Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

DBQs For Social Studies

Daniel Schwarz, Milton Bowens | Published: August 20th, 2021 by K20 Center


This professional development will provide participants with literacy strategies to use in their classrooms as they implement document-based questions (DBQs).

Essential Questions

How can I use document-based questioning (DBQ) to enhance my students' learning?

Learning Goals

  • Participants will identify reading and writing strategies that support student acquisition of text-based arguments.

  • Participants will create a process for using DBQs within the classroom.

Materials List

  • Presenter Slides (attached)

  • The Document-Based Lesson (attached, one per participant)

  • It's OPTIC-al (attached, one half-sheet per participant)

  • Instructional Strategy Note Sheet (attached, one per participant)

  • DBQ Action Plan (attached, one per participant)

  • CER (attached, one half-sheet per participant)

  • How Am I Feeling? What Am I Thinking? handout (attached, one per participant)

  • Sticky Notes (preferred pink, yellow, and green)

  • Stoplight Stickies Poster

  • Highlighters

  • Devices with Internet


Show slide 2. Introduce yourself and the topic of the session.

Show slide 3. Introduce the session goals. Participants will identify reading and writing strategies that empower students to develop text-based arguments and will create a plan for using DBQs in their instruction.

Show slide 4. Using the Stoplight Stickies strategy, have participants self-identify their comfort level using document-based question kits. The color red (pink) indicates the participant is uncomfortable or is a beginner; yellow indicates the participant is somewhat comfortable or is an intermediate user; and green indicates the participant is very comfortable or is an expert.

After brief reflection, invite participants to choose a color of sticky note and write questions or comments on their sticky note. Then, have participants place the sticky note on a board, poster, or chart paper in a designated, color-coded area you have set up for the session. Solicit a few responses from the group by selecting random sticky notes from the Stoplight poster.

Show slide 5.

Pass out the It's OPTIC-al handout. Using the It's OPTIC-al graphic organizer, guide participants in making observations and inferences using an image or a photograph.

Have participants analyze the image or photograph by breaking down its component elements:

  • O: Observations. What general impressions does the work generate?

  • P: Parts. What details come to mind about the image?

  • T: Title. What does the title imply about the image? If there is no title, ask participants to title the work.

  • I: Interrelationships. How do the individual components work with one another to convey a message?

  • C: Conclusion. What is the overall message or effect? Include details about time period and importance?


Show slide 6. Give teachers their primary source reading. Explain the CUS and Discuss reading strategy to read the source. Have them circle new words, underline details to support the main idea, and star the main ideas as they read.


Show slide 7. Once participants have had the chance to explore a primary source as their students would, ask them to read about the benefits of DBQs in the classroom.

Pass out the Document-Based Lesson article for participants to Why-Light. Ask participants to read actively by highlighting the sentences or passages that seem important and explain why they are highlighting that piece in the margins.

Show slide 8. Pass out the CER handout. Invite participants to develop a CER about the benefits of using DBQs in the classroom. Ask them to pull evidence for their CER from the Document-Based Lesson article. Allow time for participants to share out with the group when everyone is finished writing their CER.


Show slide 9. Invite participants to explore the DBQ Project Online, if available. If not, have them visit the Library of Congress and select a topic relevant to their classroom curriculum.

Show slide 10. Use the How Am I Feeling? What Am I Thinking? strategy to have participants document their thoughts and feelings on implementing a DBQ in their classroom. Have participants draw a vertical line dividing a sticky note in half. Ask them to write on one side of the note how they feel so far about the concept of DBQs in their classroom. Have them write on the other side of the note what they understand about the topic at this point. Invite participants who are willing share out their thoughts/feelings about implementing DBQs.


Show slide 11. Give participants the DBQ Action Plan handout. Schedule working time for participants to come up with actionable steps for using DBQs in the classroom with consideration for how to incorporate technology in this process. Ask participants to also consider the obstacles that are barriers to success in carrying out their plan. If time allows, have participants share with a partner or the group to hear each other's ideas and concerns. They may choose to revise their own plans or be able to offer a suggestion to others as a result.

Show slide 12. Give participants the Instructional Strategy Note Sheet handout. Have participants make explicit the connections between what they have done in each of the strategies and students using DBQs in the classroom. Ensure participants recognize the strategies they have taken part in are similar to what they would ask their students to do in unpacking documents.

Schedule time for participants to reflect on how the strategies were used in the professional development and how they might use them in the classroom to complete their LEARN Strategy Reflection on the Instructional Strategy Notes handout.

Research Rationale

Critical thinking capabilities are heightened when students are taught how to generate arguments, make thoughtful contributions to historical discourse, and evaluate and interpret multiple sources of information that contain conflicting perspectives (De La Paz, Ferretti, Wissinger, Yee, & MacArthur, 2012).

It is essential to prompt students with tasks such as formulating an argument or explanation from evidence in order to foster a deeper comprehension than that which comes from simple recall, description, or summarization (Wiley, Griffin, Steffens, & Britt, 2020).

Educators must scaffold this process as research suggests that, without instruction, most students struggle significantly when asked to use primary sources to construct an argument (De La Paz, et al., 2012). Modeling appropriate activities or tasks to develop an argument from evidence will benefit students who require additional instruction (Wiley, Griffin, Steffens, & Britt, 2020).