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Common Core Levels Of Questioning In Critical Thinking

After reading The Diary of Anne Frank, a student is asked, “Who is Anne Frank?” To answer the question, the student simply recalls the information he or she memorized from the reading.
With the implementation of Common Core, students are expected to become critical thinkers instead of just recalling facts and ideas from text. In order for students to reach this potential and be prepared for success, educators must engage students during instruction by asking higher-order questions.

Higher-order Questions (HOQ)

Higher-order questions are those that the students cannot answer just by simple recollection or by reading the information “verbatim” from the text. Higher-order questions put advanced cognitive demand on students. They encourage students to think beyond literal questions.
Higher-order questions promote critical thinking skills because these types of questions expect students to apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information instead of simply recalling facts. For instance, applicationquestions require students to transfer knowledge learned in one context to another; analysis questions expect students to break the whole into component parts such as analyze mood, setting, characters, express opinions, make inferences, and draw conclusions; synthesis questions have students use old ideas to create new ones using information from a variety of sources; and evaluation questions require students to make judgments, explain reasons for judgments, compare and contrast information, and develop reasoning using evidence from the text.

Higher-order Questions Research

According to research, teachers who effectively use a variety of higher-order questions can overcome the brain’s natural tendency to develop mental routines and patterns to limit information, which is called neural pruning. As a result, student’s brains may become more open-minded, which strengthens the brain.
According to an article in Educational Leadership (March 1997), researchers Thomas Cardellichio and Wendy Field discovered that higher-order questions increase neuralbranching, the opposite of neural pruning. In addition, these researchers found that teachers can promote the process of neural branching through seven types of questions.

  1. Hypothetical thinking. This form of thinking is used to create new information. It causes a person to develop an answer based on generalizations related to that situation. These questions follow general forms such as What if this happened? What if this were not true?, etc.
  2. Reversal thinking. This type of thinking expects students to turn a question around and look for opposite ideas. For example, Whathappens if I reverse the addends in a math problem? What caused this?How does it change if I go backward?, etc.
  3. Application of different symbol systems. This way of thinking is to apply a symbol system to a situation for which it is not usually used, such as writing a math equation to show how animal interaction is related.
  4. Analogy. This process of thinking is to compare unrelated situations such as how is the Pythagorean Theorem related to cooking. These questions typically ask How is this like ___?
  5. Analysis of point of view. This way of thinking requires students to consider and question other people’s perspective, belief, or opinion in order to extend their minds. For instance, a teacher may ask a student, What else could account for this? or How many other ways could someone look at this?
  6. Completion. This form of thinking requires students to finish an incomplete project or situation that would normally be completed. For example, removing the end of a story and expecting the students to create their own ending.
  7. Web analysis. With web analysis, students must synthesize how events are related in complex ways instead of simply relying on the brain’s natural ability to develop a simple pattern. For example, How extensive were the effects of _____? Or Track the relationship of events following from ___ aretypes of web analysis questions.

The researchers concluded that this type of questioning can lead to better critical thinking skills. “They can analyze, synthesize, evaluate, and interpret the text they are reading at complex levels. They can process text at deep levels, make judgments, and detect shades of meaning. They can make critical interpretations and demonstrate high levels of insight and sophistication in their thinking. They are able to make inferences, draw relevant and insightful conclusions, use their knowledge in new situations, and relate their thinking to other situations and to their own background knowledge. These students fare well on standardized tests and are considered to be advanced. They will indeed be prepared to function as outstanding workers and contributors in a fast-paced workplace where the emphasis is on using information rather than just knowing facts.”

Higher-order Questions and Explicit Direct Instruction

The Explicit Direct Instruction (EDI) model incorporates a variety of higher-order questions in order to encourage and increase critical thinking skills.
The LEARNINGOBJECTIVE component in EDI is the only question that is at a low level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. The reason for this is because the content during this portion of the lesson is not at a high level. Also, the students have not been taught the high-level content. Typically, the question asked to students is “What are we doing today? or What is our Learning Objective?”
The CONCEPTDEVELOPMENT component includes a variety of higher-order concept-related questions because the content is at a high level. Here is a list of higher-order questions that are asked during this EDI component:

  • In your own words, what is (insert the concept being taught)?
  • Which is an example of ________? Why?
  • What is the difference between the example and the non-example?
  • Why is this an example of ______?
  • Give me an example of ______.
  • Draw an example of ______.
  • Match the examples to the definition of ______.
  • Which picture/poster shows an example of _______?

The SKILLDEVELOPMENT component asks higher-level thinking-process questions after modeling the skill.

The GUIDEDPRACTICE asks higher-level process questions that require the students to show their thought process when performing the skill.

  • How did you know how to __________?
  • How did you know that this was the correct answer?
  • How did you use to ensure that you knew how to find the _____?
  • How did you know how to interpret the answer?
  • Which steps was most difficult for you? Why?

The RELEVANCE component includes higher-level evaluation questions.

  • Does anyone have any other reason as to why this is important?
  • Which reason is the most relevant to you? Why?

The CLOSURE component includes high-level questions such as:

  • What did you learn today?
  • How did the lesson meet the Learning Objective?
  • How will this lesson benefit you in the future?

If higher-order questions promote critical thinking skills, as research shows, then higher-order questions should be included throughout instruction. The EDI model offers a good way to do just that!


Educational Leadership, Seven Strategies That Encourage Neural Branching, March 1997

How do you incorporate higher-order questions during instruction? Please share your experiences in the comment section below.

Author: Patricia Bogdanovich

Patricia has held various positions with DataWORKS since 2002. She currently works as a Curriculum Specialist. Patricia helped develop and create many of the early resources and workshops designed by DataWORKS, and she is an expert in analysis of standards. Patricia plans to blog about curriculum and assessments for CCSS and NGSS, classroom strategies, and news and research from the world of education.

Barbara Blackburn, on her website, has a great definition of “rigor” that I think most educators can get behind, and that I certainly appreciate:

Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, and each is supported so he or she can learn at high level, and each student demonstrates learning at high level.  

For me it connects to both the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and formative assessment where students are expected to, supported in, and demonstrate higher-order thinking.

Rigor is about helping students learn at higher levels. For me, this translates to designing opportunities for students to take more responsibility for their own learning and to support their peers in their learning. Blackburn also talks about questioning both what teachers are asking of students and responding to those students. How to do both at higher levels is going to be a key piece of creating the environment that supports increased rigor in the classroom.

As a teacher, I have to work on not only asking better questions but also asking questions better. And I have to be figuring out how to teach my students to do the same two things. Both of these include planning:

+ How can I make better use of hinge-point questions to help me know what students need to move on in their learning?

+ What question will I ask and when in the lesson to provide scaffolding to support the higher expectations?

+ How do I want students to demonstrate their learning at high levels? This requires that I am familiar with the “critical words” we use to ask students to demonstrate their learning, whether on an assessment or in class conversation

+ What strategies will I use to increase student engagement, to involve all students in responding to the questions not just to the teacher but amongst themselves as well, to push their thinking higher (or deeper)?

More often than not, classroom discussions consist of lower-order questions that are answered by a few motivated students. These questions are not rich enough to provide detailed information about student thinking and learning and responses are not systematically collected from all students in the class.

Does it work? Tobin and Capie, two education researchers at Florida State University investigated the use of higher-order questions in conjunction with increased wait time and its effect on student engagement in 13 middle school classrooms. Teachers in the study were provided with guidance in the choice of higher-order questions, the enhancement of wait time, or both. Students in each of the classrooms were then observed for engagement (e.g., attending to a task, responding to questions, collecting data, explaining information) and academic achievement. The researchers concluded that both the use of higher-order questions and increased wait time significantly contributed to increases in student engagement. (Relationships between classroom process variables and middle school science achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 1982, 74(3), 441–454.)

In another research experiment examining the relationship between classroom evaluation practices and student outcomes, Terence Crooks from the University of Otago reported similar findings for the use of higher-order questions and student interest. More specifically, Crooks (citing Barak Rosenshine and Robert Stevens in 1986) suggested that the use of questions to actively engage a high percentage of students may explain the positive relationship that is generally found between increased use of classroom questioning and student achievement. The author suggested that to obtain the full benefit, classroom questions should be directed to as many students as possible.  (The impact of classroom evaluation practices on students. Review of Educational Research, 1988, 58(4), 438–481.)

How are teachers and educators in your school using higher-order questions and formative assessment to support and implement the rigor necessary for Common Core success? We’d love to hear your thoughts, so leave a comment below.

Kathy Dyer is a Sr. Professional Development Specialist for NWEA, designing and developing learning opportunities for partners and internal staff. Formerly a Professional Development Consultant for NWEA, she coached teachers and school leadership and provided professional development focused on assessment, data, and leadership. In a career that includes 20 years in the education field, she has also served as a district achievement coordinator, principal, and classroom teacher. She received her Masters in Educational Leadership from the University of Colorado Denver. Follow her on Twitter at @kdyer13.

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