The Art of Questioning
There are two main types of questions: convergent and divergent. The form you choose with which to evaluate your students can depend on many factors such as the type of course (lecture or lab), the type of assessment (problem set, exam or project) and your teaching style. Of course, you can have a mix of question types on any evaluation.
These types of questioning fit very nicely with Bloom’s taxonomy of the cognitive domain (below), which outlines a sort of hierarchy of learning (Bloom, Engelhart, Frost, Hill & Krathwohl, 1956). In reality, it should be remembered that while mastering the earlier, low-level skills in the hierarchy is beneficial to mastering the latter ones, it is not necessary to do so, and that students will often work at more than one level simultaneously.
With respect to question types, convergent questions are easily paired with the first three classifications of the taxonomy, while divergent questions apply more to the last three classifications of thinking (Woolfolk, Winne, & Perry, 2003).
Table 1: Bloom’s Taxonomy and Questioning Types
Some examples of questions for a first-year astronomy course, all regarding the planet Jupiter, are as follows. You can see that as the questions progress through the hierarchy, they get increasingly more divergent.
Knowledge: State the gases that make up the majority of Jupiter’s atmosphere.
Comprehension: Why would you not expect to find heavier
elements, like iron,
Application: Given the mass and mean radius of Jupiter,
calculate the weight of
Analysis: Io, the closest of Jupiter’s moons,
has a mean temperature of 130 K
Synthesis: Design a life-form that could survive on
Jupiter, keeping in mind the
Evaluation: It has been suggested that there is a large
diamond at the core of
When designing a test or final assignment, it is worth asking yourself: what type of knowledge are your students gaining from your course material? What do you want them to take away from the course? At what level are you testing the students? Do your questions reflect that level of learning? How can you tailor your assessments to match your course expectations? Also keep in mind that divergent lines of questioning often take longer to answer, making them more suitable for projects than final exams.
In conclusion, it should be noted that research has shown that both low-level
(convergent) and high-level (divergent) questioning can be effective methods
of evaluation, so there is no need to completely re-format your final
exams and projects. A background knowledge in types of questions will,
however, help your students get more out of your course and further engage
Bloom, B.S., Englehart, M.D., Frost, E.J., Hill, W.H., & Krathwohl, D.R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay.
Woolfolk, A.E., Winne, P.H., & Perry, N.E. (2003). Educational Psychology. Toronto: Allyn & Bacon, Inc.
CASCA education Webteam (2009)