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How to Engage Students with Well-Designed Questions

Two third-grade girls raise hands to answer teacher’s questions
How to Engage Students with Well-Designed Questions
“When you consider 80% of what a teacher does is ask questions, you realize you might as well make them effective questions. A little extra work in this area can pay off really well,” says Ben Johnson, a veteran educator, administrator and author.
He points out that the real power of questions is getting as many students to ask and answer those questions as possible. “If the teacher is doing all the asking and only one student is answering each question, we’re wasting time. Even when teachers use the two-second pause, only one student is involved with the question. What are the other 30 kids doing? Most are probably not paying attention at all, especially at the younger ages,” he says.
The practice goes back to Socratic questioning and has been recognized for its educational value for thousands of years, and with the increased emphasis on critical thinking in the Common Core and NextGen Science Standards, any educator can benefit from investing time honing her questioning skills.
Johnson, who has been a teacher in nearly every grade level and core subject, says there are two keys to engaging students with well-designed questions: One is designing good questions and two is using specific techniques to involve more students with each question.
Designing Good Questions 
Good questions begin with an understanding that “Bloom’s Taxonomy isn’t just a list of cognitive activities,” Johnson says. “It’s a list of increasingly difficult cognitive activities. So going from ‘applying’ to ‘analyzing,’ for example, is an order of magnitude more difficult – and requires different cognitive processes.”

Acknowledging that the Common Core references Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, Johnson says this model is a simplification similar to hundreds of other variations of Bloom’s. “In both Bloom’s and Webb’s lists, knowledge and understanding have to come first,” he says. What’s key to both is the imperative to allow students to acquire the knowledge required for each cognitive activity before expecting them to move up the ladder, to progress, for example, from simple questions that test knowledge and comprehension and into the higher-order thinking necessary for activities like evaluating and creating.
As an example of how teachers can use Bloom’s as a template for laddering questions this way, he offers the following progression:
  • Initial questions begin with recognition: “Point to the animal on the wall that is an invertebrate.”
  • Next, recall/knowledge/remembering:  “Everyone, please say together the category of animal that has eight legs."
  • Understanding: “What animal is this [the teacher points to an animal]?  What is its class?"
  • As the teacher feels students have an understanding and general comprehension of the topic, he can ask questions that help the students apply the new knowledge:
    o   “What is the only animal class that does not lay eggs?”
    o   “Name three different kinds of animals that do lay eggs?” 
    o   “What different kinds of animals fly?”
  • Increase the depth of knowledge by probing (strategic thinking or application and analysis):
    o   “Why would you not find a polar bear in the desert?” 
    o   “What kind of animals would you most likely find in the desert?
    o   “What makes them best suited for living in the desert?”
  • For the creating and evaluating levels in Bloom’s (extended thinking in Webb’s):
    o   “If a duck were able to mate with a kangaroo, what characteristics might the offspring have?”
    o   “How would you classify the new breed?”
    o   “What would you call the new breed?” 
    o   “If you wanted to go explore the jungle, what two animals would you combine to aid you in your exploration?  Explain why.”
“Deeper, more thought-provoking questions – like the ones you’ll ask as you get to Bloom’s ‘evaluating’ and ‘creating’ rungs – are more productive,” Johnson says. “One of my favorite authors is the cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, who wrote Why Don’t Students Like School? He said that ‘the residue of thought is memory.’ If you can get students thinking, they’re going to remember what they were thinking about.” 

Integrating Good Questions into Lesson Plans
From his own first-hand experience, Johnson knows that “educators are busy, busy people. We can create knowledge-based questions [testing memory or understanding] on the fly all day, but the higher-order questions are extremely difficult to create while managing the classroom,” he says. He proposes developing these more challenging questions during creation of lesson plans and jotting them down on a 3x5 card that you keep with your lesson materials.

Structuring Productive Questions
To ensure questions elicit the learning you want them to, Johnson recommends some basic rules:

1. Keep the questions to one topic. Branching into more than one topic per question can create confusion.
2. Keep track of progress up Bloom’s Taxonomy, but also bear in mind the complexity of your questions. “A question can be cognitively difficult but simple to understand,” he says, or it may be reversed. “Sometimes we may use words in our questions that students don’t completely understand. For example, what does ‘describe’ mean? How is it different from ‘explain,’ ‘document,’ or ‘illustrate’? It’s important for teachers to train students on those academic question words, which also tend to show up on standardized tests. When you ask them to ‘compare and contrast,’ what are you really asking? If they’re not trained to know what the answer might look like, they might know the answer but won’t be sure how to express it.”
3. Whether you’re writing basic questions to test understanding or higher cognitive activities, Johnson recommends using open-ended questions that force students to answer in complete sentences. Especially for younger students, you might want to provide sentence stems to help them structure their answers. For example with science answers you might offer stems, “The pattern I noticed is ________ ...” or “Based on __________, I can conclude…”
4. Think in terms of the big picture, what you want students to actually learn. “Sometimes teachers will try to get students riled up about a topic, and they’ll purposefully choose controversial questions that may not have a lot to do with learning objectives,” he says. “They’re just trying to get the kids to participate but it can end up being unproductive. Instead, think about the purpose for asking the question. Are you just trying to save time? To feel like you’re teaching? Or are you actually helping students arrive at a certain conclusion?”

Choral Response as an Engagement Technique
Asking a question to the class that they all answer in unison is one technique Johnson recommends for involving everyone. This is particularly effective for simple knowledge questions, where repetition aids learning, and for younger kids, since it’s an easy way to get everyone involved.

With choral response, students whose attention may have strayed from the classroom can be gently roped back in when the teacher notices they aren’t answering. These students – and those daydreamers the teacher maybe doesn’t see – can come back to the lesson and learn the answer by listening to their classmates.

A key practice with this technique is moving about the room as you pose the questions. “What you’re doing is listening,” Johnson explains. “You want to ensure that all students are answering and not just moving their mouths. If you’re not satisfied that all students are answering the questions, pose probing questions to find out what kids really know. ” 

As a variation on choral response, teachers can put students in the questioner’s seat. For students who are old enough to read, questions can be given to pairs or small groups. Kids take turns asking and answering questions.

Total Physical Response
“The body is connected to the brain so if you get the body moving the right way, you can get the brain engaged.” Johnson says. He suggests teachers use the four walls in their classrooms to post words that relate to the current unit. For a lesson on land masses, for example, an exercise that gets the whole class answering questions would be to ask students to stand next to the name of the land mass where penguins live, where the rainforest is, where our country is, etc.

Johnson says, “With this technique, students get out of their seats – their blood is circulating and oxygen flowing to their brains.”
The Power of Questions
“Interestingly enough, when you train students on the process of questioning, they will let you know if you’ve skipped a step,” Johnson says. “They’ll ask, ‘Isn’t that kind of a difficult question right now? We’re still at the understanding level here.’ It’s a routine for them and students love routine. They know how it works.”
Johnson, who is currently working on a questioning book is passionate about the practice. “The whole purpose in increasing the complexity and depth of rigor of the questions is not to show how smart the kids are.  It is to help them remember and understand knowledge and skills by getting them to think,” he says.

About Dr. Benjamin Johnson:  Having been a teacher in nearly every grade level and core subject, Dr. Johnson has also excelled as a campus and district administrator in several districts by increasing the wise use of technology and promoting college and career readiness, all of which has produced exceptional results.  He is an internationally known author on and is currently writing a second edition for his book, “Teaching Students to Dig Deeper”, a manual for educators who wish to help students think more deeply and acquire the ten traits of college and career ready students. 

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