Student Achievement Opinion

Since We Still Test, Teach Students to Dissect Questions

By Starr Sackstein — June 14, 2018 3 min read
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*For full transparency, this post is taken from one of my books, The Power of Questioning written a couple of years ago. What you are reading is an excerpt from that text. I’m trying to decide whether or not to revise or create a second edition and am looking for reader feedback. Thanks in advance.

Testing has become an unfortunate, but an integrated part of the learning process and within that are the questions established to test students’ ability to think.

Too often, the questions that appear easiest on the page really are meant to deceive in complicatedly simplistic ways. Questions can lie and easily mislead students. It is our job as educators to help students break apart the meaning of each question to better be able to answer in the most effective ways.

When students understand what is being asked, they too ask more direct and thoughtful questions. In order to help students arrive at more developed and thought-provoking questions, we need to show them how every word matters and how the placement of each word impacts the overall outcome.

How can we break apart questions for a deeper understanding of what is being asked?

On the first pass, a student gets a cursory understanding of a question being posed. Too often they read quickly or don’t listen actively and then only answer the most salient part.

By breaking down the specifics of what a question is asking in pieces, a student can meaningfully use phrasing and diction to seek a better, more complete answer.

Consider the following questions taken from a New York State Common Core Regents Exam: What is most likely not a purpose of the repetition of the phrase "Give us a peace" throughout the poem? (1) to provide a unified structure (3) to solicit the people's loyalty (2) to emphasize a central idea (4) to introduce the poet's requests The poet's purpose in the poem can best be described as (1) a condemnation of war (3) an argument for colonial values (2) an appeal for justice (4) a criticism of education

Each one of these questions expects a student to know multiple things. They may seem simple on the surface, but really these are deceptively easy questions framed in such a way to get at a prescribed meaning that may be more usefully discussed if done through conversation or even essay.

The multiple choice question is an unfair construct that both diminishes the value of real student thought and misleads a student to try to ascertain the real meaning of an intended text or problem set.

Both of these above questions were in direct relation to a poem and the reader is supposed to guess the author’s purpose. The first question does a negation that can easily be missed by a reader. Understanding that the test is really trying to determine just how closely the student read and is able to make meaning of the words being asked.

First, a reader will need to break the question up into sections or phrases to better understand what is being asked, one that has been done, perhaps by annotation and rereading, then the answers need to be tackled. Only one is the best answer. Some may be close to right or even right, but not the best.

If students understand how to dissect the question and the answers, they too will be able to see the best answer, but will likely not grow at all from the experience. Questions in this setting, often devalue the true power of inquiry and establish a close-ended view of exploring learning through questioning.

This hurdle is a high one for teachers to traverse. It is essential that we take back the questions and help students disassociate these useless forms of questioning with the real essence of how inquiry drives curiosity to grow as a learner.

Ultimately, we need to teach kids to backward solve the questions. First, they need to figure out what is being asked by annotating the question appropriately. The looking at the individual parts in reference to the answers being provided and then eliminating those answers which don’t coincide with the question at all first.

Although we can try to impart this necessary school skill to students, we all must acknowledge that in the grand scheme of things, these questions are relatively useless.

How do you help students prepare for state and standardized testing questions? Please share

*Picture reprinted with permission from the Publisher, Rowman and Littlefield. If you enjoyed this excerpt from The Power of Questioning: Opening up the World of Student Inquiry, check out the rest of the book. I'm also looking for feedback from readers as I consider whether or not there is a need for me to revise or create a second edition to this book. If you've read it and think it could be updated, any thoughts and feedback would be greatly appreciated. What do you want to know more about?

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