Essays begin with the prompt. Make sure students understand what the prompts are asking them to do. Students may be asked to analyze, assess, evaluate, compare, contrast, describe, discuss, and explain. Know the difference between these words. Additionally, prompts can be multi-tasking in that they ask the writer to perform several actions. Make sure students answer all parts of the prompt, or they may fail.
All essays should have five paragraphs. The first should be a thesis paragraph. It need consist of only one sentence – a thesis statement. If students have any other sentence, an attention grabber similar to the headlines of a newspaper called a hook should precede their thesis. Students should not waste time and effort on long theses’ paragraphs. Students should come to the point – their thesis – immediately, and go on to prove their argument.
All theses should include their argument with three methods or points they will use to prove their argument. For example, if the prompt asks about the Mongols, a superior thesis would be “The Mongols were efficient governors because of their political, economic, and social policies.” The first portion of the thesis, “The Mongols were efficient governors,” is a simple, acceptable thesis. At the bare minimum, all essays should include this type of thesis. The second part, “because of their political, economic, and social policies” turns a simple thesis into a clear, analytical, and comprehensive thesis. Better essays follow this second format.
The conclusion paragraph need only consist of one sentence. While a conclusion resembles a thesis, students should not copy or paraphrase the thesis. They should write a sentence that sums up what they have learned or proven in their essay.
The other paragraphs form the body of the essay and are critical. Within three of the paragraphs, students prove their argument. Set up body paragraphs in an order parallel to the structure within the thesis sentence.
Students should organize points from the strongest point to weakest point. Strength is based on the amount of evidence presented and the thoroughness of the argument. The weakest point should be last. Based on the above thesis, this means “political policies” should be the topic of the first body paragraph, while the second point will be “economic policies” and the last paragraph will cover “social policies.” The first sentence in the body paragraphs should expand upon the sub-point from the thesis. An example about the Mongols could be “Politically, the Mongols were tolerant governors, who insisted upon honesty, efficiency, and equality in their policies.” Within each paragraph, there should be two or three facts or pieces of historical support material.
While grammar is important, the essay is a rough draft. It does not have to be perfect. Graders know that 50 minutes does not allow students much time to perfect grammar, syntax, and diction. While it is imperative that the essay be readable and intelligible, national graders will not deduct for grammatical mistakes.
The Document-Based Question (DBQ)
Document based essays are designed to test a student’s ability to use documents to support a historical argument. It corresponds roughly to writing a research paper and duplicates the work of historians, where the student is given the evidence and asked to write a paper – in one hour. And a DBQ essay may include compare and contrast, and/or change over time.
The Document-Based Question consists of a prompt with between five and nine primary source documents. The question is not designed to test a student’s knowledge about world history, so much as the student’s ability to use documentary evidence to make and to support a written argument. Critical to this process are the concepts of bias (reliability) and use of all documents to support a thesis. The graders will grade by the following criteria.
An acceptable thesis requires a simple thesis stating the point of argument, or what you will prove. An expanded thesis, which earns an additional point, requires a comprehensive thesis statement with point of argument and three ways you will prove it.
Students need to use all or all but one of the documents in the essay. Use is defined as citing, quoting, paraphrasing, listing, summarizing, mentioning, analyzing, interpreting, or critiquing the documents in any way.
Students must support the thesis with appropriate evidence from the documents. Students must analyze, interpret, and critique the documents. Quoting, listing, summarizing, citing, or mentioning a document does not qualify for this criterion! Students should support their thesis through the use of outside material not mentioned in their documents. If students know of facts and information relevant to the topic, which were not mentioned in the documents, they should include them.
Students must understand the basic meaning of the documents cited in the essay. Students may misinterpret one document but two or more will cost one criterion point. Mistakes involving dates and names are not critical but misrepresenting a document can be fatal. Placing a document in a wrong group that leads to a wrong conclusion also counts as a misunderstanding.
Analyze point of view or bias in three documents. The rubric says students need to analyze only two documents but this is too few. Students should do three or more. In order to earn this point, students should attribute and analyze point of view, bias, purpose or intent, tone, or audience in an attempt to determine reliability. Analysis of point of view also constitutes supporting the thesis with appropriate evidence from the documents and using the documents, too! One method of analysis (and use) is based on the acronym, S.O.A.P.P.S.
Students must analyze documents by grouping them depending on the DBQ prompt. If the DBQ identifies groups in the prompt, students must use the mentioned groups. Students must have three groups. If the prompt only specifies two, students should create a third category. Once again, students must organize the evidence and arguments into three groups. These groups could be mentioned in the thesis statement.
The better writers will create their own groups or categories based on the documents. Nevertheless, students might use the acronym P.E.R.S.I.A.N. or S.C.R.I.P.T.E.D. to help structure their thoughts. Evidence should fit into three of these categories. Other methods of grouping include organizing by gender, time, social class, occupation, geography, nationality, similar points of view, or religion. When grouping a document, each group must contain at least two documents. If possible, use three because it prevents a failed group if you misinterpret one document.
Students will be asked to identify one additional type of document they could have used to support the essay prompt. One useful way to accomplish this is to identify a point of view or group missing from the discussion. For example, an essay on gender rights that does not include a woman’s point of view is weak. You should mention this failing. At the same time, if all of the documents in the same essay are by women, a man’s point of view might help balance the essay. Students should decide what is missing and mention what specific type of document or point of view might improve the essay.
And they should ideally state how it would help the essay. They should place this sentence in whichever body paragraph will be most effective. This could also include bringing in outside information relevant to the topic. Other typically missing documents include charts, maps, or statistical information, social classes, and opposite points of view.
Students will have 50 minutes to write their essays. They should use 10 minutes to read the documents and to structure or outline their essay. They should spend 30 minutes writing and 10 minutes reviewing what they have written. Student should make sure they have used all the documents, have three groups, and performed all activities they are required to do. They should especially check their prompt to see that they have addressed all parts required.