Getting Started With Promoting Rigor Through Higher Level Questioning
Getting Started With Promoting Rigor Through Higher Level Questioning
PUBLISHED: Monday, October 26, 2020 by Todd Stanley

Every year, teachers and schools across the world pay millions of dollars for curriculum in order to challenge their students, in the form of textbooks, computer programs, prescribed lessons, modules, projects, etc. We use these programs to promote rigor in the classroom and higher level thinking in our students. We want to challenge all of our students, from the gifted and high-achieving students to the lower achievers, and will pay top dollar to do so. Of course, what the makers of these products are not going to tell you is that you do not have to purchase these wares, nor do you have to spend all that money, in order to challenge your students. Just like Dorothy and her red slippers, you have had the power the entire time—and it does not cost anything. 

What is this magical superpower that lies within you? Do you have to come across an alien spacecraft, be exposed to gamma rays, or be bitten by a radioactive spider in order to access it? No. This power is actually something teachers do every single day with their students; it is the power of questioning. How you can challenge your students day in and day out, raising the rigor of your classroom to meet the needs of all of your students, comes down to one factor: What questions are you asking?

Keep in mind that not all questions are created equally. There are questions that are well asked and promote critical thinking. Then, there are questions that accomplish nothing other than canned or yes-or-no responses that do not elicit deep thinking from the respondent. People always are saying, “I know this is a stupid question, but . . .” and the obligatory response is that there are no “stupid” questions. I am here to tell you that there is such a thing—especially in a classroom where you are trying to build the thinkers of tomorrow. As a matter of fact, all sorts of “stupid” questions can actually do much more harm than good. And, unfortunately, these questions are asked daily in classrooms all across the world. 

At this point you are probably starting to get a little anxious, wondering whether you are a teacher who is asking “stupid” questions. The good news is that every teacher is guilty of asking a “stupid” question from time to time, but the bigger picture question is: Do you recognize when ineffective questions are asked? Some teachers might think that the questions they are asking are effective, discovering, only under further scrutiny, that they are not the type of questions that improve student learning. 

To help determine how the questions in your classroom are impacting the learning and understanding of your students, I would like you to do a self-evaluation. Now, keep in mind, self-evaluations only work if you are honest with yourself. In some ways, you are better off being harsher on yourself during a self-evaluation. The good news is that the only person who is going to be seeing the evaluation is yourself, so there is nothing preventing you from being completely forthcoming. Answer the following 10 questions as best you can, using a scale of 1–5 (1 being you do the indicated activity very poorly, and 5 being you do it at an expert level). Just for the record, although I thought I was pretty good at asking rigorous questions, I gave myself very few expert-level ratings initially. But there are always improvements to be made. If you find yourself scoring a lot of 5s, you might need to reflect in more depth. 

Don’t forget that you are rating your questioning behavior. This involves more than just the questions you ask. It also involves the environment you set for your students. Do you create a culture where asking rigorous questions is simply expected in class, not just from the teacher, but from the students as well? This behavior rating scale asks you to look at your questioning skills on more than a superficial level. This rating scale asks you to consider if effective questioning behavior is in the very DNA of your classroom.

How Do You Rate Your Questioning Behavior?

  1. How often do you challenge students by asking questions that arouse their curiosity or make them want to know more?
  2. Do your questions encourage students to listen to each other’s responses and opinions?
  3. Do your questions promote self-evaluation by your students? 
  4. Do you preplan key questions you want to ask during the lesson?
  5. Do your questions call for students to think for themselves?
  6. Do you ask a variety of questions—recall versus thoughtful questions?
  7. Do all students get involved in class discussions?
  8. Do students speak to each other when responding or only to you?
  9. Do you wait a reasonable time for students to think about their responses before calling on them or permitting them to speak?
  10. Do you encourage your students to ask questions? 

Now add up your score and use the following scale to rate your questioning behavior:

  • 45–50: Your questioning behavior is off the charts, literally. Students are being pushed to reach their potential through your questions and theirs. 
  • 39–44: Your questioning behavior is above average and needs minimal refining.
  • 33–38: Your questioning behavior is pretty good but could use some consistency.
  • 27–32: Your questioning behavior shows that you need to put more work into the types of questions you ask and the classroom culture you create for your students. 
  • 21–31: You might want to take a good look at the questions you ask in class and what they are designed to do.
  • 0–20: Your questioning behavior needs a major overhaul, but the good news is that this book is designed to provide you with the skills to do so. 

I will finish with this. Look at your rating and determine if it is where you want to be as a teacher. If it is not, what are you going to do to improve, and what implications will this have on your teaching? I would caution those who think there is no improvement to be made. If you ever get to the point in your teaching career where you say “I’ve got this now,” then you are doing something wrong. You will never “get this now” because teaching is not about widgets and programs; it is about human beings that are constantly evolving and changing. Teaching is like golf. Every time I think I have figured it out I discover there is something else I could be doing better. If you are doing it right, you will feel uncomfortable for however long you spend in the classroom. 

Note. This post is adapted from Promoting Rigor Through Higher Level Questioning: Practical Strategies for Developing Students’ Critical Thinking, by T. Stanley, 2020, Prufrock Press. Copyright 2020 by Prufrock Press. Adapted with permission.

Learn more about the book here.

Todd Stanley is the author of more than 12 teacher education books, including Project-Based Learning for Gifted Students: A Handbook for the 21st-Century Classroom and Performance-Based Assessment for 21st-Century Skills. He was a classroom teacher for 18 years, teaching students as young as second graders and as old as high school seniors, and was a National Board Certified teacher. He is currently gifted services coordinator for Pickerington Local School District, OH, where he lives with his wife, Nicki, and two daughters, Anna and Abby.