MBQs – Using Media Based Questions to support historical thinking

reece-1I was having a conversation with my two twenty-something children a few weeks ago and referenced an old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercial. You know the one.

The one where two people, one eating peanut butter and the other chocolate, bump into each other? The one where they’re both heading headphones, listening to their Sony Walkmans, and don’t see each other until it’s too late.

“Hey! You got peanut butter on my chocolate.” “Hey! You got chocolate in my peanut butter.”

Yeah. My kids obviously didn’t remember either. It’s an ancient ad but I think of it often when we’re talking about app mashups and tweaking tech tools to do things they’re not really designed to do. Cause chocolate and peanut butter is as delicious together as is iMovie and Tellagami.

I shared the Reece’s reference with my kids because earlier in the day I had spent some time talking Google tools with a group of tech integration coaches. Part of that time was spent exploring the possibilities of mashing up Google My Maps and Forms. And over the last few days, my brain has been going back to different things that we could be doing with Google Forms.


I love document based questions. I love the Stanford History Education Group’s Beyond the Bubble mini-assessment tool. And we know that I love the Google.

The mashup?

Start with the idea of a great DBQ. Modify a variety of analysis questions from the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and SHEG. Upload photos and video clips to Google Forms. Add the questions. Collect the results.

The result?

Media Based Questions.

I’m pretty sure many of you have already done this. But for me, it was bit of an ah-ha moment – asking kids to make sense of evidence in a way that’s easy to access for both teacher and students. Using Google Forms to support primary source evidence analysis just makes so much sense in so many ways:

  • thinking is both textual and visual. Some of my recent Sketchnoting reading suggests a strong impact on learning that includes both writing and visual activities.
  • anywhere / anytime access. Students can address your questions and media in or out of the classroom, whenever they have internet. (Or you can print out the Form, they do some pre-thinking, and then enter their thoughts when you can get into the computer lab.)
  • formative and summative assessment. This could be a quick exit card activity or a richer, full-fledged end of unit exercise.
  • is instructive. The process itself is learning how to think historically. It’s instruction! It’s assessment! It’s historical thinking!
  • writing is evidence of thinking. Nothing wrong with small or large group discussion but we need to have kids write more. Bruce Lesh argues for more Quick Writes. This is the perfect answer to that.
  • paperless. I think we take this too much for granted. Gathering student work via Google Drive or through Google Classroom without manila folders or those big metal paper clips? Priceless.
  • collaborative. One of your Forms setting options is to let users see the results of the Form after they click Submit. That’s when you could open up the discussion to a small group or whole class face to face format.
  • critical thinking. One of the obvious reasons for this sort of activity is to support historical and higher levels of thinking. Your Google Form could ask kids to address simple sourcing questions like author and date but be sure to encourage summary and synthesis somewhere in the process.

The process is pretty simple – especially if you’ve used Google Forms before. (If you’re new to Google Forms, start here.)

1. Select your media / evidence. This could be a photo, graph, chart, painting, or visual that you can upload to the Form. Perhaps you want them to analyze two different paintings of John Brown. Or perhaps you want them to analyze a 1980s candy commercial that’s on YouTube.

2. Develop a series of document analysis questions. What types of questions might you use? You’re going to eventually develop your own but some great places to start:

The National Archives and the Library of Congress
The first two no-brainers

Stanford History Education Group Historical Thinking Chart
The third no-brainer

Bruce Lesh Quick Write Resources
Bruce is one of my social studies superheros. (Partly because he shared a bunch of his stuff with our TAH teachers a few years ago.) And he believes that instruction that focuses on the teaching of historical thinking skills  – what Bruce calls the “the heavy lifting during instructional time” –  has to align to the assessments. And that formative assessments can support that process. The documents below are a great start.

PBS Media Literacy
I like that PBS suggests the use of follow-up questions such as, “How do you know?”; “How could you find out?”; “What evidence from the film backs up your answer?”; “What else do you notice?”; or “What else do you want to know?”google-forms-john-brown

3. Insert your images or search for a YouTube video. (And remember, you can create your own YouTube channel and upload your own videos / movie clips to that channel. Which would then allow you to use them in your Google Form.)

4. Be sure to include a question at the end that allows your students to summarize their thinking or to respond to a writing prompt.

5. Publish the Form and share with students.

6. Collect their thinking via the Responses tab or via the automatically generated Google Sheet.

Take a look at this quick example to give you an idea of what this might look like. Feel free to go through the process and leave your own thoughts. And then adapt the idea and use in the way that best fits your content and grade level.

(Cross-posted from History Tech.)

About Glenn Wiebe

I work as a social studies specialist at ESSDACK, an educational service center in Hutchinson, Kansas. Before coming to ESSDACK, I taught middle school US History and higher ed social science classes.

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