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Questions can be the best #assessment of student learning

February 15, 2014

When we help students learn to ask thoughtful, curious, and authentic questions we get a glimpse into what they are learning.  The $10,000 question is how to help them learn to ask good questions.  The first thing I have learned is that as educators we need to model for students how to ask good questions.

Here are some resources that I have uncovered in my research about asking good questions.  I would recommend any of them as a place to start if this topic resonates with you.

One important step that all teachers can take if they want to become better at modeling how to ask good questions is to adopt the questioning cycle illustrated below.

Questioning Cycle

Questioning Cycle

In her book, Effective Questioning Strategies, Esther Fusco discusses the value of adopting the questioning cycle in our work with students.  While the sequence built into the cycle may seems cumbersome to use on a regular basis, the premise behind it is that a teacher uncovers a student’s level of understanding if a systematic approach to asking questions and listening carefully to responses is used.  In addition, students learn the value of asking good questions when they see the teacher modeling, especially using active listening skills and wait time.

Sometimes teachers struggle how to begin a lesson that helps students learn to ask effective questions.  Project Zero offers interesting ideas for teachers to use in the classroom.  One resource is question starts, an activity for creating interesting questions.  They also share a routine for helping students to shape questions into more creative or interesting questions (click here for the resource).  On their website, they also give ideas for how and when this routine might be used with students.  See Project Zero’s website, Visible Thinking, for other resources that you can use to engage students in creative ways.

In their book, Making Thinking Visible, the authors suggest that teachers consider the following goals when designing and planning their questions.

(1) model our interest in the ideas being explored, (2) help students to construct understanding, and (3) facilitate the illumination of students’ own thinking to themselves.

Fusco writes about the three types of questions that teachers need to design in planning a lesson: (1) literal; (2) inferential; and (3) metacognitive (p.16).  The inferential questions demand more critical thinking while the metacognitive questions help students become aware of their own thinking or making their thinking visible.  For example, how do the author’s ideas influence your thinking about gender?

Every teacher should work on carefully planning a lesson with the types of questions in mind and the balance of the different types of questions being asked.  Paying attention to the types of questions, the level of thinking required to respond to questions, and their own listening to students’ responses to their questions is as important as the content they teach.  However, that alone will not help students improve their ability to design and ask good questions.  Rothstein and Santana, in their book (and HEL article referenced above), Make Just One Change, write about the strategies teachers can use to help students become better questioners.  One strategy is the question formulation technique (QFT) developed at the Right Question Institute.  This technique:

helps students learn how to produce their own questions, improve them, and strategize on how to use them. (p.1 of HEL article)

QFT has been extensively researched and successfully applied in other fields besides education.  When QFT is used it helps the user build confidence and increase his or her ability to communicate an idea or a thought process.  The main takeaway is that strategies exist for teachers to learn and use that will help students become better at designing and asking good questions.  An outcome will be more reflective learners in the classroom.

Finally, asking good questions is only one part of a complete learning cycle.  The recipient of the question has to learn good listening skills so they hear and understand the question clearly.  Fusco devotes a whole chapter to the idea of effective listening.  She points out that

active listening is important in order to gain further knowledge. (p.73)

When teachers have learned and internalized techniques for asking good questions, they will also model listening carefully to students’ responses and use what they hear to assess what students know and are able to do.  In addition, the active listening to responses is data for further and deeper questions that elucidate a student’s understanding of the concept.

As teachers we can go a long ways toward helping students understand the content, ideas, and skills we value if improve our ability to ask good questions, listen carefully to their responses, and document what happens in our work with them.  As Ritchhart, Church and Morrison point out in their book, Making Thinking Visible, a student’s thinking will be made visible if they learn the skill of asking good questions from teachers who effectively use the strategies.

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