Tag Archives: Comprehension

Classroom Tips: Deepening Student Understanding through Questioning

Classroom Tips for Deepening Student Understanding through Questioning

We live in a sensory overloaded world. Electronic devices or the drama of real life can easily distract our students. It is important that we find ways to actively engage learners so that they have the space to explore their intellectual curiosity and deepen their content understanding. To do this well, we teachers must ask our students questions! We need to get them thinking about complex concepts and talking to each other as they grapple with them.


Students want to learn from each other. They want to share their own views and perhaps even argue about other’s. Stimulating conversation about things students care about is what will hold their attention and ultimately deepen their content understanding.

When competing with the sensory-overloaded world out there, it is important that teachers show students that we want to hear what they have to say, and facilitate open and exciting discussion.

How do we do this? We ask them open-ended and intentional questions, get them asking their own, and get them to investigate together. Ask, ask, ask away and get them to engage deeply with the content at hand.

1.) Engage students and informally assess their comprehension by asking questions and stimulating dialogue.

Use preplanned and guiding questistudent-raising-hand-clip-art-image013ons as you go. Avoid trick questions and phrase questions clearly and concisely. Ask questions that engage student interest; relate them  back to their worlds. Think music, politics, social issues, etc..! Listen carefully to their responses and ask follow-up questions to encourage open conversation. (Caram and Davis, 2005).

2.) When asking these thought-provoking and open-ended questions, have students talk in pairs before opening up full-class discussion.

Students are often nervous to pipe up without having a moment to reflect on the question their teacher has just asked. By asking that students turn and talk to the person next to them about the question at hand, students get to put their ideas into words and learn from their partner before having to share with the class. This simple routine gives students confidence to speak up in classroom discussion, and enhances the quality of classroom discussion overall.

3.) In order to elicit deeper critical thinking, stimulate conversation between students!

Instead of asking just one student to respond to an open-ended question, be sure to ask other students if they agree or disagree, and why. You can also hold students responsible for listening to each other by asking that students restate what their classmate has said, and following that up with questions about their own opinion on that response (Goldsmith, 2013). This way we get students responding directly to the ideas of their classmates.

4.) Avoid the traditional raise-your-hand to respond method. Hold students responsible for classroom engagement.

Especially if teachers use the turn-and-talk method after asking each question, students should feel prepared with a response. Cold-calling holds students responsible for classroom engagement. It also helps ensure that students who are more timid and less likely to pipe up have the opportunity to share their ideas with the class.

th5.) Host Socratic seminars, and stimulate “conversations that teach” (Roberts and Billings, 2009, p.83).

As said, questioning deepens content understanding, as students are held accountable for their own engagement. It also provides the teacher with important information regarding student comprehension. So, get students to ask their own questions! Host Socratic seminars and teach students what are factual, interpretive, and evaluative questions. Listen carefully as they go to get a sense of how they are grappling with classroom texts and ideas.

To teach students factual, interpretive, and evaluative questioning, begin with a fun, recognizable story like Cinderella and ask students to come up with each type of question based on that story. Then, ask that they apply this questioning method to the texts read in class.

Whenever hosting a Socratic seminar, give students time (either in class or at home) to prepare by developing their own questions. Encourage them to ask questions that refer directly to the text and deepen textual understanding.

6.) Set up Structured Academic Controversies (SACs) in the classroom to get students to work together to investigate questions on their own.

The SAC allows students to explore a complex question in teams. In pairs, students are assigned a certain position related to a question. For instance, the teacher may ask: Was the New Deal a success or failure? One pair of students must find evidence for it being a success, and the other pair must find evidence for it being a failure. After, both teams must present their evidence to each other, and then must come to a consensus as a group regarding their own position on the issue.

In a SAC, students do not have to choose one position for their consesus, but can develop more complex, fuller answers to the question. For instance, they may decide that the New Deal was successful in that it treated the symptoms of the Great Depression, but was a failure in that it did little to address the root causes.

Students don’t easily forget the conclusions they came to on their own. Ask them the right, tough questions to get them investigating together!


Billings, L. & Roberts, T. (2009). Speak up and listen. Kappan Magazine, October 2009 ed., pp. 81-85.

Caram, C & Davis, P. (2005). Inviting student engagement with questioning. Kappa Delti Pi Record, Fall 2005 ed., 19-23.

Goldsmith, W. (2013). Enhancing classroom conversation for all students. Kappan Magazine, April 2013 ed., pp. 48-52.

Concerns about Multiple-Choice Assessments? Let me help…

A great deal of what we do in our AP U.S. History class depends on the students’ motivation outside of classroom time. Students are expected to teach themselves the barebones of U.S. History through their reading of America’s History textbook, written by James A. Henrietta, David Brody, and Lynn Dumenil. Each Friday, after ample review, students are expected to take a 20 question multiple-choice test to prove their reading and comprehension of the textbook.

This is probably our students’ first high-school level course that assesses student’s knowledge of information perhaps never even mentioned by the teacher. The idea is that they are learning a great deal of the historical information, some of the dryer stuff, outside of the classroom, so that inside of the classroom we are able to delve into its meaning. Together as a class we ask the big questions about the information they have gathered in their own readings of the textbook: Why did this happen? What was important about it? What are the essential questions surrounding it? What do primary and secondary documents say about it?

Parents are well aware of the structure of the course. We send students home with a letter for their parents to read and comment on, and introduce the format of the course in the beginning of the year at parent-teacher night. If one were to take issue with the concept of multiple-choice assessments, however, claiming such assessments not to represent their child’s capabilities or performance, I’d respectfully address their concerns in a couple of ways. First, I would explain why the multiple-choice assessment is the best to check in on whether or not a student is keeping up with the textbook readings. These are really information-based assessments, and so multiple-choice is a fine way to check in on student informational retention. I would also remind parents that students are expected to hand in “Key Terms” before taking these multiple-choice quizzes each week, and that these Key Terms allow the students to focus their readings and reflect on all that will be covered on the quiz through meaningful, short-responses that ask students to identify the terms and reflect on their significance. Next, I would explain that we make sure to allow for several other types of activities and projects that allow the students who are less apt to perform well on multiple-choice quizzes to better demonstrate their capabilities and understanding. We assign several debates, presentations, interpretive art projects, discussion reflections, notebook checks, and essays throughout the year, for instance. Each of these projects, that allow for more student voice, are allotted more points than the multiple-choice quizzes given each week.

I would also make sure to send the concerned parent examples of the other types of point-allotted projects and assessments we cover throughout the year. Through these, the parent will be able to see the amount of time, effort, and creativity students (and teacher alike) need to put into these activities and projects, and how they get to the essential skills needed to be successful in the course, and beyond. Ultimately, our multiple-choice tests assess students on informational knowledge and the rest of our activities and projects assess students on their conceptual and evaluative knowledge.

That informational knowledge, however, is quite essential to develop the conceptual and evaluative skills necessary to meaningfully explore historical themes. Through this class, the student learns the skill of taking the responsibility of learning into their own hands. They teach themselves the information to we can teach them the skills of how best to apply this information to explore history, society, and the mind more profoundly.

Formative and Summative Assessment in AP U.S. History Unit #1

Tomorrow is the first summative assessment in the AP U.S. History course for which I am student teaching. Throughout the unit we have assessed progress through a variety of formative assessments, primarily through what are called “Key Terms” and their concomitant quizzes.

Key Terms are a list of about twenty terms – whether they be events, people, concepts, etc… – addressed in the week’s textbook chapter, and are due at the beginning of the school day each and every Friday. Students are expected to identify the given terms and describe their significance to U.S. History. As students are expected to read an entire textbook chapter every week, these terms allow them to focus their reading and more closely read for the concepts my mentor teacher deems most important to the course.

Every Friday morning I stamp these Key Terms as handed in on time. I pass them back once students are in class so that the students can use these and their textbook to answer a series of review questions with their table partners. Students are expected to write paragraph responses to at least one of the review questions in the first thirty minutes of class. We allot about ten minutes for group discussion, where the teacher helps address any outstanding questions. Students pass back their Key Terms and in the last twenty minutes of class they take a twenty-question quiz. Each quiz question relates to a different Key Term, and is a mode to assess whether or not students are reading the textbook chapters in their own time as closely as needed. We are laying the groundwork, after all, and it is important that students know the skeleton of history before we can dive deeper.

Key Terms are then graded over the weekend, and the quizzes some time the next week (I’ll admit, however, we have not been great about getting the students their Key Terms or scores quickly, as I have been learning the ropes as I grade this unit). These formal formative assessments are of course coupled with several other informal assessments. My mentor teacher and I, for instance, always consider student participation in class discussion and seminars and stamp completed homework in order to keep track of student engagement.

As said, the first summative assessment for the course takes place tomorrow. The Unit 1 test will include several multiple choice questions related to the key terms the students have already been working with. The second part of the test, however, is quite different. Students have been assigned essay groups (four students each), and together the class came up with four possible essay questions (all relating to how distinct factors affected the New England, Middle, and Southern colonies). Each student is assigned to lead one essay, which means they are expected to write the introduction and conclusion and organize their group members to write the body paragraphs. Each student, then, heads one question and is expected to write three distinct body paragraphs for the other three questions.

Students were given some time to organize who would head and write what for each potential essay question last week. Over the weekend they have presumably written out rough drafts for each question. On the day of the test, my mentor teacher will choose just one of these questions, and depending on the question, all group members should already know which part of the essay they are expected to write. Groups are not even allowed to discuss or strategize during the exam.

Once all is handed in, my mentor teacher will read each part as if it were one essay (understanding, of course, if a group member is absent or really drops the ball on the rest of the group). This takes a great deal of preparation work, and in their preparation time, students will inadvertently have studied for the multiple choice part of the unit exam.

I am very much looking forward to seeing how this summative assessment plays out! The formative assessments thus far this semester have been extraordinarily helpful in assessing student progress, and assessing just how much work these students are doing. The workload is heavy for this course, but the students have the opportunity to really explore the complexities of history. This is all thanks to the foundational knowledge they glean from their Key Term and quiz preparation, which allow us to push them much further during precious class time.

Bloom’s Taxonomy and Formative Assessment

Currently I am student teaching for an AP U.S. History course (popularly referred to as “APUSH”) at Roosevelt High School in the Seattle School District. I had an important sit-down with my mentor teacher early in the year about how assessments worked in a class as rigorous and expansive as this. I learned that each and every Friday, students would turn in “Key Terms,” which consist of twenty terms taken from the chapter of the textbook. Students are to identify each term and determine their significance. In the last twenty minutes of class every Friday, students were to take a chapter quiz on these same key terms. Some questions would necessitate a closer reading than others, but the tests were designed to test not only chapter reading, but chapter comprehension.

At first I wasn’t all too stoked about the idea of weekly quizzes. “A quiz every precious week just to check in on pretty wry textbook readings?” I wondered. It wasn’t until I saw this in action that I understood why these quizzes were essential to genuine engagement in other aspects of the course. As my mentor teacher had explained, these quizzes tested students’ knowledge — their retention and understanding of the topics at hand. The Key Terms facilitated the jump from Bloom’s first taxonomy category: Remembering, to the second: Understanding. The quizzes added the necessary pressure to ensure students developed the knowledge of the perhaps somewhat dry information they would certainly need to engage more fully in the more colorful and complicated issues of History.

Class time allowed for students to apply this knowledge gained from studying up for weekly quizzes to more timeless concepts. We must know something of the Founding Fathers before we can analyze their prescription for freedom, after all. So it is in the classroom itself that students in this course have the freedom to explore Applying and Analyzing, the next two on the list of Bloom’s taxonomy. From there, my mentor explained, we can ask students to engage more fully with history, and ask them to think for themselves: to evaluate historical events and create their own judgements on the past. Students can more comfortably engage in big questions like “Did the Founding Fathers’ vision for the United States in fact materialize?” with the knowledge and comprehension the quizzes solidify under their belts. Students must depend on their understanding of the Founding Fathers and their vision of freedom to effectively evaluate its impact and presence in today’s world.

Unit tests, papers, and projects in the course test for things much bigger than just raw knowledge — that’s what those pesky Key Terms and quizzes are, after all! In these unit tests, papers, and projects, my mentor teacher explained, students have the freedom to explore and interpret historical happenings and concepts. Unit tests consist of short and long essay responses and document-based interpretations. Papers ask students to formulate arguments about times’ past, and substantiate such arguments with evidence. Projects allow for genuine creativity and extrapolation — students have the chance to dress up and act as historical figures, engage in debate about the very same complex topics that echoed in Congress halls, and even get to create historical scenarios of their own making in a presentation on the “what if’s?” of history. In this last project, students get to formulate and research questions such as: What would have happened had Hitler not invaded Russia? Or had Roosevelt lived to the age of 90? Or had the United States opted not to fight in the Vietnam War? These other types of assessments depend on the knowledge gleaned from the course’s infamous Key Terms and quizzes. How would students know which question to ask of History if they didn’t know what had already happened?

And so, while the formative assessments of knowledge are perhaps not the most exciting parts of teaching, they are absolutely essential to explore those more stimulating and creative aspects of the classroom. My mentor teacher can bring the class to a whole different intellectual and exciting level all because she uses formal, formative assessment to ensure students are keeping up with, remembering, and comprehending the textbook reading.

From the textbook we make our way into the historical inquiries and argumentation of Howard Zinn’s A Peoples History and Richard Hofstadter’s American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It. We begin with a discussion of Zinn’s first chapter on Monday, and I can hardly wait to see what these students come up with!