What kinds of questions help students learn?

Asking the right kinds of questions can help students learn, according to Robert J. Marzano*, an expert in the field.  He divides questions into four kinds, those that elicit

Students shouting I Know to teacher

  • details (narrow information or facts),
  • characteristics (general information about the category into which the details fit),
  • elaborations (enhanced details about the information within a category, including the reasons why certain things happen) and
  • evidence (sources that bolster or debunk the reasoning made by the student when elaborating, or reconsideration by the student of his own thinking and logic ).

Let’s apply his ideas to some reading that children do.

For third graders reading Judy Blume’s Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great,

  • Details: What are some things Sheila is afraid of?  Where does Sheila live most of the time?  Where does she go on vacation?
  • Characteristics: Is Sheila the Great a book of fiction or nonfiction?  What kind of fiction?  Can you name some other books that fit into this category?
  • Elaborations:  Why is Sheila afraid to learn to swim?  Why are other kids afraid to swim?  Are they the same reasons why some kids are afraid to ride bikes or to touch spiders?
  • Evidence: Where could you find information about why kids are afraid to swim?  If you use the internet, what key words would you use to find out?  If you talked to a person, what person would be an expert?  a non-expert?

For preschoolers being read William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble,

  • Details: What kind of animal is Sylvester?  Where does Sylvester find the magic pebble?  What kind of animal scares Sylvester?
  • Characteristics: Are there really such things as magic pebbles?  What do we call stories that are make-believe?  Can you think of another make-believe story?  Why do children like make-believe stories?
  • Elaborations: Why is Sylvester sad after no one can see him?  Why are his parents sad?  Would I be sad if you were lost like Sylvester?
  • Evidence: If you became lost, who could you go to so I could find you?  What would be some information about me that you could tell the police?

Each level of questions becomes harder to answer, so if you use this questioning strategy, begin with details questions and work your way to harder questions. The first two levels, details and characteristics, can be asked of a group, but the other two levels require more thought and might better be considered through discussion.  Evidence-based questions might require time to answer, so might be given as homework, or be talked over again when the child has had time to consider his response.

To make this line of questioning easy on you, the parent or teacher, think details first, then genre and characteristics of that genre, then questions beginning with “why,” and last sources for more information.

*Marzano heads Marzano Research Laboratory and is author of books on teaching.  He wrote about this questioning technique in the February 2013 issue of Educational Leadership.  For examples of his questioning technique, go to   http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el201302_marzano.pdf.

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