Helping Students Ask Better Questions

By on January 6, 2015

The warmth underneath my collar started to increase.  I could feel the heat rising like lifting the hood on an overworked idle car.  If there were a mirror in front of me, all I would have seen is a gush of red overtaking  my face.  As I listened to my students, all I heard was, “What happened after...?”, “Which is true...?”, and "When did...?”  I wanted to scream, but I didn't.  Instead, I asked myself, Why are they only asking lower level questions? I took the blame and adjusted.

These were my feelings during a recent 9th grade English socratic seminar.  My kids are great! They work hard, they are engaged, they do what I ask, but I had failed them. I had failed to prepare them to ask higher level critical questions. So now what? I decided to try to change the way they think about learning.

  1. Introduce Higher-Level Thinking Words (e.g., Bloom, Costa, or Webb)
    • I thought it was important for kids to understand a bit of background before I threw a list of words at them. In about 10 minutes, I was able to provide some important context.
      • First, introduce the the person (I decided to introduce Benjamin Bloom).
      • Second, explain how this person's ideas have been used in education.
      • Third, examine with your students the levels or domains that are used to categorize words.
      • Fourth, explain how higher-level thinking strengthens and enhancing learning. 
  2. Use A Topic to Show Higher-Level Thinking
    • I communicated to my students that during academic discussions like Socratic seminar I expect them to ask high-level questions so that everyone in the discussion can experience deeper thinking.
    • I took a topic/subject and started with recall and identification questions. I have a Higher-Level Thinking word wall in my classroom. The words are not scrambled, they are categorized into levels/domains. This makes it easy for students to see how the thinking becomes deeper as they move through the levels. I held up one word at a time as I asked a question. I modeled a few questions for each level/domain, holding the word in my hand for my students to see. Since my questions focused on a single topic, my students could clearly see how each level required deeper thinking.
    • To further support my students, I created a higher-level thinking table that includes a category name, definition, sample verbs, and question stems.

This table provides verbs and question stems for Bloom's domains. If necessary, you can modify the information in this table for Costa's levels or Webb's Depth of Knowledge (DOK).

Category Definition Verbs Question Stems
Knowledge Remember previously learned information.

arranges, defines, describes identifies knows, labels, lists, matches, names, outlines, recalls, recognizes, reproduces, selects, states

What happened so far?

Can you name the...?

Find the meaning of...?

Who was it that?

Comprehension Demonstrate an understanding of the facts. distinguishes, estimates, explains, extends, generalizes, gives an example, infers, interprets, paraphrases, predicts, rewrites, summarizes, translates

What do you think...?

What is the main idea?

What is the difference between __ and __?

What details support the idea that...?


Application Apply knowledge to actual situations. applies, changes, computes, constructs, demonstrates, discovers, manipulates, modifies, operates, predicts, prepares, produces, relates, shows, solves, uses

Do you know another instance where...?

Can you create a model that represents the idea that...?

What types of questions could we ask about...?

What needed to change in order for...?

Analysis Break down objects or ideas into simpler parts and find evidence to support generalizations. analyzes, breaks down, compares, contrasts, diagrams, deconstructs, differentiates, discriminates, distinguishes, identifies, illustrates, infers, outlines, relates, selects, separates

How is this event similar to...?

What did this mean when __ said...?

What are some of the problems/challenges...?

What were some of the motives behind...?

Synthesis Compile component ideas into a new whole or propose alternative solutions. categorizes, combines, compiles, composes, creates, devises, designs, explains, generates, modifies, organizes, plans, rearranges, reconstructs, relates, reorganizes, revises, rewrites, summarizes, tells, writes

Who else believed that...?

In what categories should we organize these ideas?

What were the main ideas that came out of the argument between __ and __?

What other solutions were available at the time? 

Evaluation Make and defend judgments based on internal evidence or external criteria. appraises, compares, concludes, contrasts, criticizes, critiques, defends, describes, discriminates, evaluates, explains, interprets, justifies, relates, summarizes, supports

Questions can vary widely, here. 

Answers should be supported by evidence.

Once students have their lists of verbs, it's time to apply them!

  1. Group Students by Confidence Level
    • On a sticky I had kids write their level of confidence with Blooms Taxonomy. 1 = Very comfortable to 4 = I’m drowning and need help.
    • I explained that depending on their comfort level, they must find their missing group members.  For example if the chose a 3, they must find a 1,2, and 4.
    • Groups were created, the picked up a poster board, and found a place in the room to work.
  2. Create a Collaborative Poster
    • In groups of four, I tasked students to create a total of six questions, one for each of Bloom's categories.
    • I created and projected a Google Slide (below) that explained what their posters should include.
      • The category
      • A question
      • An answer to the question they created, supported with evidence from the text.
      • An image that illustrates the idea behind their question.
  3. Use Technology to Share Questions with Class
    • I created a Google Form where students could submit their responses.


From this point forward my students were very cognizant of the types of questions they were asking. It actually lasted all term and it got to the point where they would encourage and demand that they only ask higher level critical questions of each other. It's affirming to know that not only did they learn content, but they learned how to learn at a higher level.

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