The Document Based Lesson

The Document Based Lesson (DBL) is the third section of Abby Reisman’s award-winning dissertation. Avishag (Abby) Reisman lectures at the Teachers College at Columbia University and is an Assistant Professor at Penn. She won the Larry Metcalf Exemplary Dissertation Award from the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) in 2011. This post attempts to summarize pp. 124-168. The entire dissertation is a fantastic read for History geeks.

This paper came out of a six-month intervention that was tested in five San Francisco schools. The Reading like a Historian program (RLH) created significant outcomes on student learning along four measures: (1) historical thinking, (2) factual knowledge, (3) general reasoning, and (4) reading comprehension. DBL requires students to engage in rigorous, open-ended historical investigations. The curriculum provided teachers with classroom-ready, sequenced lessons that were free. The activity sequence followed three distinct structures in the same order in each lesson: (a) establishment of background knowledge, (b) historical inquiry with multiple documents, and (c) discussion. DBL Fig 1 Each lesson begins with a review of background knowledge via lecture, video, or textbook questions. Students read between 2-5 primary documents that examine a historical question from several perspectives. Documents offer conflicting interpretations. They are sequenced to make students change their minds. These conflicting accounts forced students to evaluate the level of truthiness (thanks Steven Colbert) in the claims, consider the context, and rationalize their judgments. Finally, students participate in a whole-class discussion around the central question and were required to use evidence from the documents to substantiate their claims. Teachers remain active leaders of classroom activities. They rely on sequences to review students’ content knowledge and to redirect discussion to the documents. Key to the program’s success was how DBL embedded historical inquiry into familiar structures and rearranged them into a repeatable instructional order. Doc Based Lesson RLH simplified excerpts of primary source documents for presentation and focus. Each doc was presented in large font with lots of white space and no longer than 250 words. Then, RLH turned social studies teachers into reading instructors who delivered explicit strategy instruction. Students need to watch teachers repeatedly practice the strategies of disciplinary reading. The DBL curriculum chose four strategies used by expert historical readers: (1) sourcing (considering the document’s source and purpose), (2) contextualization (placing the document in a temporal and spatial context), (3) corroboration (comparing the accounts of multiple sources against each other), and (4) close-reading (considering an author’s use of language and word choice.

This lesson encompassed five activities in a 50-minute class period: video, lecture, teacher model, small group-work, and whole-class discussion. The activities all shared the goal of initiating students into the practices of historical inquiry. DBL mirrored reform efforts that have produced instructional change by providing extensive materials to support teacher change, clear and specific methods for instruction practice, and local facilitators whose job it is to coach teachers and ensure curricular fidelity. Teachers interested in adopting this model may get free lessons.


Goal-setting Strategies

The College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards in Writing demand that students are able to write arguments on discipline-specific content, developing claims and counterclaims, while establishing a formal tone and objective style citation. Using controversial, or debatable content, teaching students to write in the third person, and using their historical content knowledge to “qualify them as an expert” may provide motivation when teaching this type of writing. Explicit instruction on these skills and displaying data that informs students as to where they rank among their peers are essential components in setting goals and teaching students new to academic writing.

CR&Writing Stndrds

Rogers & Graham (2008) found goal setting for productivity effective in a meta-analysis of single subject writing interventions. For History teachers, who are not used to being writing teachers, goal-setting may help motivate students who aren’t used to writing in class. Depending on the skill level of the students in your class, goal-setting can center on word production, number of claims, rebuttals, argumentative strategies, document usage, or citations.

De La Paz (2005) compared 8th-grade students (N=70) in an integrated social studies and language arts unit designed to promote historical understanding and argumentative writing to a control group of students (N=62) who did not receive writing intervention or instruction. Results indicated the students who demonstrated mastery of the target strategies during instruction wrote historically more accurate and more persuasive essays regardless of their initial learning profile.

Similarly, De La Paz & Felton (2010) compared 11th grade students who learned a pre-writing strategy (N=81) for composing argumentative essays related to historical events to a control group (N=79) that read the same primary and secondary source document sets. They found that the essays written by students who received pre-writing instruction were longer, were rated as having significantly greater historical accuracy, were significantly more persuasive, and claims and rebuttals within each argument became more elaborated. The word count for the pre-writing instruction group increased from 195.32 to 327.86 , an average increase  of 132.54 words. Yet for the control group, word production only increased by 14.45 words.

This research suggests that writing instruction focused on goal setting strategies, argumentative claims and rebuttals, and historical accuracy may be effective when introducing common core writing tasks to students. Hence, instructional leaders should encourage teachers to design, develop, and analyze DBQs as formative assessments in common planning time, or department professional development.

Complex writing assignments, or DBQs, are essential for improving adolescent literacy (Fisher & Frey, 2007). DBQ units align with plans for increasing writing proficiency, critical thinking, and creating a college-going culture. DBQ’s can be designed to give students a preview of Advanced Placement curriculum. Increased use of DBQs should lead to greater English proficiency and help students avoid costly and demoralizing remedial coursework that has an adverse effect on college completion rates. DBQs can be jointly developed and graded by History and English teachers to ensure that students will meet the new Common Core standards for Writing. Students may be more motivated when they get credit in both classes for the same assignment. This credit should be given in multiple stages for planning, writing, and revising DBQs.


Blanton, L.L. (1986). Reshaping ESL students’ perceptions of writing. ELT Journal. 41(2), 112-118. DOI: 10.1093/elt/41.2.112

De La Paz, S. (2005). Effects of historical reasoning instruction and writing strategy mastery in culturally and academically diverse middle school classrooms. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97(2), 139-156.

De La Paz, S., & Felton, M. (2010). Reading and writing from multiple source documents in history: Effects of strategy instruction with low to average high school writers. Journal of Contemporary Educational Psychology, 35, 174-192.

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2007). Checking for understanding: Formative assessment techniques for your classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Rogers, L., & Graham, S. (2008). A meta-analysis of single subject design writing intervention research. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100(4), 879-906.

Validating Rubrics

When teachers, departments, and schools use writing from sources as formative assessments in History, protocols need to be followed before evaluating these assessments. Many departments or schools collaboratively grade these assessments during common planning time, or teacher professional development. This requires training evaluators in using validated rubrics before applying this knowledge to the analysis of student work. Teachers work together to identify exemplars that strongly correlate with the spectrum of work defined by the rubric.

Annotated LDC Rubric

Holistic scoring involves assigning a single score that indicates the overall quality of a text (Bang, 2012). Raters give one summary score based on their impression of a text without trying to evaluate a specific set of skills. Analytic scoring examines multiple aspects of writing (e.g., content, structure, mechanics, etc.) and assigns a score for each. This type of evaluation generates several scores useful for guiding instruction.

Broadly defined, reliability is the consistency with which an instrument/method produces measurements, while validity is the extent to which an instrument/method actually measures what it is meant to measure, or its accuracy. In testing writing rubrics, agreement rates are used to determine inter-rater reliability, where agreement is further defined as exact or adjacent scores. Exact agreement consensus rates need to be 70% or greater to be considered reliable (Stemler, 2004). Adjacent agreements within one score point should exceed 90% to indicate a good level of consistency (Jonsonn & Svingby, 2007).

I used Google Forms to have my students validate the above rubric from the Literacy Design Collaborative. I found the LDC rubric to be more student friendly than the rubric my District adapted from the Smarter Balanced consortium.

LDC Rubric Agreement Frequency

Jonsonn & Svingby (2007) analyzed 75 rubric validation studies and found (a) benchmarks are most likely to increase agreement, but they should be chosen with care since the scoring depends heavily on the benchmarks chosen to define the rubric; (b) agreement is improved by training, but training will probably never totally eliminate differences; (c) topic-specific rubrics are likely to produce more generalizable and dependable scores than generic rubrics; and (d) augmentation of the rating scale (for example so the raters can expand the number of levels using + or − signs) seems to improve certain aspects of inter-rater reliability, although not consensus agreements.

Validating a rubric with your class gives your students additional time to consider their historical writing. When they have to review more than one student’s writing, they establish a context for evaluating their own writing. Class discussions should identify exemplars of strong historical writing. Direct instruction should focus on improving examples of weak writing.  Rubric validation is a much-needed historical thinking exercise. Otherwise your students may develop  what educational psychologists call the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect describes a cognitive bias in which people perform poorly on a task, but lack the meta-cognitive capacity to properly evaluate their performance. As a result, such people remain unaware of their incompetence and accordingly fail to take any self- improvement measures that might rid them of their incompetence.


Bang, H. J. (N.D.) Reliability of National Writing Project’s Analytic Writing Continuum Assessment System.

Jonsson, A., & Svingby, G. (2007). The use of scoring rubrics: Reliability, validity and educational consequences. Educational Research Review, 2(2), 130-144.

Kruger, J. &  Dunning, D. (1999) Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 77(6), Dec 1999, 1121-1134.

Stemler, S. E. (2004). A comparison of consensus, consistency, and measurement approaches to estimating interrater reliability. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 9(4).

Creating Peer Review Systems

With the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, writing instruction will become distributed throughout the school. Writing from sources require students to respond to the ideas, events, facts, and arguments presented in texts they are assigned. Teachers can improve student literacy skills by increasing writing assignments, yet some teachers have expressed a reluctance to assign more frequent writing tasks because they fear it will increase their workload.

Peer Review

Implementing an effective peer review program with free online polling tools like surveymonkey, polleverywhere, and google forms can transfer the burden of grading from teachers to students. The grading process becomes a student-centered, learning by evaluation collaborative activity. O’Toole (2013) suggested peer assessment should be structured, with a learning design that includes “phases of activity, peer assessment, reviewing and reflecting” (p. 5). Brookhart (2013) recommended student-generated rubrics to allow for highly effective peer grading systems. Bardine and Fulton (2008) advocated using revision memos to have students explicitly address weaknesses in drafts and develop confidence in academic writing.

Peer review programs give students practice in developing the skills necessary to recognize effective thesis statements, use textual evidence, and refine arguments. Learning by evaluation significantly improves a student’s self-assessment abilities and lays the groundwork for self-improvement. Thus, learning by evaluation programs should focus on one or two aspects of effective writing, include student discussion to drive reflection about writing as an iterative process, and allow increased instructional time for student revision.

I polled English teachers at my school and found that 39% were confident in their ability to teach students how to write a thesis. After surveying our students, however, only 9% were confident in their ability to develop a thesis statement. This gap suggests teachers need to give students more practice in developing, identifying, and assessing thesis statements. Further, teachers can showcase student exemplars and improve weak thesis statements via thinkalouds. Once students gain more confidence and proficiency in writing thesis statements, teachers can move on and address other factors in effective academic writing, such as claims, rebuttals, argumentative strategies, document usage, and citations.


Bardine, B., & Fulton, A. (2008). Analyzing the benefits of revision memos during the writing and revision process. The Clearing House, 81(4), 149-154.

Brookhart, S. M. (2013). How to create and use rubrics for formative assessment and grading. Teacher Librarian, 40(4), 52.

O’Toole, R. (2013) Pedagogical strategies and technologies for peer assessment in Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Discussion Paper. University of Warwick, Coventry, UK: University of Warwick. (Unpublished).


History Rewriter

The Common Core State Standards call for teachers to emphasize argumentative, explanatory/informative, and narrative writing into all subjects. Many teachers across the content areas are unsure how to respond to these new standards. Should teachers stop delivery of subject content to explicitly teach spelling, vocabulary, and sentence construction? Should professional learning communities (PLCs) devote a specific amount of time to writing instruction in each subject? How many writing projects should be delivered in each subject? Educators will struggle with these questions as they implement the Common Core writing and literacy standards, however, this website will present methods for how can teachers begin improving writing instruction in History-Social Science classes immediately.

HRW logo

There is concern that a majority of adolescents do not develop the competence in writing they need to be successful in school, the workplace, or their personal lives (Graham & Perin, 2007). Other researchers (Bissex & Bullock, 1987; Calkins, 1994; Graves, 1983;) have noted a connection between increased reading and writing and higher levels of academic achievement. Hence, Common Core and an increasing number of assessments, including the ACT, NY Regents Exam, and CRWA, employ writing-from-sources tasks that integrate reading and writing.


Under Common Core, all teachers need to be writing teachers. Unfortunately many History/Social Studies teachers have not had significant instruction and/or practice in historical writing. Worse, very few teacher professional development seminars focus on this topic. As a first step toward becoming writing teachers, Social Studies teachers can increase student literacy skills by incorporating writing from sources, or document-based questions (DBQs) as formative assessments. Goal-setting strategies may be well-suited for guiding and motivating students as the introduction of historical writing increases the rigor in your instructional program.