Better Questions in the Classroom Lead Students to Think Harder—and Learn Deeper


Imagine yourself in a kindergarten classroom. Amidst bright walls and happy chatter, students are bustling about, moving from station to station to explore different concepts related to shadows and light.

At one station, a little boy named David is holding a stick up to a lightbulb to form shadows, and using Unifix Cubes to measure the shadow’s length at different angles.

He holds the lamp close to the ground: The shadow lengthens. He holds the lamp higher off the ground: The shadow shortens. Hmm, he thinks. The length of the shadow changes as I move the lamp.

In a busy room full of energetic five-year-olds, it might be tempting as a teacher to walk by David and say, “Keep up the great work!” or ask a quick question such as, “What happens to the shadow when you move the lamp?” and then respond “Interesting!” and move on to another student.

However, this approach is unlikely to support David’s learning. Asking a quick question prompts only shallow processing—in this case, David would likely respond, “My shadow changes.” Without stopping to think hard or engage in “deep processing” about why the shadow is moving, he may not remember this lightbulb moment or its significance.

Cognitive science research shows that when learners process information deeply, or “effortfully,” the information is more likely to be stored in their long-term memory. It’s like the difference between scuba diving and snorkeling. By asking a better question, the teacher can prompt David to take a deep dive into the concept: “Which shadow is longer? Shorter? Why?”

These questions spark deep thinking that ensure durable learning. Without an effortful prompt or follow-up, the teacher leaves to chance whether David understands why the shadow changed and whether he will be able to remember that information later.

Student Effort Required

The takeaway here is that teachers should ask questions and design tasks that require students to engage in effortful thinking. This “teacher action,” as we like to call it, is one of the ways in which Deans for Impact has operationalized the vast body of research about how people learn in a way that teachers can use.

Our goal is to transform educator-preparation, so that every teacher is good on day one and on the path to become great over time. We do this by connecting with leaders of educator-preparation programs; helping them to transform their programs; sustaining these transformations over time; and influencing policy that affects their work.

In particular, one of the ways we facilitate change is by creating networks of programs working toward common improvement goals, such as the Learning by Scientific Design Network, a collaborative of 10 educator-preparation programs working to ensure future teachers understand how to ground their instructional decision-making in learning science. We published a new report summarizing data and stories from the first two years of the effort this month.

To orient the work of the LbSD Network, we extracted six principles of learning science that are important for teachers to understand and practice. Then, we specified what it would look like when teachers put those principles into action. The resulting framework looks like this:

While some might think prompting effortful thinking is too complex for novices to focus on, we’re seeing exciting results in the LbSD Network. For example, Sandy Rogelberg, a research assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has been working on effortful thinking with undergraduates in their first semester of the elementary teacher-education program. Rogelberg showed teacher-candidates the shadow scenario, then tasked them with asking David questions to prompt effortful thinking. Candidates generated questions such as, “Why do you think that the shadow is shorter when you hold the light above the ground versus low to the ground?”

After planning their questions for David, candidates assembled in groups and took turns role-playing the scenario—one candidate acting as the teacher, another as the student David, and the third as an analyst taking notes and giving feedback. In these role-plays, or, “effortful-thinking rehearsals,” candidates practiced asking effortful-thinking questions like they would in a real classroom. They also practiced listening to the student's response and following up with a second effortful-thinking question to deepen or refine the student’s understanding.

While any teacher will attest that this real-time decision-making is a core part of the work they do every day, many teacher-candidates don’t get to experience or practice it until their final semester, during student teaching. Because Rogelberg has centered learning science in her coursework, future teachers at her institution are able to begin building the skills to prompt effortful thinking years sooner. And the practice is paying off: By the end of the semester, nearly 30 percent more teacher-candidates in Rogelberg’s course could correctly identify student/teacher dialogue that prompted effortful thinking.

Rogelberg and other faculty and staff making this type of curricular improvement use the data collected through the LbSD Network to gauge the effectiveness of the changes they’ve made and identify areas for further improvement in their courses in coming years. As these improvements continue, we’re measuring the resultant shifts in teacher-candidates’ beliefs and skills. Before intervention, less than 20 percent of teacher-candidates in the LbSD Network that we observed in the classroom prompted students to engage in effortful thinking. After two years of program redesign, we observed 60 percent of candidates doing this.

This is an exciting improvement that will have tangible benefits for children. When students like “David” are taught by teachers who base their instructional decision-making in our best scientific understanding of how students learn, they’ll establish the firm foundation that’s necessary to generate even more lightbulb moments down the line.

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