24 Sept. 2014.

Henry, Mike. "The DBQ Change: Returning to the Original Intent." AP Central. The College Board, n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2014. <>.

Kotzin, Daniel. "The Internet As An Opportunity For Students To Create Their Own Document-Based Question." History Teacher 34.4 (2001): 487-496. ERIC. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.

Martin, Daisy, Saúl I. Maldonado, Jack Schneider, and Mark Smith. A Report on the State of History Education. Rep. National History Education Clearinghouse, Sept. 2011. Web. 24 Sept. 2014. <>.

Toner, Mark. "Digital DBQs Prompt Deeper Learning for All Students." Impatient Optimists. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 07 Sept. 2014. Web. 28 Sept. 2014. <>.