Questioning: Assessing how students think. (An interview with John Yeo)
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Questioning: Assessing How Students Think
In the interview below, John Yeo explains in greater depth the importance of teaching our
students to learn beyond the correct answers. He explains how asking good questions can
not only enhance students’ thinking, but also help teachers assess their students’ learning.
John Yeo is currently a Teaching Fellow at the National Institute of Education
(Singapore). He holds a Master of Science degree in Creative Studies and
Change Leadership by the University of New York, USA (2008). He teaches
the Master’s programme for Curriculum and Teaching in courses such as
curriculum design, teachers and professional learning, authentic assessment
as well as conduct school based workshops on Creativity, Questioning for
Thinking, Project work as well as Lesson Study. He has conducted training
for educators in Philippines, Japan, China, India and Russia. Besides sitting
on several MOE Curriculum and Assessment taskforces, he is also the
consultant for the Innovation Programme curriculum review by the Gifted
Education Branch, CPDD. In 2013, has nominated for the Excellence in
Teaching, Nanyang Education Award.
1. How can teachers use questions to help their students probe and enhance
We use questions because we are curious. Through questioning, we learn by making new
connections and in effect, think better. Questioning in the classroom can be used to surface
and assess students’ thinking. However, there are two issues with questioning for better
thinking in my opinion. First, we assume all teachers can ask effective questions. While
asking questions is important, the way questions are posed is often problematic. Besides
that, some teachers are too reliant on taxonomies and frameworks that may distract them
from the very reasons why we use questioning to assess if students have learnt. Take for
example, Bloom’s Taxonomy and Socratic Questioning.
Bloom’s Taxonomy for the cognitive domain is something which many teachers are very
familiar with. It gives us a language to say “ah, now student A shows comprehension or
student B is analyzing well because….”. While these forms of analysis help teachers to
assess how much students’ know, the questions cannot be randomly posed without an
explicit ordering of the logic to scaffold students’ thinking. Cognitive development needs to
be sequenced to make logical connections. For instance, if the teacher aims to ask more
questions for assessing students’ level of comprehension, then it needs to be preceded with
some basic understanding that students have sufficient knowledge of the content. Often in
practice, teachers feel a need to ask more ‘higher-order questions’ but until students are
able to grasp the conceptual understanding of the content, the logical connections to help
students make better analysis, synthesis or evaluation will not be easy for students.
Socratic questioning is useful as it gives teachers a tool to frame systematic inquiry such as
clarifying assumptions or checking for alternative viewpoints. The issue here is with
designing for an engaging Socratic dialogue. Some teachers think that we are teaching
critical thinking but if we are so fixated with the different types of questions to ask, the
teaching moments may be lost.
2. What are some ways teachers can develop their questioning technique to
encourage deep understanding rather than surface learning?
Sometimes, in the interest of time, we ask one representative from each group of students to
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present their answers. But can’t we also get the students to write out their answers
individually, in their own words? For me, some expert teachers use questions skilfully by
controlling these details to ensure that every child learns, even in a class of 40. They can
model the inquiry process and scaffold students’ thinking with a little more effort yet not lose
the authentic nature of focused thinking. What is more important is to foster sense-making
that is grounded in the students’ situated understanding. Really, I can’t say enough about
why we need to better design tasks that encourages group inquiry. And these tasks need not
always be long exercises. What we want is for students to develop and extend their
understanding through social negotiation. How the teacher scaffolds, manages expectations,
and provide more of such opportunities for facilitated discussions to take place, will make a
lot of difference.
Questions do help to trigger thoughts and generate new learning, but at the same time, good
learning needs sound closure too. That is where teachers need to converge with appropriate
summaries and conclusions and not leave questions that are posed “dangling”. “Dangling”
questions with no clear resolution may frustrate learners. The next time you want them to
think with your questions, they may choose to “switch off”. In terms of good closure, I have
used the word appropriate because a skilful teacher needs to consider what students’ earlier
responses are. If you had asked many questions and students had spent time deliberating
on your questions, be careful that you do not end up “feeding” them the “model” answers. If
you do so, you are implicitly creating a dependency for students to expect you to “spoon-
feed” them and I doubt many students will bother to try hard the next time. As teachers, we
really need to honour our students’ thinking.
One of the things I emphasize when we use questioning as an instructional technique is that
the teacher does need to anticipate students’ responses. If we care enough about how
students are thinking, then anticipating what students may think and say will help teachers to
plan the possible interactions related to particular students’ difficulties. For example, I once
observed a teacher conducting a biology lesson on Sexual Reproduction and showed an
article of Nadya Suleman the octomom, the American who shot to fame because she
implanted 6 embryos in herself and when 2 of them split, she gave birth to a total of 8
babies. While it did arouse students’ curiosity with her intended question of “Do you know
how in-vitro fertilization (IVF) made this possible?”, many ‘off-track’ responses and questions
were volunteered. Clearly, the teacher looked exasperated after awhile with questions such
as “Is she a rich ‘tai-tai’?”, “Is that legally permissible?”, “How can her body take it?”, etc.
Understandably the questions were spoken from the students’ point of view and while she
tried hard to keep them on track, the IVF issue was really never addressed. Now, if she had
anticipated how students will respond, she might have skilfully addressed the ethical issues
by asking students to “park” those thoughts for a moment. Interestingly, I recall a student
asking this question “Don’t you think it’s not good for her heart? Like the heart has to beat
very fast to cope to feed the many babies inside her body?” I thought this was an excellent
learning moment for the teacher to “catch” for clarification and lead into the main topic on the
biological implications of IVF, she unfortunately laughed it off and chided the student with
“They are not babies yet until they are born.” This to me, was a great pity. By anticipation,
she might have pre-empted the ‘messy’ interactions and have greater control on how to
steer the thinking towards a more focused discussion. She could also have introduced
discipline-specific vocabulary and asked some leading questions to get students to use their
knowledge to reason more thoughtfully. And personally, I think the student was not exactly
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wrong in using the term ‘babies’ since it is colloquial knowledge to students that IVF
allows ’test tube babies’ to be conceived outside the body!
At the pedagogical level, the imagined exchange with students help teachers to probe more
sensitively about how students learn. It may help teachers to understand how students can
or cannot derive the solution either in their reasoning process or the choice of words to
explain their thinking. In terms of helping students acquire this formal language, the teacher
may then offer discipline-specific vocabulary needed to communicate the concept taught.
This close attention to students’ thinking in terms of their explicit reasoning and the language
they use cannot be separated from the content in question. Hence, it is specific to the way in
which students will learn the content. Going back to the earlier example, if the teacher
reached a point of desperation and scolded the boy instead, what effect might it have on the
student? If I were the boy, I might think that the teacher assumed that I was misbehaving
and choose not to participate in future discussions. . If teachers are serious about using
questions to help students think better, then the extra effort to anticipate students’ responses
signifies a commitment to accept different ways in which students will build their
understanding. In my workshops, I like to invite teachers to think about and describe three
different types of students in their classroom. With these students in mind, I get them to
anticipate what these students will say and how the teacher will respond accordingly.
3. What are some effective assessment practices that teachers can use to assess
their students’ critical and creative thinking?
I would say, use questions purposefully. Couple that with creating a context around the topic
on hand and harness group learning to deepen inquiry. This is where the earlier questioning
taxonomies become very handy. Let’s just call this two-step process of Connection and
Distinction. With effective questioning, these two steps pave a way for students to
First, I would even dare claim, if you are the type of teacher who is structural and prefers to
teach didactically, this Connection and Distinction questioning method may make a lot of
difference in how students learn. You can still teach the concept and explain in the way you
normally do but be careful not to dish out extended explanations. Students can read for
themselves so your role is primarily to direct their attention to the relevant sections of the text
or notes and get students to explore it on their own. Note too that these sections should not
be too long. You don’t need to ask difficult questions at this stage. The intention is to get
them to make those critical connections themselves. Ask it simply with the familiar 5W1H but
this is where I suggest added to add a twist. For each of the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’ or
‘why’ questions, pick one or two most important questions that the students volunteer, ask
them to select the most important question that they had generated and offer three different
answers. You are essentially getting students to reach deeper and go beyond the surface or
the initial response.
Second, make the experience concrete by ensuring that the concept is made more
distinctive. That’s where you can ask students to explore alternatives, applications, or make
links to other topics. This second Distinction phase corresponds to how conceptual
knowledge is broadened. You are essentially adding texture to the meaning they acquire.
The crux of this Connection-Distinction process is that, your content knowledge needs to be
strong for it to work. You need to know what the key ideas or essential questions are and
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select important concepts in that unit for students to go through with this two-step process.
Because you cannot tell them the solution, you need to craft questions to help students
identify the distinguishing features so that the learning becomes socially constructed as
students learn to clarify their understanding by keeping the content in focus. With making the
connections and distinctions themselves, you are really enculturating a thinking classroom.
Most importantly, you are assessing their understanding as they need to make explicit their
tacit knowledge on what they have learnt.
4. How can students be guided to effectively self-assess and assess one another?
As a child learns, he is making some new connections in the process. From a cognitive
perspective, he should also be able to identify his own learning gaps and do something
about it. So when we are talking specifically about Assessment for Learning, it is not only
about assessing what the students can say or write. While the child’s performance does
matter, it is not as simple as a right or wrong response but understanding the whole learning
process. While we hope the child is able to assess how much they know or understood, we
need to first find out how he or she receives the question and interprets it before we can
decide when or how a child can self-assess. In addition, while individual cognition may differ
from learning activities that occur in group-based experiences, a child’s proficiency to know if
they have learnt, or not depends on how he or she analyses the information structure in
terms of the specific task assigned. If self-assessment involves a form of quantitative
analysis of how much “transfer” of learning has taken place for the individual, then research
has shown that the child needs to be taught specific ways to represent the information that
he or she has acquired in the specific learning activity. This is what I mean when I talk about
the efficacies of making connection earlier. The child needs to connect what is taught in the
class to their internal mental schema and make sense of how these learning are useful.
Unfortunately, giving a child a grade such as A or C may sadly mean “I am good enough” or
“I am stupid” respectively to a child. So we ask, where is the learning that is meaningful?
Likewise, praising a child with “Good child” or “You need to put in more effort” means little in
acquiring the information of how the child has performed in terms of the specific learning
task. Learning is only useful if the child himself can confirm what they have learnt. This
refers not only to the learning content that is taught but extends to how a child goes about
learning new concepts, engaging in problem solving, reasoning or any other forms of inquiry.
Rather than focusing on THE correct answer, how might it change the way students learn-
both individually as well as collectively, if we pause and ask some students to explain it
differently or to guess why the earlier student responded in that particular way. If we want
students to know what a learning gap is, they need to first learn how to derive that before
they understand if they have arrived at the correct answer. The reasoning is metacognitive
and this is something we are really lacking in our classrooms. This way, we help students
themselves to reason and relate their learning gaps to other responses.
There is a metacognitive awareness where all questions require a student to consciously
first make sense, rationalize and comprehend what was asked. At a group level, students
learn from each other by clarifying, synthesizing and making collective decisions together.
Research often shows that collaborative problem solving approach tends to bring out each
students’ point of view in a more focused manner. In such a setting, questions can be
interpreted differently and collaboratively may deepen students’ conceptual inquiry.
Questions used at a group level may serve as a stronger hook since each student may not
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really know what they do not know until they get a chance to hear a perspective that is
different from theirs. Hence building upon the earlier point, for effective self- and peer-
assessment to take place in the classroom, they must be provided with an understanding
about how their individual ways of thinking builds towards knowledge being structured as the
teacher unfolds the learning. These structures of knowledge must be accessible to all
students to support their task performance in order for them to transfer to new situations.
Hence, a teacher’s role is to design a learning environment to attend to these social
interactions to promote diverse ways of thinking and taking time to help students ascertain
the structures of knowledge and skills in terms of what they have learnt and how they have
5. How can teachers use questions to make our students’ thinking visible?
Teachers can use questions effectively to help students think better. Based on my work with
teachers, I think teachers who are able to see relationships between the subject matter,
students and how they learn, and how the teachers themselves can personalise the
questions to speak to individual’s learning needs are highly effective. Such teachers would
hope that their students learn the content well and at the same time, make deliberate efforts
to understand how students are learning. More importantly, the teachers need to trust that
every child has great capacity to think independently and hence constantly use different
types of questions to help students themselves probe and reflect. They would inspire
students to ask questions, to seek answers and to learn to gain a flexibility of thinking
themselves. Furthermore, research has shown that effective questioning allows students
learn to think more deeply, not only within the lesson but even after the class has ended. As
teachers, I am sure we don’t want our students to just memorise and regurgitate facts.
Wouldn’t questions be great to help students acquire better mathematical reasoning skills or
to develop better ways to inquire scientifically? Take time to allow students to ask questions
as it is not in the answers that get them hooked on the learning but the questions themselves
can serve to motivate and stimulate deeper learning.
At the end of the day, questions can do more than just connect and extend students’
thinking. I think if the culture of using questions to learn is evident in the classroom, students
will embrace questioning as a way of thinking. Teachers could explore how questions can be
used not only to assess for understanding but allow students themselves to raise their own
questions. It may sound like a big risk as students’ questions can at times challenge the
teacher’s own thinking. Yet, this is exactly how teachers can facilitate and model their own
roles as part of the learning community.
I would be excited if my students can one day ask “What else do I want to learn and what
new things can I learn?” Questions play a magical role to inspire every child to construct
their own knowledge as they experience meaningful learning that will “stick” for life.