By Aaron Cooper, Middle School Social Studies Department Head and
Kasey Short, Middle School English Department Head

What is driving China’s water-scarcity crisis? When it comes to Romeo and Juliet—who is to blame? Why did America change its mind about Prohibition? Was Hammurabi’s Code just? 

Middle School students at Country Day are being asked to answer these types of questions, using primary and secondary source documents, in both Language Arts and Social Studies classes through the use of Document Based Questions (DBQs). These types of questions were once almost only used in high school Advanced Placement courses until the creators of the DBQ Project asked, “If it’s good enough for AP, why not everyone?”

Building on the Ancient History DBQs that our sixth-grade students had experienced for years, fifth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade English and History teachers spent two days with a DBQ Project instructor, learning how to effectively implement Document Based Questions in their classroom. The result of the training is that all students fifth through eighth grades have additional opportunities to analyze documents using reading strategies, synthesize information to develop a claim based on evidence from the text, and communicate their ideas through writing and discussion. 


DBQs provide students with an opportunity to read, think, and write critically on the past, while also exposing them to a diverse number of perspectives in history that encompass who we are today. Within this process, students are also faced with challenging questions that spotlight the complexities of leadership, ingenuity, and rule of law.

Patrick Buschman, sixth-grade Language Arts/Social Studies teacher

Depending on the grade level and content, students on average spend three to five days working through the DBQ process, which begins with engaging students about a particular topic and building background knowledge. Students then analyze and synthesize documents using reading and discussion strategies. Once they have organized their information, they develop a claim and finally produce a written product that includes a clear thesis statement with supporting evidence.

Each step in the DBQ process builds on the previous one, so that both students and teachers can reflect on the progress being made, allowing questions to be addressed and skills to be practiced throughout Middle School. In addition, the skills learned and practiced by completing a DBQ, such as establishing the context and credibility of a document or citing a source within the final written product, can be transferred to other subjects and assessments. Finally, students self-score their work before turning it in, pushing students to be honest with themselves about their progress and the quality of their final product.

“I liked them because it helped with learning to cite in text; doing it in sixth grade prepared me for research in seventh grade,” says Zoe Timperman. “The DBQ helped me to look at the text, find information, and use it as evidence to make a point,” adds Shelby Eliasek.

This year, students will complete two to four DBQs at each grade level, which will prepare them for the academic challenges that await in Upper School, including AP exams.