Right questions to assess student understanding

One of the most challenging professional development tasks is helping teachers improve the questions they ask students.  Teachers are aware that some questions require students to think more meaningfully, yet research shows that these questions are rarely asked. 

About 60% of teachers’ questions require students to recall facts; about 20% require students to think; and the remaining 20% are procedural. (Gall, 1970From the book The Use of Questions in Teaching

These percentages are not surprising because it takes practice and patience for teachers to develop questioning skills.

The problem that happens during professional development was that teachers could reflect on their questions after a lesson, but they couldn’t go back and see how a modified question would have resulted.  It was with this in mind that we developed the professional development tool called Questioning Scenarios.  This activity begins with teachers in groups of three taking the roles of teacher, student, or observer.  The individuals playing the role of teacher and student each receive a slip of paper describing their corresponding scenario.  An example is shown below:


You want to find out what answer your student got to the question, “What is the area of a square with a side length of 4?”  Determine what conceptual understanding the student has by asking questions, especially questions that encourage elaborated responses.


You are working on finding the area of a square with a side of length 4.  You are confusing finding the area of a square with finding the perimeter of a square.  As such, to get your answer you count all the sides of the square and get an answer of 16.  You are proficient in addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

The individuals playing the role of teacher and student get time to read their paperand learn their roles.  Meanwhile, the individual playing the role of observer is waiting to record all of the teacher’s questions to the student.  Once the activity begins, the teacher will talk to the student in the context of the scenario described on the slips of paper.  A possible interaction for the scenario above is:

Teacher: “What is the area is of a square with a side length of 4?”

Student: “16.”

Teacher: “Great.  Does that make sense?”

Student: “Yes it does.”

This interaction may seem common for most mathematics classrooms.  The teacher asked a question to which the student responded with a correct answer.  The teacher checks to see if the question makes sense to the student and the student replies that it does.  However, consider this slightly different interaction:

Teacher: “What is the area is of a square with a side length of 4?”

Student: “16.”

Teacher: “Great.  How did you get that answer?”

Student: “The square’s sides are all 4 long so I added them together and got 16.”

When the teacher changed the question from “Does that make sense?” to “How did you get that answer?” responding with “Yes it does.” was no longer a sufficient answer.  The student was forced to explain his or her thinking.  In this case, asking a question that encouraged an elaborate response allowed the teacher to uncover a misunderstanding that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.  Having students explain their thinking is one of the simplest and most natural forms of assessment in the mathematics classroom.

A complete write up about the Questioning Scenarios activity can be found here.

Additional teacher and student scenarios for use during Questioning Scenarios professional development can be found here.


This extract is from Robert Kaplinsky's website where he eleborated on the struggles of math teaching in his country. But asking questions, in fact right questions to assess the learners' understanding is a universal need.

He also compiled some very interesting resources which may come handy for your classes. Check them here.

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