Teaching Opinion

Teaching Students to Dissect Questions for Deeper Learning

By Starr Sackstein — April 26, 2017 3 min read
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Testing has become an unfortunate, but integrated, part of the learning process in schools and within that are the questions established to test students’ ability to think.

(Even if they don’t do a good job of testing that skill.)

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 first pass, a student gets a cursory understanding of a question being posed. Too often they read too 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 the 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.

And because these questions aren’t going to exist in their lives, we need to find ways to help them get through what is expected of them to move onto the next grade, but we mustn’t spend too much valuable class time actually prepping for tests. It will ultimately crush their interest in content.

How many times as an adult have you had to take a unit test? And if you have had to take a test, were you able to redo it? Do you remember what was on it?

At the heart of everything we do, we must be offering students a chance to grow as learners by exploring the world around them in a personally meaningful way. Going deeper than mere test questions is essential to them becoming life long learners.

How can you teach students to dissect questions as a meaningful life skill rather than a means to passing a meaningless test?

*If you want to know more about questions, check out my book The Power of Questioning: Opening up the World of Student Inquiry

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.