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Responding to and Creating DBQs: DBQs and Primary Sources

What are Primary Sources? How do you know?

How can I be sure I am using a primary sources?
Trying to figure out whether something is a primary or secondary source can be difficult at times.  For tips, visit this useful website from Yale University. It will help in figuring out such things as whether a book is a secondary or primary source.


Sweet Primary Sources

XtraNormal Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Research Using Primary Sources

Confused about primary and secondary sources? This video explains the difference using examples from the Apollo 11 Moon Mission.

Creating a Document Based Question (DBQ)

A DBQ measures a student’s ability to analyze, synthesize, and compose an essay based on a series of edited documents and their historical knowledge. The creation of a DBQ challenges either the teacher or student formulating the DBQ to take on the roll of the historian and pose big
questions that will be answered using the documents selected. 

You will reate your own DBQ, complete with documents, and an answer guide. Students create a DBQ on their own in order to better understand the nuances of this type of question while also giving the opportunity to study a particular piece of history. 

Find your theme: Many collections of primary sources are already organized according to themes. This means that the documents have already been grouped in a logical format, making them easy to develop into a DBQ. 

Craft a well-focused question: DBQs can reinforce similarities (compare), differences (contrasting), change and continuity (trace), and a variety of other learning tasks.

Conduct your research:  Locate primary source documents that would be appropriate to use with your question. 

Choose your excerpts:  Many documents are lengthy. Select specific excerpts from the documents. After identifying your main theme and related question, look for sections of the text that specifically relate and enhance the discussion. 

Analyze each document: Ensure that they are appropriate to your question and to extract the information or ideas that would be necessary to include in a response to the question. Include A brief analysis (paragraph or bulleted) for each document of what information should be evident or inferred in this document for responding to your question.

Create good questions: Once you identify particular excerpts of documents, photographs, cartoons, etc. that are relevant to your theme, you will need to begin thinking about the kinds of questions to ask about the documents.  Your questions should be a mix of higher and lower level questions that help the viewer analyze and evaluate the sources critically. 

Create conflict: One of the most important skills viewers develop related to working with primary source documents is the ability to sift through contradictory or conflicting historical evidence and come to their own understanding of the topic. By analyzing the experiences and arguments of the various historical characters, viewers can gain valuable insight into the past. So, look for a variety of perspectives on a topic.

Teach literacy and writing skills: It is likely that students will feel overwhelmed with a DBQ the first time they face one. For many this may be their first experience working with primary sources and trying to synthesize them into a coherent essay. Viewers need to develop literacy skills and strategies to help them read primary sources. Provide handouts on which they can note key aspects of the document to begin to analyze the source. Charts are useful to help viewers compare documents. As they do this, they gain practice in critically reading documents and uncovering key points. Additionally, if the documents are on-line, you must provide strategies such as encouraging readers to highlight text with the electronic highlighter in a Word document or opening a notepad on the screen to record notes as they read. After growing familiar with reading primary sources, encourage the writing process in small steps - starting with a pre-writing activity such as creating a graphic organizer, then moving on to creating outlines, next writing thesis statements and introductory remarks, and eventually to writing a final document. Every step of the way, students must be aware of the need to edit, revise, and refine their writing.

Include Works Cited Page (using the MLA format)


Creating a Document Based Question

Understanding DBQs and Primary Sources from the FDR Presidential Library



1.     A well focused question on a specific topic or issue of Kansas/American/World History.

2.     A brief “Historical Background” paragraph (written in your own words)

3.     The documents- a minimum of 7 (selected by you that relate to your prompt)

4.     Include a collection of historical documents that would aid in answering of the question.  The questions should allow for various interpretations and it must require analysis of the “point of view” of different people within the time period.

  • At least 3 written primary source documents (diary, speech, journal- anything written at the time- not a textbook or secondary source) These should be brief excerpts, 1-2 paragraphs max. Must show differing points of view!
  • At least 2 visual documents -- Ex: historical maps, charts, artwork, propaganda posters, etc.
  • At least 2 newspaper headlines/stories/political cartoons
  • All written documents must have a SOURCE LINE and all visual documents must have a TITLE & SOURCE. 

5.     A Works Cited page (MLA format) identifying the source for each document/resource used.



The Civil Rights Movement - Primary & Secondary Sources

This video clip looks at primary and secondary source material from and about the civil rights era.

Understanding Primary Sources

Examine primary and secondary sources from the Cold War era.

Thanks to:

by Nancy Florio at Canterbury School for sharing her libguide Primary Sources for US History.