Social Studies DBQs: Not just for AP students

One highly effective instructional strategy that leverages student inquiry is the Document-Based Question (DBQ). The 2007 Maine Learning Results standards for Social Studies call for instruction in social studies content as well as the application of critical thinking, research, and discipline-based processes and knowledge. The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies further emphasizes the importance of the acquisition of knowledge and skills through student inquiry.

Although DBQ is often thought of as an activity for high school students placed in Advanced Placement courses, over 100 Maine educators have successfully provided middle and high school students, of various skill levels, with the opportunity to complete a Social Studies DBQ activity.

Through the Maine DOE Social Studies DBQ Workshop Series, social studies teachers learned about the DBQ Project Method and implemented these rigorous reading, writing and thinking activities with students. A high quality DBQ begins with an interesting question, such as: The Mongols: How Barbaric Were the “Barbarians”? or Early Jamestown: Why Did So Many Colonists Die? Following a “hook” exercise designed to engage students, the teacher provides a short background essay to help establish the context for the DBQ. Teachers then provide students with a sampling of primary and secondary resources specific to the topic to explore and analyze. Teachers offer graphic organizers to help students capture their thinking and craft evidence-based responses to the essential question of the lesson. Sample DBQ and Mini-Q (with 3-7documents) lessons are available for download.

One Maine teacher who participated in the DBQ training reported, “The materials support not only the learning of my students, but also added to my own expertise with primary documents. The DBQ Project helped me broaden what I should consider as supporting documents to a question.” Another shared, “I use the DBQ as the foundation for both critical thinking skills and analytical, interpretative and persuasive writing in social studies.” Teachers that have implemented the DBQ Project in their classroom are reporting increased student engagement and growth in students’ analysis of sources and evidence-based writing.

Several other inquiry-based resources and approaches are highlighted in a recorded Maine DOE webinar. For more information, contact the Department’s Social Studies Specialist Kristie Littlefield at

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