Getting the “Big Picture” … or Contextualization

Blog Post created by nicki.griffin on Apr 17, 2017

Arguably two of the most confusing parts of the Documents Based Question Rubric, for both students and teachers, is Contextualization and Synthesis.  Because these two parts of essay writing can be frustrating, the final two parts of this blog series will focus on these skills.  This installment will focus on Contextualization, while Synthesis will be the subject of the final blog next week.


The first thing to consider when teaching students to effectively address the skills of Contextualization and Synthesis in the DBQ essay is that students must be able to distinguish these skills from each other!  To begin thinking about teaching students the difference in Contextualization and Synthesis, let’s take a look at the “recipe” for writing a DBQ from the first blog in this series (Follow the Recipe...Keys to AP* Writing):

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AP® Essay Model for the DBQ


As you can see from this model, Contextualization and Synthesis (synTHESIS) come in different parts of the essay.  While there is no requirement from the College Board that these skills be placed in a certain part of a student’s essay, students are more successful when they have a clear plan for where to include these skills.  So, the next question becomes why should students ALWAYS include Contextualization in the introduction and Synthesis in the conclusion. The answer is two-fold. First, incorporating these skills into the essay in this way allows us to use the AP® rubric to teach students to be effective writers.  Second, the placement of Contextualization in the introduction and Synthesis in the conclusion reminds students of the purpose of each of these skills and how to differentiate them from each other.


Understanding the difference between Contextualization and Synthesis is key.  Contextualization asks students to show that the understand the “Big Picture” of a period of study.  The “Big Picture” reflects understanding that the TOPIC or development that is the focus of a DBQ prompt do not happen in isolation in a given time period.  For illustration, let us consider the 2016 DBQ Prompt: “Explain the causes of the rise of a women’s rights movement in the period 1940 - 1975.”  The TOPIC of this prompt is “the rise of a women’s rights movement.”  However, illustrating the skill of Contextualization would require an understanding of the way in which other movements, developments, and events influenced women in this time period.  To differentiate this from Synthesis, students need to understand that Synthesis is the ability to see that patterns exist ACROSS time periods, disciplines, and themes in history.  Illustrating mastery of Synthesis for this prompt, then, would require students to show that their thesis - the causes that led to the rise of a women’s rights movement from 1940 - 1975 in the United States - also apply to other periods of history, themes, or geographical locations.  Because they are complex historical thinking skills, the rubric requires both Contextualization and Synthesis to be established through “multiple sentences” which simply means we need to teach our students to write these as effective paragraphs. Because Contextualization is establishing the way in which one specific topic fits into the “Big Picture” of a time period, it belongs in the introduction as a way of “introducing” the student’s thesis. In the same way, Synthesis belongs in the conclusion as a way to allow students to show that they understand the way that the thesis they have (hopefully) supported throughout the DBQ essay illustrates patterns in history beyond the time period of the DBQ prompt.

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Difference between Contextualization and Synthesis


To focus on Contextualization, let’s look at the  the skill required of students for this point on the DBQ rubric for the 2016 AP® US HIstory Exam.


Explain the causes of the rise of a women’s rights movement in the period 1940 - 1975.


To effectively illustrate the historical skill of Contextualization on this prompt, students must show how issues impacting rise of women’s rights in the period was influenced by OTHER developments, movements, and/or events.  To apply this idea in the classroom, have your group of students work with this prompt to create a timeline on the board (see illustration below) and have them use documents and historical evidence to fill in the timeline:

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After students have added details (SFI - Specific Factual Information) to the timeline about the rise of women’s rights movement in this period, ask them to consider other developments, events, movements, that might have influenced the rise of the women’s rights movements. Add these ideas in a different color to represent Contextualization.  Your timeline might end up looking like this (this illustration is not exhaustive):

In this illustration, you can see that the items written in blue represent Specific Factual Information (SFI) that students can use to draw conclusions about Contextualization. Students can make an argument about the influence of the fight for Civil Rights by African Americans and the rejection of conformity by writers of the Beat Generation on the rise of the women’s rights movement in this same time period.  Students can connect the frustration of women with the lack of rights to the frustration of African Americans with the lack of rights.  Students can connect the founding of organizations for women’s rights like NOW to the founding of organizations including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Congress for Racial Equality.  By having students think in terms of a timeline, they can better understand the idea of Contextualization. 

When students begin to craft their evidence of Contextualization into a paragraph, it is important that they remember that they should connect their Contextualization to their thesis statement.  So if students argue that the experience of women in World War II was a cause of the rise of the women’s movement, they could connect that to the impact of WWII on African Americans and Native Americans.  If they are making an argument that the rejection of conformity among women was a cause of the rise of the women’s rights movement, they could connect that part of their thesis to the Beat Generation and Abstract Expressionists of the period who rejected conformity in the Arts.  Contextualization is immersing the TOPIC of the prompt into the broader picture of history for a given period of time.  The nice thing about approaching Contextualization this way, is that you have the opportunity to use the DBQ rubric to teach students to write effective introductions for any expository essay.  A good introduction will always set a thesis statement into the “Big Picture” of a time period.  This is not a skill exclusive to writing a good AP® essay… it is a skill that can be applied to writing effective essays in any course in high school or college.