By Ted Murcray
Often instructors are concerned with the way students interact with the material in class. They worry that students will not participate robustly in class discussions or that they will engage at a low level, if at all. These instructors often ask, how can I increase student engagement in class discussions while increasing critical thinking? Answering this question begins with a bit of reflection: Instructors should consider the types of questions and discussions that they have designed.
For many of us, questions are simply questions. When asked what types of questions or what levels of questions we are utilizing, we are at a loss for how to respond. Isn’t a question just a question? In fact, there are different purposes for questioning, different levels of critical thinking, and different structures for posing questions. Each of these features, when considered well, can lead to more student engagement in class.
This article is focused on understanding the purposes, levels, and structures of questions. Subsequent articles in this series will explore how to create questions for each of these purposes, and when to pose those questions.
Purposes for Asking Questions in Class
We might think that the only time to ask a question is to find out what students know about the topic being discussed. However, Kellough and Kellough (2011) note that there are five different reasons an instructor might wish to ask a question.
- To politely give instructions.
- “Will you please turn in your textbooks to page 67?”
- “Can you ask me that after class?”
- To review and remind students of classroom procedures.
- “Who can tell me what the reading is for our next class?”
- “Who can remind the class when the mid-term exam will be?”
- To gather information.
- “How many of you were able to finish the reading easily?”
- “Has everyone secured a location for fieldwork?”
- To discover student knowledge, interests, or experience.
- “How many of you love to Shakespeare’s sonnets?”
- “Have you ever been on a mission trip or service experience?”
- To guide students thinking and learning.
- “Do you have evidence to back up that claim?”
- “Why would the author choose to use that particular metaphor?”
- “What do you understand about the ecological relationship between that particular root fungus, voles, and the survival of the large conifers of the forest of the Pacific Northwest?”
Instructors use questions for all five purposes above to drive instruction, to manage classroom expectations, and to determine next steps in instruction. As you can see, not all these purposes for questioning drive students’ understanding or thinking about the content covered in class. Many of these questions can be answered with a few words and do not lead to developed conversations with the class. This is one reason instructors can feel like they are asking lots of questions without engaging students in relevant discussions.
Levels of Critical thinking in Questions
When discussing critical thinking in a classroom, we typically reference Bloom’s taxonomy (Bloom et al., 1956) which set out different levels of thinking (e.g., Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation). This taxonomy was revised by Bloom’s associates to focus on outcomes (Anderson and Krathwohl, 2001). The revised taxonomy still has six levels, but the names of the levels have been adjusted, and the top two levels of thinking were switched (e.g., Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, Create).
Bloom’s taxonomy is used to evaluate the type of thinking being elicited from students in classrooms. Most questions asked by instructors in a class are overwhelming of a low-level with 77% of questions posed for factual recall and only 17% requiring students to think critically (Wilen, 1991). Over the years, Wilen’s study has been replicated with remarkably similar results – even though instructors generally want students to be engaged in critical thinking.
Guilford (1959) developed the Structure of Intellect Model at the same time that Bloom was developing his taxonomy. Guilford’s model contained five major types of mental operation: cognition, memory, convergent thinking, divergent thinking, and evaluation. The two types of thinking – convergent thinking and divergent thinking – are often used to talk about quality classroom questions. Sometimes these categories stand alone, but they are often paired with Bloom’s taxonomy. Convergent questions have a single answer (think of a funnel siphoning down to a single correct answer), while divergent questions have multiple correct answers or possible avenues (think of a fan opening from a single point – the question – to a broad scope of possible answers).
Many instructors find that combining Bloom’s and Guilford’s models can provide a helpful way to conceptualize and create questions that lead to high-quality discussions in class. For example, often instructors ask questions that are Convergent (Guilford) and Low Level (Bloom) – meaning there is a single correct response to the question, and the student does not have to think hard to get the right answer. However, instructors are encouraged to plan to ask Divergent High-Level questions that have multiple possible answers or solutions and require a high level of thinking to get there.
Structure of Questions
Andrews (1980) conducted a study on questioning practices in higher education, which resulted in a set of question types that are useful for reflecting on our questioning practices. One structure he studied was the internal consistency of questions. He found that higher education instructors tend to ask a cluster or flurry of questions all at once. Those questions are sometimes clear and focused, but at other times they are scattered in their focus and critical thinking requirements. Consistent questions bring up “a single point and call for one type of thinking from students” (Andrews, 1980, 134). In contrast, inconsistent questions might bring up several points while requiring multiple levels of thinking from the students.
For example, an instructor might ask, “What are the major causes of the Civil War? Think about all that was going on and really consider which of those issues was probably the most influential. Was it slavery? Was it state’s rights? Were there other factors going on there? What do you think? Which one do you think was the most important?” This question ranges from factual recall from prior lectures to critical thinking based on the content. All the questions here are centered on the causes of the Civil War, but the answers range from a simple “yes” or “no” response to a longer, more involved statement. Andrews found that questions like this resulted in lower student engagement as students were likely confused about how to begin answering.
Instead, instructors should stay focused on a single point and single level of thinking. “Consider the causes of the Civil War that we have discussed in class and reviewed in our readings. Which is the most important? Be ready to justify your claim with evidence from our prior learning.” Students can choose different causes, which makes the task divergent; and they all must justify their decision, which makes this task evaluative. In this case, students know what level of thinking is expected of them; and they are unlikely to answer with a single word or short phrase. Questions like this can increase student engagement in discussions.
Conclusion: Reflect on Your Questions
Student engagement in discussions is related to the purpose, level, and structure of the questions we ask as instructors. Take a few minutes to reflect on your own practice. You can watch yourself teach a recorded lecture or spend a few minutes reflecting after class. What questions did you ask? Analyze the purpose, level, and structure of your questions. Where do most of your questions land?