How to Ask Great Questions in Actively Learn

Dr. Natalie Saaris
June 13, 2016

Now that you have the ability to embed questions right in the text and differentiate instruction with extra help notes, what’s the best way to write questions that engage students and lead to deeper thinking? Here are a few helpful tips.

Create an Objective

Reading comprehension is necessarily a selective process: students cannot devote every aspect of the text to memory and must instead decide where to focus their attention. Before writing any questions, teachers should select an objective for their students’ reading: should students focus on the bias of an argument, the themes of a literary work, or the development of events in a historical narrative? This will largely depend on the class and the particular text being studied.

If possible, share the objective for the reading assignment in the beginning section marked, “Add directions for students.” This will help your students see the purpose of the reading assignment and give them an idea of what they need to pay attention to. Your questions will seem far less random, and your students will be better prepared to answer them successfully, if they tie to the objective that you’ve shared.

For example, in assigning Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, you might let students know that they should pay attention to the evolving relationship between Gregor Samsa and his family. The questions you ask related to this topic will be much easier for students to answer because they will have been primed on what to expect; by the time they arrive at your question, they will already have been thinking about Gregor and his family and paying attention to what you think is most important.

Sharing your objective at the beginning of the assignment will help prepare students for the questions you ask and focus their reading.
‍Sharing your objective at the beginning of the assignment will help prepare students for the questions you ask and focus their reading.

Communicating the objective of the reading assignment is particularly important for struggling readers who have trouble understanding what they are supposed to take away from the text. These students aren’t able to distinguish key points from supporting details, which means they may be paying attention to irrelevant information in the text and be caught entirely off guard by a teacher’s question. Focusing their reading will set them up for success and orient their reading.  

Determine Placement

Questions in Actively Learn serve the important function of chunking the text for students. A question will prevent a student from advancing in the text, which means that it should be placed at the end of a key statement or scene where you would want to stop the student’s reading progress and take time to reflect. Positioning questions mid-sentence will interrupt the flow of reading and make it difficult for students to resume the train of the narrative.

One way to approach creating questions is to first figure out where you want to pause the student. What moments in the text would you want to highlight, and why? What is it about those moments that you want students to understand?

For instance, I might choose to stop my students in the third paragraph of The Declaration of Independence after the famous words about all men being created equal, the unalienable rights of man, and governments deriving their power from the consent of the governed. Once I select this moment to stop students and insert my question, I can ask myself why these lines are so memorable and why I would want to draw my students’ attention to them. One takeaway I might have is the influence of Enlightenment ideas upon the writers of The Declaration, which would lead me to ask the question, “How do the previous two sentences reflect Enlightenment ideas?” Thinking strategically about placement has led me to determine the appropriate question to answer.

Figure out where you want to pause students in their reading. This will often lead you to identify key passages and create great questions that draw attention to those moments in the text.
‍Figure out where you want to pause students in their reading. This will often lead you to identify key passages and create great questions that draw attention to those moments in the text.

As you figure out how to chunk the text for students, pay attention to the question density meter at the top of the page. Because questions interrupt the flow of the student’s reading, you don’t want to create too many breaks and lose the continuity of the text.  

Align to Standards

Aligning questions to standards is helpful in improving the quality of instruction and in better understanding student performance. Standards help teachers identify which skill or cognitive strategy is being targeted by the question. As teachers go through the process of aligning their questions, they may discover that they are only targeting one skill or consistently omitting another. Seeing these patterns might lead teachers to seek more variety in their questions and thereby better develop students’ reading comprehension.

Aligning to standards will show you patterns in your questions and make your data more insightful.
‍Aligning to standards will show you patterns in your questions and make your data more insightful.

Analyzing student performance on various standards may also help teachers figure out which skills their students need the most help with. If students are consistently struggling with questions related to assessing the validity of an argument, you may want to include more of those questions to give them opportunities to practice and improve. Your data will be far more insightful if questions are aligned to standards and tracked in the data report. 

Use Depth of Knowledge

Another useful framework when creating questions is Depth of Knowledge. This is essentially a way for teachers to measure the complexity of thinking that is demanded by their questions. This complexity is determined by whether the question tests recall, skill/concept, strategic thinking, or extended thinking.

Many teachers assume that a higher depth of knowledge question necessarily entails greater difficulty for students. But you can imagine a scenario where summarizing a passage from a very difficult text (level 2 depth of knowledge) is actually harder than making connections across several texts that a student is familiar with and finds relatively accessible (level 4 depth of knowledge).

Another erroneous assumption about depth of knowledge is that struggling students should be limited to lower-level questions while only advanced students should be asked higher-level questions. Higher-level questions are sometimes easier for struggling students because they have many entry points, meaning a student has the flexibility to choose among different ways to answer and support his or her reasoning. Lower-level questions typically have one correct answer, which narrows the approaches that a student can use to produce a response.

The distinction among the different levels is more significant when we consider engagement and cognition. Higher-level questions are typically more engaging for students and provide more interesting answers. These are the questions that lead to discussion and debate because they are more open to interpretation. They also enable students to think more deeply because they require students to construct meaning rather than merely identifying information in the text.

Teachers should emphasize meatier questions (“How does this portrayal of the family compare to the one we saw in x?”) as opposed to the recall questions that can quickly bore students and lead them to lose interest in the material (“What is the name of the family’s dog?”). The questions teachers ask should ultimately lead students to think more deeply while they read. Keeping this goal in mind will lead to better questions, more interesting answers, and greater enjoyment for students.

Use Notes for Open-Ended and Discussion Questions

Not all of your questions will necessarily be used for assessment. Some questions are intended merely to inspire reflection (text-to-self), while others are intended to spark debate and discussion among students.

For questions that you would like to ask but do not intend to use for assessment, use the notes feature. By embedding questions in a note rather than in a question box, you can signal to students that the question will not be graded and that they can answer freely. This is a terrific way to drive engagement and generate conversation between students. 

Conclusion: The Benefits of Better Questions

While it might be a stretch to say that your students will look forward to answering your questions, they will develop a much better understanding of what they read and be more engaged during class discussions. Asking questions that provoke reflection and debate turn passive readers into active ones; they make reading engaging by involving the student in constructing meaning. The benefits that you see in your students' thinking will make your efforts in creating instruction well worth it.

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