Design Questions To Get The Learning You Seek


Students are constantly fed information and then asked questions to assess how well they understand various aspects of that information. Yet, we need to be aware that just because a lesson is peppered with seemingly good questions for students to answer, there’s no guarantee students are learning at the levels we seek. Unless we go beyond factual inquiries to probe the depths of understanding, students may be languishing in shallow, superficial thinking. By moving away from “one size fits all” question banks, we will be better able to hoist students up the ladder of thinking to get the results we desire (tweet this).

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Five new thinking frames represent 21st century learning and understanding.

Five new thinking frames reflect 21st century understanding and learning. Building on the original work of Benjamin Bloom, this updated framework developed by Willard Daggett from the International Center for Leadership in Education takes into account the fact that 80 percent of today’s jobs are cerebral. Although Bloom’s pioneering taxonomy is still used in many classrooms, it was introduced before words like cyberspace and global economy were part of our experience or vocabulary. Daggett’s taxonomy takes into account that high-end knowledge is now needed for students to solve complex problems, create projects in real-world situations, and compete globally.

Bloom’s Taxonomy Daggett’s Taxonomy
1. Knowledge 1. Knowledge in one discipline
2. Comprehension 2. Application within the discipline
3. Application 3. Application across disciplines
4. Analysis 4. Application to real-world predictable situations
5. Synthesis 5. Application to real-world unpredictable situations
6. Evaluation

Keeping these taxonomies in mind, we can take specific steps.


Six specific steps can push students up the thinking ladder.

The first step involves remembering. The tasks we select determine how well students recall previously learned information. If you tell students why and then ask them why, it’s still at the remembering level. We can employ simple but effective ways to measure memory by asking students to write a definition, make a list, or recite facts. The second step measures understanding. It requires students to explain ideas and concepts. While still a fairly low level, understanding remains an important building block for further learning. To assess understanding, you might have students summarize information or categorize ideas using their own or a presented classification system.

The third step is applying. At this level, you want to see whether students can carry out a procedure or implement a thought. Good assessments call upon students to demonstrate, describe, and decipher information. The key is making associations in a different context than students originally learned the material. The fourth step calls for analyzing. In essence, how well do learners distinguish between different pieces of information? This step requires more rigorous thinking and often spawns crossover thinking into new disciplines. To measure analysis, students can create spreadsheets, surveys, or graphic representations.

The fifth step is evaluating. Evaluating occurs when students can not only explain ideas, but also justify them. To assess the process of evaluation, we can ask students to decide something and then defend their position or decision. The sixth and most sophisticated step is creating. It’s here that students construct new objectives, follow their hunches, and advance a point of view. To expand creativity, students might imagine what something would look or be like in the future. As foreign ideas are mulled over, the boundaries of the probable and comfortable are surpassed and new possibilities begin to emerge.

Assessments designed around these six steps will help you determine whether students possess the skills to think in the future tense. Since good thinking is the centerpiece of good writing, reading, and learning, our questions must measure thinking applications across disciplines. We often rely on yes-and-no questions to get quick answers. While easy to formulate, yes-and-no questions don’t do much to get students to embellish, collaborate, or take risks.

The Master Teacher knows open-ended questions stretch students’ minds and get them to think clearly.

The Master Teacher stretches students’ minds and gets students to think clearly by posing questions that force learners to connect knowledge to real-life applications. Without open-ended questions that pry into the outer fringes of learning, students won’t go beyond one- or two-dimensional ideas or solutions. We can use ten questions to push this thinking:

  1. What did you mean by such and such?
  2. How does X relate to Y?
  3. What’s the point you’re making here?
  4. Why do you think/say that?
  5. What three reasons support your idea?
  6. What might happen if you did this instead of that?
  7. When you give that answer, what are you assuming?
  8. What would someone say who disagrees?
  9. How are these things similar? Different?
  10. What other questions does this raise?

The Master Teacher believes once students have the tools to figure things out, it opens a pathway to new mental functioning. To clear such pathways, wise teachers ask wise questions. When we ask wise questions, our students will tell us what we need to know to teach them.

Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. R. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Daggett, W. R. (2014). Rigor/relevance framework: A guide to focusing resources to increase student performance. International Center for Leadership in Education. Online:

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