DBQs make up part of the Advanced Placement (AP) tests in AP European History, AP US History, AP World History, and AP English Language and Composition as well as the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme examinations for history examinations (Group 3). They are also part of the New York Regents Examinations in U.S. History and Government and Global History.
A typical DBQ is a packet of several original sources (anywhere from three to sixteen), labeled by letters (beginning with "Document A" or "Source A") or numbers. Usually all but one or two source(s) are textual, with the other source(s) being graphic (usually a political cartoon, map, or poster if primary and a chart or graph if secondary). In most cases, the sources are selected to provide different perspectives or views on the events or movements being analyzed.
On the AP exams, only primary sources are provided; on the IB exams, both primary and secondary sources are provided. An additional difference is that the AP exams require students to construct and defend a thesis based on one prompt, while on the IB exams students must answer a series of questions, with at least one asking students to assess the "value and limitations" of a source, usually "with reference to the documents' origin or purpose."
The documents contained in the document-based question are rarely familiar texts (for example, they would not be the Emancipation Proclamation or Declaration of Independence on a U.S. history test), though the documents' authors may be major historical figures. The documents vary in length and format.
On some tests students are not permitted to begin responding to the question or questions in the essay packet until after a mandatory reading time ("planning period"), usually around 10 to 15 minutes. During this time, students read the passage and, if desired, make notes or markings. After this period, students are permitted to respond, usually for around 45 minutes to an hour.