Assessing Students’ Thinking With Questions

Special Focus : Building an Efficient, Creative Teaching Force
Designing an Effective Training Program September 18, 2014

This article examines how teachers can use questioning as an instructional tool to facilitate richer inquiry and for assessing students’ thinking. 

Education systems all around the world are in search for evidence to identify gaps to help us move forward and essentially to show progress. But the heart of it is, what are we measuring? What evidence are we looking for?

In education, it’s essentially about how well teachers teach and how well their students learn. International measurements such as TIMSS, PISA, PIRLS, etc. show that Asian educational system have done well. If the outcome for Singapore is better results, I think the international measurements have proved a point that we have worked hard towards. We have done well as a system to produce top results. But as we celebrate the success, it is necessary to rethink whether we gathered the right forms of data.

Recently, I spoke to a teacher and she shared this concern, “…. we have lost the ability to catch children’s imagination and forget what they are worth.” This statement provoked me to wonder exactly, what is the difference between matter versus meaning in education?  The ‘form’ or matter seems to prove that as a system, there really isn’t a need to change. Or at least, no major reform is needed. Singapore’s curriculum has served us well and our push for school-based curriculum innovation over the years seemed to be working well. But this line compels us to wonder, what is the meaning behind our achievement? What have we really achieved?

Allow me to relate these questions to the classroom environment which mediates both the matter and meaning of teaching and learning. Education systems around the world are trying to equip learners with skills for the 21st century. Teachers are often required to include challenging questions in their examinations to assess for higher order thinking skills.  Yet, have teachers done enough to first arouse students’ curiosity and inspire new ways of thinking? What are other considerations needed for teachers to ask better questions that  probe and enhance students’ thinking?

Questioning in the classroom can be used to surface and assess students’ thinking. However, there are two issues with questioning for better thinking in my opinion. First, we assume all teachers can ask effective questions. Asking questions is important but the way questions are asked is often problematic. Furthermore, some teachers are too reliant on taxonomies and frameworks that may distract them from the very reasons why we use questioning to assess if students have learnt. Take for example, Bloom’s Taxonomy. Bloom’s Taxonomy for the cognitive domain is something which many teachers are very familiar with. It gives us a language to say “ah, now student A shows comprehension or student B is analyzing well because….”. While these forms of analysis help teachers to assess how much students’ know, the questions cannot be randomly asked without an explicit ordering of the logic to scaffold students’ thinking. 

Students’ cognitive development needs to be cared for in an inquiry classroom. Questions need to be carefully sequenced to help students make logical connections. For instance, if the teacher aims to ask questions to assess students’ level of comprehension, then it needs to be preceded with some basic understanding that students have sufficient knowledge of the content. 

It is also liberating to consider how an inquiry-driven classroom culture can help students get out of their ‘locked doors’ and discover new meaning for learning.  As teachers strive to open up towards more inquiry-driven forms of learning, we need to be aware that students (and teachers) must be given the time and space to re-orientate themselves towards these new roles. If we expect students to be imaginative and inventive, we need to empower them to start thinking differently. At times, it may just be giving them the permission to free-wheel ideas and let their imagination run wild. But there are times when we need them to think more strategically by applying their thoughts to real-world applications. Teachers can guide students to access their faculty to search for that relevance and rigor in a more self-directed fashion.

How might teachers model the inquiry process that empowers students to enjoy thinking? Having been in countless classrooms observing skillful teachers facilitating rich inquiry, I think what is most common in all of these classrooms is the energy and enjoyment of exploration- which must come from within the students’ themselves. One possibility is to design more authentic tasks to stimulate students’ curiosity, which may get children to even start learning from one another. The enjoyment of exploration grows beyond just knowing the correct answer. However, students need to feel safe and perhaps even fun to just play along with the ideas of divergent thinking without prejudice of being evaluated. 

Teachers need to anticipate and prepare students to recognize that it is not how much they know but how they come to know and what else do they want to know. We really do not want students to resist questions. We want them to embrace the kinds of complexity and ambiguity that questions bring along with good thinking. This is where questioning starts to crystallize students’ inquiry, by first allowing them to develop their voice. Teachers cannot claim that they are teaching the 21st century competencies simply by following a prescriptive lesson plan that adopts some thinking tools and strategies without first considering how the students will learn. Enactment of lesson plans without students’ thinking in mind is often sorely disconnected to what they will experience. Teachers need to first understand their class profile and the readiness to the new content in order to ensure that there is a systemic flow of thinking skills that are well infused with the content learning.

Questioning is also an excellent assessment strategy as it provides a most organic way of offering feedback as a continuation of thinking. Feedback can be given mostly from the direct response teachers provide through the comments they give to students on their work to spur students to consider what they have learnt more critically. That said, from my observation, we need to be wary that some of the most common feedback are not very helpful nor illuminating. For example, an articulated “good job” or “needs to put in more effort” do little to extend students’ thinking. In fact, these types of comments become a form of value judgment rather than helping students take corrective actions to improve their own thinking.  Most essentially, it should allow students to feed-forward their own thinking and choose appropriate actions to improve their learning. Feed-forward needs to be planned and to be communicated in the classroom. 

Before joining University, I taught in high schools for a good number of years. A student once thanked me with “I enjoyed today’s class because you have made me think hard and I like what I learnt”.  This ‘liking’ is powerful as it is a very concrete feedback to me. I am glad that the child owns that learning and has started to think harder by himself. In essence, that is the kind of passion I think all teachers hope students will have.  I used to be biology teacher. I think a questioning classroom is just like an open field. Each of my students is like a flower, but they do not stand alone. When the wind blows, pollination happens because they spread the infectious learning and that’s when assessment for learning becomes translated into new levels of learning- by students, for themselves. And as the class continues to inquire together, there really is no shame in admitting, “I don’t know, I really don’t know but let’s find out together!”  But this is exactly where the inquiring classroom transforms into such a “field” of rich learning where we are really co-creating knowledge.