Early in a school year it can be a real challenge to know how to begin teaching students critical skills they need to score on the AP® U.S. History Exam. I don’t think there is any one right way to begin approaching exam skills with our students, but, personally, I like to begin with something that is small and manageable but will also develop skills that students will use in various situations in class and on the exam. For me, the ideal place to begin is with Short Answer Questions (SAQs).


I like to start with SAQs because, by doing so, I am helping students develop skills that they will use in ALL other portions of the APUSH Exam. Working with the SAQs will help students in their thesis writing (DBQ and LEQ), their document sourcing (DBQ), and document analysis (MCQ and DBQ).


This all can happen by using the acronym C-E-E for teaching students to answer SAQ questions. All SAQs have three parts (labeled A, B, and C), and students must answer each part of the question. Teaching students to use the C-E-E method for writing their response to each part of the question will not only help them score on the SAQs, but also develop skills for other key areas of the APUSH Exam.


C-E-E stands for:

  • Claim: respond to the SAQ prompt directly, making a statement that will be supported by evidence.
  • Evidence: specific, factual content that supports the claim that has been made.
  • Explanation: explain how the evidence directly connects to the claim that has been made.

One way to help students develop their SAQ would be to use an SAQ organizer. This will help students be certain they are drafting a complete response to each portion of the SAQ. Using an organizer as scaffolding will move students more quickly to success. After using this organizer a few times, we can move away from its use. But repetitive SAQ practice is key to student development. SAQs can be found on the College Board AP® Classroom site and in APUSH Exam review books, such as the Advanced Placement® United States History coursebook from AMSCO®. Having students write one or two SAQs every week will give them the practice they need to both be successful SAQ writers, and to be prepared for other portions of the APUSH Exam.


If we start small, with the SAQ, we are more likely to finish strong, with improved student performance on all portions of the APUSH Exam in May. The SAQ is a great place to begin the APUSH journey.



Jay Henry has been teaching AP US History in Coldwater, Michigan, for over 20 years. He has also also been a history instructor at Kellogg Community College in Michigan. Jay was a Barringer Research Fellow in 2019 at the Monticello Teacher Institute and developed a Document Based Question regarding Thomas Jefferson and the Enlightenment to help students learn to write a DBQ by scaffolding their writing. He graduated with a B.A. from Kalamazoo College, Michigan, and a M.A.T. from the American University in Washington, DC.