How Do High-Level Questions Increase Rigor if No One Can Answer Them?

Today, I want to try something. I thought it might be interesting to do a blog about questions by using a series of questions that I am often asked by experienced, thoughtful teachers who are working to raise the intellectual rigor in their classrooms. Let’s give it a try!

When you think of the hundreds of questions that teachers ask each day, do you ever wonder how many are at the recall level, how many are answered by the same students, how many require memorized short answers, and how many are answered by “I don’t know?” Contrary to what students think, in science classes we ask questions for two reasons: 1) to have students explain what they know and to evaluate the depth of their knowledge about the science concepts we are teaching and 2) to assess what students understand by listening for misconceptions or preconceptions in their responses. Can the students in our classes not only name the correct vocabulary term or recall the definition, but also explain why there are shadows, animal coloration, and weather or forces that change the surface of the Earth? Students enrolled in science classes are guided in developing their understanding of the larger concepts, such as systems, patterns, and adaptations, that allow them to explain what they are observing and testing. Without asking students what they know and understand—in a nonthreatening way—we may never have a clue about what they really understand, what they don’t understand, and what they have misconceptions rather than a keen understanding about.

Why are we asking questions, and what types of questions do we need to ask? We ask our students questions in order to guide their inquiry and thinking about the science we are teaching. Well-constructed questions shape habits of mind and help to develop ways for students to think about their thinking (metacognition). When asked at the appropriate time, students should be able to reframe their thinking about what they are observing, testing, reading, or pondering.

What responses do we expect? As you plan the questions you will ask, have you considered the responses you anticipate your students to provide? What answers will you accept? Will “I don’t know” be an acceptable response?

What do experienced teachers do? In an article originally written by Robert Stahl, Stahl suggests that by using a technique called wait time, teachers can expect the length and correctness of student responses to increase. The number of volunteered and appropriate answers will also increase, and the number of no-response answers or answers that contain “I don’t know” will decrease and eventually diminish.

How do I use wait time? Wait time is one of the most widely discussed instructional strategies, but it is the hardest to implement. It begins with asking students questions that require greater depth in their responses followed by a three to seven second pause. The few moments of silence allow students to discard their first thought in order to allow their more meaningful thoughts to emerge. Then the teacher, with the expectation that all students will be able to answer the questions to some degree of correctness and completion, selects a student at random. It is important to follow up the initial response with, again, a few seconds of silence to allow the student time to complete their thought with the additional information as it emerges. Then, with prompting and cues, the student will eventually provide a complete response.

Why is it called “wait time?” Isn’t “think time” a more accurate term? I have heard it called both. By calling it “think time,” it names the primary activity that is occurring during the silence—providing the time needed for students to get their initial response reframed into one that reveals their thinking and true level of understanding.

So, what is the benefit of wait time for teachers if it takes more preparation? Through many research studies, wait time has been shown to be highly effective in increasing student achievement, but few realize the benefits for teachers, as well. As you become more proficient in using wait time, your teaching strategies become more varied and flexible. You ask fewer questions by increasing the quality and variety of the few that you do ask. Also, the follow-up questions you develop, based on student responses, allow your students to complexly process information, which guides them in putting their ideas together into a complete response. Finally, students respond with more refined and complex reasoning and explanations, which was the purpose of your lesson in the first place!

And one final question—How do high-level questions increase rigor if no one can answer them? One of the things I have learned in my years of teaching students at all levels is that the majority of questions asked in the classroom by students and teachers are at the lowest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. To get questions to the higher cognitive levels, it takes planning and scaffolding. A series of questions that eventually gets to that higher level of cognition will build students’ ability to analyze and synthesize all that they understand so that they can form a generalization or conceptual idea. However, if you start out with a challenging, rigorous question, you will get that “deer in the headlights” look and silence from your students. By scaffolding up your questions, or moving from knowledge and recall questions at the start of the discussion to those requiring thoughtful responses, you and your students will be successful. Also, by allowing Think-Pair-Share or small group discussions before calling for answers, your students will gain confidence, and their responses will be rigorous, complete, and correct!

This month, Talley’s Take is focusing on Quality Questions. Be sure to check out the STEM-ify It video. It showcases how using questions in the science classroom stimulate student thinking, critical observations, and thoughtful responses by students. I look forward to your comments!

Terry Talley, Ed.D.
STEMcoach in Action!

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