Formative Assessment Strategies: Asking Powerful Questions for Greater Student Engagement

Formative Assessment Strategies:  Asking Powerful Questions for Greater Student EngagementI was reading some of the great blog posts over at Edutopia the other day and came across Rebecca Alber’s post – 5 Powerful Questions Teachers Can Ask Students. In it, she shared her experience learning the importance of asking questions that are ‘strategic, well designed and that lead students to questions of their own.’ As any teacher can attest that’s certainly important.

Beyond the great questions, what I liked about the post was her strategic use of wait time after asking students the question, as a means to increasing student engagement. As Rebecca says:

In addition to routinely and relentlessly asking your students questions, be sure to provide time for them to think. What’s best here: three seconds, five, or seven? Depending on their age, the depth of the material, and their comfort level, this think time will vary. Just push yourself to stay silent and wait for those hands to go up.

Being able to stay quiet and wait for student response is not as easy as it seems, but there’s extreme value in getting students to think deeper. When combined with asking higher-order questions, wait time can lead to greater student engagement.

As example, Tobin and Capie (1982, Journal of Educational Psychology, 74(3), 441–454) investigated the use of higher-order questions in conjunction with increased wait time and its effect on student engagement in 13 middle school classrooms. Teachers in the study were provided with guidance in the choice of higher-order questions, the enhancement of wait time, or both. Students in each of the classrooms were then observed for engagement – such as attending to a task, responding to questions, collecting data, or explaining information – and academic achievement. The researchers concluded that both the use of higher-order questions and increased wait time significantly contributed to increases in student engagement.

In another research experiment examining the relationship between classroom evaluation practices and student outcomes, Terence Crooks from the University of Otago reported similar findings for the use of higher-order questions and student interest. More specifically, Crooks (citing Barak Rosenshine and Robert Stevens in 1986) suggested that the use of questions to actively engage a high percentage of students may explain the positive relationship that is generally found between increased use of classroom questioning and student achievement. The author suggested that to obtain the full benefit, classroom questions should be directed to as many students as possible.  (The impact of classroom evaluation practices on students. Review of Educational Research, 1988, 58(4), 438–481.)

Another way to involve students is by using formative assessment strategies that essentially eliminate hand-raising. Whole-student response systems – one of the foundations of successful formative assessment – provide the teacher with evidence that each student is learning what they are teaching, while engaging the entire class. If a student is used to simply not raising their hand as a means of “tuning out” they are likely not actively participating in learning. Remove the means of tuning out by employing formative assessment and many teachers find their classroom comes alive.

Asking smart, higher-order questions is a key component to successful formative assessment, as well as a near-requirement for the Common Core State Standards, and one practice that helps better engage students. What questions do you ask your students? Share your thoughts below in the comments section.


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