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4 questions to check students' knowledge and understanding

4 questions to check students’ knowledge and understanding

4 min read
  • Questioning, Cold-Calling & Wait Times
  • Rosenshine’s Principles

How do we know if students truly understand and take in what we teach them? More importantly, how do we ensure that misconceptions aren’t developing and rooting in their long-term memory? Well, according to Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, the answer lies in regularly checking for students’ understanding.

Checking for understanding goes hand-in-hand with asking lots of good high-quality questions (another one of Rosenshine’s Principles). Asking questions can also provide a memory boost, as it prompts students to engage in retrieval practice.

To do this, there are four main questions you may want to consider using. Let’s take a look at the importance of checking for understanding, and what these types of questions are…

Why should you check for understanding?

Essentially, Rosenshine outlines two main purposes for this:

  1. Students need to explain their answers, which allows them to make connections with other lessons and helps them cement this information into their long-term memory.
  2. Teachers can identify which areas need to be revisited or retaught. 

In a study, researchers found that checking for understanding was very beneficial. Throughout the lesson, teachers used a lot of questions. They found that students who answered more questions outperformed their peers who answered fewer questions. This is because teachers were able to identify and address problems early on, preventing these errors from being stored in the students’ long-term memory.

Help your staff understand the research behind Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, and how to apply them in the classroom.

The 4 main types of questions

So, what do good questions look like in the classroom? There are four main types to choose from, and each of them serves a different purpose. Let’s take a closer look…

1. Factual questions

Factual questions require fact-based answers, and often only have a right or wrong answer. They generally tap into students’ lowest level of cognitive process, requiring a reasonably simple or straightforward answer. The question may also include technical vocabulary and require students to get the information based on a reliable source.

One benefit of using factual questions is that they clearly highlight whether or not a student understands that specific piece of information. They are quick to ask and also quick to answer, so provide one of the fastest avenues to checking for understanding.

An example of a factual question: “What date was the Battle of Hastings?”

2. Convergent questions

Convergent questions often require students to bring information together from more than one area and form a conclusion based on this. These questions are also called “closed-ended questions” as there is often only one or a few plausible solutions.

Although this type of question typically requires lower order thinking skills, it does tap into different levels of cognition including:

  • Comprehension
  • Application
  • Analysis

In a study, researchers examined the benefits of using convergent, divergent and evaluative questions in science lessons. They found that convergent questions were the most appropriate choice to help steer students away from misconceptions. These questions help develop broader knowledge and can help add context and nuance to a student’s understanding

An example of a convergent question: “Why did William the Conqueror invade England?”

3. Divergent questions

The opposite of convergent questions is divergent questions. These questions don’t have a specific answer but have multiple plausible solutions. It allows students to think more broadly about the topic and consider multiple scenarios or alternative ideas.

Divergent questions require higher level thinking skills, encouraging students to analyse, synthesise or evaluate a topic and come up with different conclusions. In the study we just mentioned, the researchers found that the best time to use these is when teachers first introduce a topic. This is because it can help teachers understand the amount of prior knowledge students have on the topic. The questions can also help prompt a discussion or a debate.

It should be noted that these type of questions take longer to ask and answer. By doing so, we automatically concede some control, as it is difficult to predict where the conversation may go.

An example of a divergent question: “What would have happened in William the Conqueror had not invaded England?”

4. Evaluative questions

The final main type of questions is evaluative questions. When answering evaluative questions, students need to analyse the answer on multiple levels and use different perspectives. These questions, which can include a type of ‘compare and contrast’ question, help students engage on retrieval on several levels, as they have to retrieve everything they know about X, everything they know about Y, and then do a third level of hard thinking to identify the difference.

An example of an evaluative question: “What are the similarities and difference between William’s and Caesar’s invasions?”

Final thoughts

It is worth emphasising that it is not suggested that some types of questions are better than others. It is about asking the right question at the right time. For example, students will struggle with evaluative questions if they do not have the sufficient knowledge gained by previously learning and answering factual questions. As well as effectiveness, factors like base knowledge, available time and control over the direction of the conversation all need to be considered.

Checking for students’ understanding is key to getting a better insight into what students know, how much they know and how well they know it. Using the right question, at the right time, can be key to us gaining an awareness of what they do or don’t understand.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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