Promoting Rigor Through Higher Level Questioning: Author Q&A
Promoting Rigor Through Higher Level Questioning: Author Q&A
PUBLISHED: Tuesday, March 17, 2020 by Andilynn Feddeler

Promoting Rigor Through Higher Level Questioning: Practical Strategies for Developing Students' Critical Thinking equips teachers with effective questioning strategies and challenges students to think critically, as well as explore their curiosity and imagination. Learn more about Bloom’s taxonomy, the power of questioning, and more in this interview with the author, Todd Stanley.

Q: It seems like a simple question, but why are critical thinking skills so important for today’s students? 

A: Because critical thinking is something students will be doing all of the time for the rest of their lives. For us to not equip them with these skills would mean sending students into the real world without a skill set they will definitely need. If you Google “top skills employers are looking for,” everyone from colleges, to businesses, to job search sites mention critical thinking as something that is valued. Nowhere on these lists is there anything about memorizing content, which is a skill schools spend a lot of time on. 

Q: Why do teachers have a hard time implementing higher level questioning? 

A: Honestly, because it is easier to grade the lower level questions. When there is a clear right or wrong answer, as happens with most lower level questions, it is easy to mark it correct or not. A more open-ended question requires more time and attention of the teacher in grading, which can be time consuming. However, what is interesting is that students themselves come to higher level thinking quite naturally, especially the gifted ones. These are the kids who are asking a billion questions all of the time because they are innately curious. What if we took this and used it to expand their thinking even more?

In addition to this, before there was the internet or Alexa or Siri, one had to know content because there was not a quick place you could find it. Now it is literally at our fingertips (or our voice). Education, in many cases, has not adjusted to this. We focus too heavily on content and not enough on skills. For example, as a geography teacher, I do not see the value in making students memorize the state capitals, yet this is something a lot of teachers are still having students do. I would much rather teach students how to find a map that would give them the answer they desire.

I also believe that many teachers have difficulty making the distinction between difficult and rigorous. When some teachers want to challenge students, they ask a more difficult question. An example of this would be asking a question such as this: 

Name the scientist who discovered a cure for polio.

You might find some people who recall that Jonas Salk was the man who developed the polio vaccine, but it is not something you can reason or critically think about. You either read it somewhere or someone told you. However, if you ask the question like this:

How might the world be different if Jonas Salk had not developed a vaccine for polio? 

Then there are all sorts of possibilities, some more plausible than others. Students would have to critically think to imagine how things would be different. It is not necessarily a more difficult question, but the type of thinking required to attempt an answer is certainly going to access different parts of the brain and raise the rigor.

I have written about the distinction between difficulty and rigor in more detail here

Q: What should teachers do in order to get started with promoting rigor in their classrooms? 

A: Gain an awareness of your own questioning skills. Teaching is a very self-reflective practice and yet some teachers suffer from what I call “American Idol syndrome.” This means they think they are asking higher level questions on their assessments and in their day-to-day questions, but if you watch the tape or look at the data, they will find they are not. I suffered from this very malady when I first started teaching. It wasn’t until I did an audit of my assessments that I came to realize that the ratio of higher level questions to lower level ones was quite low. Once I became aware of this I was able to go back to my assessments and adjust my questions, transforming a lower level to a higher level with just a tweak here or there. 

This same concept applied to the questions I was asking my students orally. In discussions, was I asking questions that perpetuated the conversation or killed it? When you ask a yes/no question, the response you are going to get follows suit. We, as teachers, need to be more aware of the questions we are asking. This could be something as simple as the questions we greet students with when they walk in the door. Most times it is something like “How’s your day going?” with the typical response of “fine.” What if, instead, we asked a better, thought-provoking question that might lead into a conversation where you learn more about your student? A question such as “What is the most ridiculous thing you heard this week?” or “If you could change anything about this school, what would it be?” can get students thinking.

I had to be aware of the types of questions I was asking, as well as the mix of higher to lower level ones. This is the main thing teachers need to do to get started asking more rigorous questions. 

Q: Everyone seems to talk about Bloom’s taxonomy, but why is it such a valuable framework? 

A: Because it works. I know Bloom’s taxonomy seems dated because it was developed in 1956, but since that time it is not like we have developed additional or different levels of thinking. There are four things I particularly like about using Bloom’s taxonomy as a framework for asking questions.

  1. By using the verbs (analyze, create, etc.) from Bloom’s taxonomy and/or those present in content standards, it is easy to categorize the level of the question. This helps during the awareness phase of recognizing, whether you are asking higher or lower level thinking questions. 

  2. By using the verbs, it is easier to write higher level questions because you can use these to drive the actions of what the student is doing. If you ask a student to describe something, this is the lower level thinking skill of understanding. If, however, you ask them to contemplate something, they are using higher level thinking skills in order to address the question.

  3. By using the verbs, it is easier to determine the level of thinking at which a content standard is asking students to learn. Many times we teach the goal of the content standard (i.e., the “noun”) but do not pay attention to what sort of thinking students need to do in order to demonstrate mastery. By paying attention to the verbs in standards, we see the minimum level of thinking we expect students to show us. You can then raise the rigor by having lessons and asking questions that go above this minimum threshold. 

  4. Because there are six different levels to Bloom’s taxonomy, it gives me plenty of choices for differentiation, which especially comes in handy when working with gifted students. If I am working with a student who is just beginning to grasp the concept of a topic, I might ask them an understanding or remembering question to check to see they comprehend it. If, however, I have a student who already has a pretty good grasp and I need to challenge their thinking, I could ask them an evaluating or analyzing question. The two different students are both learning the same topic, but I am able to differentiate their thinking by the questions I ask.


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 is currently gifted services coordinator for Pickerington Local School District, OH, where he lives with his wife, Nicki, and two daughters, Anna and Abby.