How do High Level Questions Increase Rigor if No One can Answer Them?

I thought it might be interesting to do an article about questioning using a series of questions to help teachers to raise the intellectual rigor in their classrooms.

When you think of the hundreds of questions that teachers ask each day, do you ever wonder how many are recall level, are answered by the same students, require memorized short answers, and are answered by “I don’t know”? Contrary to what students think – in science 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 student understand, listening for misconceptions or preconceptions in their responses. Can the students in our class not only name the correct vocabulary term or recall the definition, but also explain why there are shadows, animal coloration, 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 non-threatening way – we may never have a clue about what they understand, what they don’t understand, and what they have misconceptions rather than understandings about.

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

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

What do experienced teachers do? In an article originally written by Robert Stahl, he 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 increase, and the number of noresponses or responses 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 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 and allow their second, more meaningful thinking to emerge. The teacher then selects a student randomly with the expectation that all students will be able to answer the questions to some degree of correctness and completion. It is important to follow up the initial response with again a few seconds of silence to allow the student to complete their thought with 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. It is providing the needed time 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 to 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 to teachers as well. As you become proficient in using Wait time your teaching strategies become more varied and flexible. You are asking fewer questions by increasing the quality and variety of the few you ask. The follow up questions you develop based on student responses, allows more complex processing of information by your students, and guides them in pulling their ideas together into a complete response. And 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 takes planning and scaffolding. A series of questions that eventually get to that higher level of cognition will build to the ability to analyze and synthesize all that they understand into a generalization or conceptual idea. But 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, 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 the responses will be rigorous, complete, and correct!

Dr. Terry Talley, is the author of “The STEM Coaching Handbook,” and National STEM Manager for STEMscopes. Talley holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Mississippi University for Women and an Ed.D. in Curriculum, Instruction and Administration from the University of North Texas. She began her career as a secondary science teacher working with students in grades 6-9 for 14 years. Talley later served as Science Teacher Specialist, Dean of Instruction, and eventually Supervisor for Science. Dr. Talley joined Rice University to provide teacher outreach and professional development as the Program Manager for STEM Professional Development with Accelerate Learning and the National Institute for STEM Education. With a focus on STEM education, Dr. Talley provided a perspective about STEM-based instructional practices for authentic STEM integration through a nationally recognized STEMposium. Prior to joining Rice, she was at the SRT-STEM Center as Program Director for the UTMB Office of Education Outreach in Galveston, TX. After serving the STEM community for 35 years, Dr. Talley is now retired.


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