6 Reasons to Drop the DBQ for History Labs

how to do a history lab

How and Why to do History Labs! 

Big things change in our classrooms when we shift from just teaching students about history to getting students doing history. Doing history means providing students opportunities to investigate the past by analyzing primary and secondary sources and wrestle with content to develop their own interpretations of the past. 

I like to call this “history detective work.” 

And in many of classrooms the go-to way to do this is through Document Based Questions or DBQs, but I really feel there is a much better way to go- and thats with History Labs. I first learned about history labs from Bruce Lesh who's new book, "Developing Historical Thinkers: Supporting Historical Inquiry For All Students" is a great how-to for getting students to be successful using history labs.

History labs and DBQs are similar in that they both have students answering inquiry questions by analyzing a set of sources. However, there are important differences that I feel make history labs superior to traditional DBQs.

how to teach with history labs

6 Reasons to Start Doing History Labs instead of DBQs in History Class

  1. A lab-like environment for the investigation. Instead of giving students a packet with a series of documents for a DBQ, which we know can overwhelm many of our reluctant learners, I set up a history lab as a stations activity. Each station has one document to keep students focused on a single document at a time while also adding movement to the activity every seven or so minutes. I also start history labs with a hypothesis to activate students’ thinking even before they read the documents. You can grab this history lab template that can be used for any lab you create. 

  2. History labs are more collaborative than traditional DBQs. Students will be moving through the stations in groups and supporting each other as they are analyzing each document. This increased collaboration can lead to improved discussions and deeper analysis of the documents.

  3. The goal is not just to answer the prompt, it's to seriously investigate it. Most of the time, the DBQ just challenges students to go through the documents, scoop up evidence, and then use that in their essay to support a thesis. This is especially true if its timed. In History Labs though, the primary focus is not just hunting and gathering for evidence to piece together some reasonable thesis, but seriously weighing the documents against themselves to come up with an accurate answer for the investigation. This makes history labs about ‘problem-solving’ information, instead of just searching for evidence to use in traditional DBQs.

  4. Challenging the Documents, Critiquing the Evidence. We want students to be skeptical of evidence and sources and not just accept their evidence or interpretations at face value. But for DBQs, even if students are asked to HIPP or source documents as they read them, they are often not skeptically considering how the purpose or the context of the document or the perspective of the speaker influences its evidence. As an AP reader who has graded the DBQ the last two years, I can tell you, even the top students who wrote amazing essays are for the most part, not doing this at all. However, history labs put critiquing the evidence and corroborating sources at the forefront of the challenge.

  5.  History labs build 21st century literacy skillsThe ability to be skeptical consumers of media and information is absolutely essential in our current information landscape. With widespread misinformation, disinformation, and the prevalence of conspiracy theories which spread like wildfire on social media, history labs help students develop the type of critical thinking they’ll need to navigate media in the real world, much more than DBQs. If our ultimate job is to prepare students for citizenship, this is a shift we need to embrace.

  6. History Labs don’t always end with essays- yippy! Whereas once you tell students they’re doing a DBQ, they know (or dread) that they’re about to write another essay, a history lab could lead to various summative assessments. Some of my labs end in Socratic Seminars or debates, as mini-essays of just two to three paragraphs, or even as more artistic and creative one-pagers. 

Check out these freebie history labs at http://www.historylabs.org/ that culminate with some really awesome projects like designing a commemorative US coin, doing a shark tank presentation, and building sculptures.

I hope this inspires you to make the shift from DBQs to History Labs. I really think you’ll notice deeper thinking from your students and that they’ll enjoy the activity a lot more- hopefully even look forward to it! 

If you are interested in learning more, I have a full module in my course, “Make History Engaging, Exciting, and Empowering,” all about creating dynamic history labs. And there's 9 other modules all designed to build a community of passionate learners in your classes.

Leave a comment

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.