In the time since I promised to write this blog post, I listened to an interview with Gianandrea Noseda, the conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in which he explained how he prepares pieces of music for performance.  He wants his audience, and his musicians, to see old music with new eyes (or ears?).

I realized that his approach was exactly the same as the one I propose teachers to follow as they prepare to share texts with their students.  As content-experts who may have taught a play or a concept dozens of times, it’s hard to leave our knowledge at the door and think about it from the perspective of our students who are seeing it for the first time.

As Noseda says, “The most difficult thing is to try to forget what is in your memory and re-approach.”  To write quality questions, teachers need to re-approach the text. The steps outlined below will help you to orchestrate a masterpiece.

quality questions

The first step in writing quality questions is to read the text—multiple times, from multiple perspectives:

  • Read as a Teacher. Think about the reasons you’ve selected this article. Is it to introduce a new concept? Help students gain a deeper understanding of a topic? Build background knowledge? Link a textbook-topic to a real-world application?  The questions you will be writing should connect to the reasons you want your students to read it. Make notes on the text, identifying key sections or important ideas you want to emphasize.
  • Read as an Author. Noseda said he looks at each mark on the sheet of music, at each note, and tries to think about what the composer was thinking about as he made those decisions; we should do the same with the author.  Why did the author use that particular word to describe the process? Why does she use examples from multiple countries? Why did he start by retelling a folk tale?  This may sound difficult, but it is something we do naturally as strong readers. Just relax and mark the text while you read, noting specific details and posing questions to yourself in the margin.  Keep this list of text features in mind as you read:

Words: academic vocabulary, word choice, connotation, repetition, figures of speech (metaphors, analogies)

Sentences: sentence length, structure, transitions

Paragraphs: organization (chronological, cause/effect, etc.), evidence and examples within paragraphs

Whole Text: big ideas, author’s point of view and purpose, effect on the audience, organization (introductory techniques, links between paragraphs and ideas), overall quality of support for key ideas (claims)

If you are unsure or want a second opinion on this part of the task, ask a friend in the English department to take a look at your article, or invite the reading coach in to work with you on this stage of the planning process.

  • Read as a Student. Imagine you are encountering this text for the first time. Read through the article again, still with a pencil in your hand. Long paragraphs and tough vocabulary can cause a student to shut down. Identify these tricky spots so that you can plan to help your students through them. Remember, you’re looking at it through your students’ eyes:  What questions do you have? Where do you get lost? Which words are important or confusing?

The next step is to review your notes, keeping in mind both your purpose for sharing this article and the author’s reason for writing the article. Which parts of the text relate to these purposes? Start small. Narrow your focus to these sections of the text and write your questions to help students make those connections, too. Your goal is to get the students to read the whole text and to make sense out of it, not skim for answers. By asking one or two quality questions about the whole text, you can achieve your goal.

To help with this step, find some example questions. You probably have a handout from an inservice somewhere in a filing cabinet, or you can print one from the Internet.  Here’s one.  And another questioning strategy that I like.  Keep these handy.  I collect questions. My “Questioning” folder is always easy to find, filed under Q in my GTD file system. Start your own collection. Look for good questions in your textbook or on websites–add these to the file. If your course has a standardized assessment, review the test item specs or the sample tests for question stems you can adapt for classroom instruction.

Play with the questions and your ideas, test out a few questions with one class and others with a different class. See which questions prompt deeper thinking or engagement from your students. It will get easier and you’ll get better—it just takes a little practice.

And time.  And then, more time to grade. When I mentioned the idea of using open-ended questions to my colleague in the media center, her eyes opened wide and she shuddered as though I had dragged my nails down the chalkboard. “Then I have to grade the answers.” True. Reading student responses takes a little more time than an automated grade from an online quiz; however, if we want the students to read, we have to give them a task that will require reading.

Writing a multiple choice question that really requires reading is very difficult. Our time is much better spent writing open-ended questions and reading our students’ responses, which—believe it or not—will require less time than it takes to write a quality multiple-choice question.  In my next post, I’ll share some tips for grading the written responses you’ll get to your quality questions.

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