February 06, 2015

Four Types of Questions That Increase Rigor

Marzano Center Staff
Learning Sciences Marzano Center

Each of the four question types should be used in all subject areas.

With recent changes to standardized assessments and newly adopted standards, teachers are working hard to ensure that activities and assignments are sufficiently rigorous.

One way to increase classroom rigor is in lesson planning. While textbooks suggest questions and prompts, they may not require students to use higher-order thinking, critical reasoning, or provide evidence that goes beyond the original source. It’s up to teachers to consider the balance of varied level questions that they will ask.

It’s not that different from the way people should approach rigorous physical exercise; students need a warm-up to avoid pulling a “thinking muscle.” More literal questions—at the comprehension level—help to guide and prepare students for questions that will require deeper thinking. Although teachers shouldn’t abandon lower level questions, they need to envision a path that swiftly moves students toward questions that require higher-level thinking.

Higher-level questions involve the type of cognition that we see in Design Questions 3 and 4 of the Marzano Teacher Evaluation Model—analysis and knowledge utilization. At these levels, students must classify, specify, analyze, match, generalize, experiment, investigate, make decisions, and problem solve. They must use inductive and deductive reasoning as they draw conclusions and make inferences that allow them to test hypotheses and deepen their understanding.

Dr. Marzano has identified four types of questions: detail, category, elaborating, and evidence. Each can be tailored to provide students with support or to require more complex thinking.

1) Detail Questions: Asking questions about important details.

With detail questions, teachers are likely to be using instructional strategies in Design Question 2, where students must demonstrate their understanding of what is being taught or has been taught.

  • The level of cognition tends to be retrieval or basic comprehension.
  • Answers are supported with basic details from the text or lesson.
  • Questions start with words like what, where, which, how many, or when.  

2) Category Questions: Asking students to identify examples.

Students describe general characteristics or compare and contrast. These questions often engage students in examining similarities and differences, but if they’re not quite ready for higher-level thinking, teachers can modify to keep questions at the comprehension level.

Students describe what they see in one area and identify how it is different or similar in another area. For example, the teacher may ask students to describe and compare what they saw on the slide with the animal cell with what they saw on the slide with the plant cell.

To work in higher complexity, students must identify the difference and assign weight to it using evidence, which requires deeper thinking.

  • What do you believe is the most significant difference?
  • What evidence do you have to support that conclusion?

3) Elaborating Questions: require students to make inferences.

Students integrate the new content with their prior knowledge to explain a reason for something. To increase the level of rigor, a teacher may require students to draw a conclusion and support it with evidence. For example, the teacher may ask, “How might this situation have been different if Event A had occurred before Event B?”

Here, students must explain why or answer the question what if. These questions have the potential for increased rigor by allowing the students to speculate and make projections.

4) Evidence Questions: identify sources and examine reasoning.
  These can be a natural extension of the other question types. Students identify sources that support their elaborations or that examine their reasoning. To encourage deeper thinking and to rule out more basic explanations, the teacher may restrict the conclusions that students are permitted to draw. They may ask students to:

  • Discuss an accurate response or an error that was made
  • Consider different perspectives
  • Consider possibilities that may have changed the outcome

Students need exposure to all four types of questions in order to integrate the new content and deepen their understanding of it. Some questioning types may seem like a better fit for certain subject areas, but each of them can and should be used in all subject areas.

Want to deepen your knowledge of these instructional strategies? Check out our award-winning Essentials for Achieving Rigor book series!

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