When you pose a question to your class, do you ever get blank stares in return? Ever wonder why some of your questions "work" whereas others don't? Are you simply worried that you're not asking the "right" questions, which will help your students to grow cognitively?
As a teacher, it's important to think about the types of questions you're asking your students and when you ask them during an individual class or during the semester. Bloom and his colleagues (1956) developed a taxonomy for the cognitive learning domain. This taxonomy will help you classify the types of questions you're asking your students from lower order thinking to higher order thinking. Vanderbilt University's Center for Teaching has more information on Bloom's taxonomy as well as George Mason's Graduate School of Education.)
To use Bloom's taxonomy:
1) Evaluate your student's cognitive abilities. Sometimes easier said than done. If you are a veteran teacher and have been teaching at your school for a number of years, you may already know what kinds of students you have in class. If you are brand new to teaching or have just switched schools you will need to do some reconnaissance work and experimentation to figure it out.
- Before school begins, ask other teachers in your department, or even outside your department, about the types of students they encounter. What kinds of questions and activities/projects do they really respond to? How motivated are they to engage in class discussion and do assigned work?
- During the first 3 lectures or so, ask a variety of questions using Bloom's taxonomy to guide you. Be aware and write down how students are able to engage in the different levels of questions. If they have trouble with some of the higher order thinking questions, then make it a goal in your course to help your students get better at those higher order thinking questions.
- Figure out the different kinds of educational backgrounds of your students. Are they first generation college students? Did they go to public, private, or parochial high schools? Were they home schooled? You can get this information by asking students to fill out a general information sheet at the beginning of the semester (you should also be asking students questions about what interests them outside of the classroom, what courses they are taking, what's their major/concentration, etc.) Remember not all public (private or parochial) schools are alike. On the general information sheet, ask students the name of the school they went to and/or ask them to describe their educational background.
2) Create a cognitive domain goal for your course. Think about this in relation to what level course you are teaching and what kind of students you have. First, is it a survey 101 course or is it an upper level course for major concentrators or graduate students? Is it a theoretical course or is it an applied course? Since Bloom's taxonomy is a ranking system from low to high, you may think that all courses and students should be expected to reach the "highest" level (e.g. evaluation). But that's not true. It is important to evaluate what is appropriate for your level of class and the levels of your students.
3) During the scope of a course, develop a technique to help students work on the cognitive domain(s) that you have targeted. After you have evaluated your students' cognitive abilities, you'll need to develop a plan for how to help your students improve. In general, with repetition and practice answering certain types of questions, many students will improve (see Solution 1 below). However, you may want or need to further support them (see Solution 2 below). Here are examples:
Problem: Your students have read the assigned article, chapter, or book, but when you ask them to state the main idea or summarize it, they draw a blank or their answers are not satisfactory.
Objective: To develop the skill of summary and presentation. This falls under the knowledge and comprehension cognitive domain levels of Bloom's taxonomy.
Solution 1: Non-scaffolded technique, learning by observation, evaluation, and repetition.
- Each week "cold call" (meaning, randomly call on) a student to give a 5-20 minute (determined by level of course) summary of the reading.
- "Cold call" another student to critique and add to that student's summary.
- At the end of class, "cold call" another student to summarize the class discussion.
Solution 2: Scaffolded technique
- Weeks 1-3 — Model a summary of a chapter. Identify the different parts of your summary (e.g. research question, main conclusion, supporting evidence, methods of data collection, theoretical framework — depending on the level and type of course you don't have to include all).
- Weeks 4-6 — Divide class into small groups (at least 3 people). Allow them 5-10 minutes at beginning of class to discuss what they read and write down a summary of their reading. One person should present it out loud. If each group is presenting the same material. Rotate who presents each week. Briefly discuss the similarities and differences among the summaries. Evaluate the summaries orally in class or in written feedback.
- Weeks 7-9 — Call on an individual student at random to give an oral summary of the reading. Call on another student to add or critique the summary of that student. (You can also call on a student to give a summary of the discussion at the end of class).
- Weeks 10-12 — Divide class into reading groups and assign them different chapters or articles to read. In class, create heterogeneous groups (see Fieldsights post "In Class Activities" for description). Each student should present a summary of their reading to the other students. The rest of class should be focused on questions that allow students to analyze and synthesize information from the chapter/article they read and a chapter/article they heard from another student.
- Weeks 13-15 — Have students orally present a portion of their final paper or project.
- You can shorten or lengthen the number of weeks for each step depending on how quickly your students master each step.
- It's important to give students feedback on the development of their skills. These can be delivered orally in public in class or written in private. These skills can also be evaluated for a grade (e.g. participation grade) or not.
- There are pluses and minuses with different types of evaluation. For example, critiquing students orally (and publicly in class) gives them immediate feedback. You also allow all students to hear the feedback and thus benefit from it. And finally, students later in their careers may have to prepare themselves to receive oral feedback in their professional lives. However, public feedback can damage self-esteem and peer relationships. You have to weigh the pros and cons and determine which will best serve student needs, as well as the constraints (e.g. time in class, amount of work for teacher) of the course.
4) For an individual class, move from lower order to higher order thinking questions. When you lesson plan for an individual class, you need to think about when to ask certain types of questions. In general, you should ask lower order thinking questions at the beginning of class and higher order thinking questions towards the middle to end of class. Another way to think about this is to start off with "entry" level questions like those associated with knowledge and comprehension on Bloom's taxonomy, then move to "probing" questions like those associated with application and analysis, and finally move to "rethinking" questions like those associated with synthesis and evaluation. These divisions are borrowed from Wiggins and McTighe's (1998) "Backwards Design" technique for curriculum and lesson planning (see Fieldsites post on Curriculum/Syllabus Design for description).
Posted By Nicola Bulled
These pedagogical tools are very insightful and instructive. Thank you for offering them in such an accessible format. I wonder if you might speak to variation. Your problem/solutions suggest a homogeneity of students, that no student offers an answer to a posed question, or that all students can answer questioned if appropriately targeted to their cognitive learning domain. In my experience, students engagment and interest in the subject matter varies. While constructing a course that develops higher order thinking over time is ideal, how would you manage or address students who are slower to develop their critical thinking abilities than others?
Posted By Louise Lamphere Beryl
Excellent question. Its an almost guarantee that you will have varying cognitive levels and levels of engagement of your students. There are different ways of addressing this:
1) During an individual class, remember you should be moving from lower order questions to higher order questions. you can target these questions at individual students of different abilities. Then, as the semester progresses, you should be asking those students targeted questions that push them to the cognitive level just above the one you think theyre at (or to a level they need practice with, if you dont like to think of it as a hierarchy of levels)
Note: Its okay to ask lower order questions even if you think theyre too easy for the majority of the students. Just be sure that those students who you are targeting for these questions are engaging in the discussion.
Note: Its okay to ask a higher order question even if you think only 1 or 2 students will be able to answer them. All students will benefit from wrestling with the question and hearing the discussion.
2) If this is your first time teaching a course or you dont have any idea what their cognitive level or level of engagement will be, then I would go for the scaffolded/structured approach. After the semester has started, if you find that students are taking to it more quickly (or are getting bored with the slow progress), then change the amount of time you spend at each level. OR If during the semester you see theyre struggling at step of the scaffolded approach, draw it out as long as you need to. Remember that as an instructor it is your prerogative to change the syllabus to suit the needs of your students.
3) Evaluation - remember you need to give students feedback on how theyre doing in the course. You should be letting them know what kinds of questions they need to be thinking about when theyre reading (i.e. give them a heads up about the kinds of questions you want them to be able to answer in class). This will help them prepare and then you can target them in class.
BOTTOM LINE: Tailor the course and individual class sessions to meet the different needs of your students.