About the Author

After teaching secondary school history for several years, Jonathan Burack became Editor-in-Chief of Newscurrents, a weekly current events program for schools (1984-95). In 1995, he conceived and began to create MindSparks, a project that focuses on primary source analysis, writing and debating skills, and the development of habits of historical thinking.

Stating Your Case: Writing Thesis Statements Effectively

What is it?

A three-activity lesson teaching students what thesis statements are and how to use them effectively in writing Document Based Questions (DBQs) and other history essays.


Students asked to write brief essays on historical topics often lack a clear sense that such essays have a distinct structure. That structure varies with the topic the student is asked to address, but it usually consists of three tasks:

  • Using an introductory paragraph to pique interest and state clearly the    essay's answer to the question it is addressing.
  • Using the essay's internal paragraphs to make the case for that answer,    hypothesis, or claim.
  • Using a conclusion to sum up how well the body of the essay has    addressed the question, along with any qualifications.

A clear thesis statement is crucial to managing these tasks. An effective thesis statement responds to all key components of the question posed. It provides an answer, or hypothesis, which the entire essay will support or explain. In a DBQ (Document-Based Question) essay, the thesis must also be one the primary sources can support. Finally, if the thesis is clear enough, it should suggest a structure for the entire essay, one that will deal with all key facets of the question or problem posed.


This lesson is based on the belief that students cannot master an essay component such as the thesis statement in the abstract, but will best learn its nature by studying it in the context of a concrete historical problem. Therefore, the lesson's activities are based on an introductory essay and a set of primary source documents on one historical topic—the Haymarket Square bombing in Chicago in 1886. The Haymarket episode is a dramatic one that should also hold student interest well. A single DBQ on this topic and several alternate thesis statements are then used in three student activities. These illustrate what makes thesis statements effective, as well some common problems or mistakes in writing clear thesis statements. The lesson consists of the following handouts:

  1. A background essay on the Haymarket anarchists
  2. A set of seven primary sources
  3. Three student activity sheets—What a Thesis Statement Is, What a Thesis Statement Does, Putting the Thesis Statement to Use
  4. Teacher's Answer Key
Teacher Preparation
  1. Ask students to read the one-page background essay provided for this    lesson.
  2. If they are not already familiar with what a thesis statement and a DBQ    essay are, discuss the brief explanation at the end of the background    essay.
  3. Have students study the seven primary sources for this lesson, paying    attention both to the content and the sourcing information for each    source.
In the Classroom
  1. Briefly discuss with students the single DBQ used in all three activities    for the lesson.
  2. Have students complete Activity 1 and Activity 2. In these activities they    will make several choices among alternative thesis statements, all of which    respond to the lesson's DBQ. If they have read the introductory essay and    studied the sources, these activities will not take much time to complete.
  3. Discuss the choices students make for these two activities. The Teacher's Answer Key sheet for the lesson lists the correct choices and offers    additional ideas to discuss.
  4. Ask students to complete Activity 3 by choosing several sources to use to    back up or qualify one of the thesis statements. Either discuss student    choices in class or ask students to use their notes and their thesis    statement in a brief DBQ essay of their own.
Common Pitfalls
  • In writing history essays, students may think their task is simply to    provide as much detail and information as they can, perhaps to prove how    much they know. If they lack a sense of the overall purpose and structure    of such essays, they will not see the central importance of the thesis    statement within that structure.
  • Students in a hurry often fail to tailor the thesis statement to the exact    details and form of the DBQ or other essay prompt. They need to pay    attention to the question's details, and also to its form (e.g. compare and    contrast, explain and describe, assess the validity, etc.), which can guide    the way they structure their thesis statement and the essay as a whole.
  • Students may view the thesis statement as an absolute claim and may    make sweeping assertions they can't possibly prove without qualification.    They need to see a thesis as a tentative hypothesis, one they should    qualify by referring to primary sources that seem to contradict it.
  • Students need to see that a vague or overly broad thesis statement will    make their task harder, not easier. A specific and divided, or segmented,    thesis will delimit the task more effectively and make it easier for the    student to organize the rest of the essay.

For more information

On DBQ essays and thesis statements:
Further tips on writing thesis statements from the Indiana University. This list is typical of checklists on this topic, with much good advice, but without the practice activity that will help students apply the advice.

See more on this topic elsewhere on our website.