Building DBQ Skills in the Digital Age

This article is cross-posted from, where I currently serve as editor-in-chief.

Letter from Joseph H. Adams to Alexander Graham Bell, February 2, 1875

Letter from Joseph H. Adams to Alexander Graham Bell, February 2, 1875

What the DBQ is a DBQ?  The acronym DBQ stands for document-based question, a question type that appears on the U.S. History Advanced Placement exam taken by approximately 400,000 high school students every spring.  Essentially, a DBQ requires students to analyze roughly ten primary sources—artifacts, documents, recordings, or other original material—and then create and defend a thesis in a 45-minute time frame.

Jay Mathews featured the DBQ last week in his column for the Washington Post, interviewing AP teachers and AP administrators about the merits of DBQs and their role as a college-readiness task.

While the time constraint of the DBQ on the AP exam is a little artificial, the ability of students to analyze and interpret primary sources remains a relevant and necessary skill that is demanded in college courses.

Prior to the digital age, teachers would assemble “jackdaw kits” as a way to introduce primary source documents into the classroom.  A kit would contain a collection of primary sources related to a particular topic, and students would be asked to interpret and create a project from the materials in these kits.

History, like many other disciplines, has benefited greatly from digital distribution and discovery. Primary source documents are more available and accessible than ever before, through the National Archives, Library of Congress, and other online sources.  This is great news for instructors and students, and offers countless new opportunities for the study of history.

PrimaryAccess-logoI had the opportunity to speak to Bill Ferster, director of the PrimaryAccess initiative at the Curry School of Education at University of Virginia.  PrimaryAccess MovieMaker is a web-based tool that gives students an opportunity to narrate in Ken Burns’ style pan-and-zoom movies using artifacts collected by their teachers.  By having students write a script, the process incorporates a writing task to create a thesis and complement the images.

Ferster says that the tool makes history come alive, and that “it’s not just telling a story about something, it’s [the student] looking at an artifact and making sense of it.  It encourages historical thinking and valuable perspective skills.”

Other tools that were developed as a satellite of the MovieMaker include PrimaryAccess Storyboard and PrimaryAccess Rebus.  These satellite activities are designed to take less classroom time than creating a full movie.  The TeacherTools allows teachers to curate the primary sources that will be used in the movie, much like a digital jackdaw kit.

Ferster says that there are almost 25,000 primary source documents in the database, all added by teachers.  It’s a crowdsourced repository for artifacts, curated by those who actually make use of the content. The database is also seeded with documents from the Virginia Center for Digital History—an early pioneer in digital primary source storytelling.  All artifacts are annotated by teachers, and tagged with metadata such as eras and sub eras.

PrimaryAccess’ suite of tools allow teachers to build the skill of primary source analysis earlier in students’ education, and not necessarily wait until the AP U.S. History class DBQ format to learn how to create and defend a thesis.

Currently, Ferster is working on new tools for academics in which to better visualize data in order to create their own artifacts through the University of Virginia’s Sciences, Humanities & Arts Network of Technological Initiatives (SHANTI).   Ferster gives a peek at the future of digital, saying that “people used to have to go through trouble to digitize older things, but now with things born digital, primary sources are now digital sources.”

Bring order to the chaos!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.