Expert Strategies to Drive Greater Depth of Knowledge in Your Classroom

Dr. Natalie Saaris
March 19, 2019

Depth of Knowledge has been around since the late 90s, but its implementation remains a mystery for many teachers. We know we’re supposed to drive deeper learning and ask higher-order questions, but the “how” is often murky. How do you know if you’re getting to higher-order thinking in your instruction? And how have other teachers made the transformation to deeper learning in their classrooms?

We reached out to several experts in the field to get their tips on how to move past the surface. Here’s their advice to your most common depth of knowledge questions:

Are recall questions always a bad thing?

Recall questions have their place in the learning process, but it’s important to recognize them as a step toward depth rather than the final destination. As Erik Francis, ASCD author and owner of Maverik Education, points out, “Surface-level questions help students build foundational knowledge and develop functional understanding. They can also be used as checks for understanding and identify gaps in learning.” Students cannot jump straight into analysis and critical thinking if they haven't understood the basics of what they're working on, which is why recall and basic comprehension are so critical to the learning process.

Ultimately, though, you don’t want learning to stop at the surface: you want to build upon this foundation and get to a place where students are able to transfer and extend what they’ve learned. And making that move to greater depth may require a push from teachers and administrators. As Scott McLeod, Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at U of Colorado explains, “Many students resist the move to deeper thinking work because it's more complex and more difficult than simple factual recall and procedural regurgitation. [...] This is particularly tough for students who have internalized school-enforced socialization of just ‘tell me what to do’ educational models.” For students who are accustomed to simple comprehension checks, having to slow down and think in a more complex way may be a struggle. It's important to recognize that moving to greater depth is not only an instructional change, but also a transformation in the way that students learn. Teachers will need to be strategic in how they motivate and encourage students through this process.

How do I increase the depth of knowledge of my existing assignments?

There are lightweight steps that teachers can take to increase the rigor of their questions and activities. Matt Miller, Head Textbook Ditcher at Ditch That Textbook, recommends using Webb’s Depth of Knowledge to identify what rigor of thinking an activity calls for: “Finding a lesson teachers want to improve and giving it a 'DoK upgrade' is an easy way to start. If they identify where the activity falls on Webb's Depth of Knowledge and simply try to move it to the next level, that's a very manageable, doable approach. This way, teachers don't have to 'reinvent the wheel'. A step-by-step, progressive approach is powerful.” For example, if an activity initially called for students to summarize the elements of a text (Level 2), the 'DoK upgrade' might be to have students critique an argument or compare that text to another one they are familiar with (Level 3).

One quick way to assess depth is to ask yourself if a question can be answered using “cut-and-paste.” If so, it doesn’t require students to transform knowledge and is thus a recall question. Erik M. Francis advises teachers to “challenge students to explain their responses and justify their reasoning or results. You can ask students who, what, where, but don’t accept a one-word answer or a rote response. Have them delve deeper and go into detail.” One way to do this is to ask follow-up questions: "How did you figure that out? What if...? How does that compare to...?" This approach stresses that the quick response is only the beginning to deeper learning, and that the broader ideas require more development and explanation. As Erik M. Francis explains,

  • "Ask good analytical questions that challenge students to demonstrate and communicate how and why or describe and explain what categorizes, characterizes, or classifies.
  • Ask good reflective questions that engage students to examine and explain what are the causes, the connections, the consequences, the reasons, the relationship, or the result.  
  • Ask good hypothetical questions that prompt and encourage students to think creatively about what if, what would happen, or what could happen."

Another great way to solicit meatier answers from students is to increase the wait time after a question. Embracing the silent pause after a question has been shown to increase the quality of student responses, increase participation by slower learners, increase evidence to support inferences, and solicit higher-order thinking (Sousa 2017). Too often, in the race to fill the silence or get through the material before the end of the class, teachers pounce on the first raised hand and then jump into their own explanation to the question. Let the students do the thinking, and ensure that they have the time to do it. One way to create more opportunities for students to think is to first articulate their ideas in writing prior to sharing in a class discussion. Ask a question, give students a few minutes to jot down their thoughts, and then share. You'll be surprised at how much better the responses are when students have more time to reflect and develop their ideas.

What new activities can I integrate into my curriculum to deepen student thinking?

One recurring theme from all of our experts’ advice was to inspire student creativity in producing original projects. Allow students to take the reins in transforming knowledge and applying it to novel scenarios. Kerry Gallagher, EdSurge columnist and ASCD emerging leader, describes her initiative to foster higher-order thinking: “My grade 8 students just finished analyzing a set of primary sources that show three different perspectives of the same historical event. In the next phase of our learning process I will ask them to write a transcript of a news radio style podcast. One student will be the reporter and 3 classmates will take on the perspectives of each of the 3 primary sources. They will put together a podcast that will report how the event was important to different people in different ways and they will be required to incorporate direct quotes from the sources they analyzed. We will publish their podcasts so they will be especially invested in making sure the work is high quality, not just for a grade but because they know others from beyond our classroom will listen to their work.”

Matt Miller describes another higher-order thinking activity that he refers to as “Caption This”: “students find an image related to the material they're studying. They add speech or thought bubbles to the characters in the photo, helping them think from a different perspective (DoK 2). Students can justify their thinking in a text box at the bottom (DoK 3). It's an easy, low-prep activity that gets students into higher critical thinking right away.”

It's important to point out that these project-based ideas are still grounded in the learning objective and ask students to provide evidence from the material they are studying. One common pitfall in creative projects is focusing students on the tools or performance aspects of the project at the expense of their thinking about the material. The project is a means of helping students demonstrate and communicate their deeper understanding of concepts and content. Ensure that the students are spending the bulk of their time thinking about the material that they're studying rather than getting sidelined with artistic tangents.


The strategies listed above will hopefully provide guidance on how to move past recall questions and get to more rigorous thinking. If you’re looking for more examples of questions and resources aligned to Depth of Knowledge, check out the assignments in the Actively Learn Catalog: all of our questions are aligned to Depth of Knowledge and require students to rely on textual evidence. For more information on higher-order thinking, check out these resources suggested by our experts:

  • Asking better questions: Erik M. Francis' ASCD book, Now That's a Good Question! How to Promote Cognitive Rigor Through Classroom Questioning
  • Redesigning instruction for deeper learning: Scott McLeod’s book, 4 Shifts Protocol, which provides some concrete 'look fors' and 'think abouts' for educators and school systems that can help them (re)design instruction for deeper learning, greater student agency, more authentic work, and rich technology infusion.
  • Integrating student creativity into instruction: Monica Burns’ Tasks Before Apps, which includes a chapter looking at creation in the classroom and how students produce a multimedia product to share their learning with the world.

Related posts:

Works Cited:

Sousa, D. A. (2017). How the Brain Learns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

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