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 then 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.
o 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.
o "Cold call" another student to critique and add to that student's summary.
o At the end of class, "cold call" another student to summarize the class discussion.
· Solution 2: Scaffolded technique
o 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).
o 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.
o 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).
o 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.
o Weeks 13-15 — Have students orally present a portion of their final paper or project.
o You can shorten or lengthen the number of weeks for each step depending on how quickly your students master each step.
o 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.
o 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).
Please respond to this fieldsight with questions, comments about its usefulness, and suggestions you may have! You may also email me directly if you have any questions or requests for future teaching tool posts: firstname.lastname@example.org
Louise Lamphere Beryl is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Previously she was trained and certified as a secondary school teacher and taught high school students in New York and New Jersey. She now incorporates the techniques she learned into her undergraduate teaching of anthropology.