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September 2010




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.

Convergent questions have only one correct answer, and test rote knowledge of concrete facts. Examples of these questions include multiple choice, definitions, true/false, fill in the blank and calculations where there is only one correct answer.

Divergent questions have no single correct answer, and are more analytical, testing the students’ ability to synthesize information, offer educated opinions or create hypotheses based on their knowledge. These types of questions are always open-ended, allowing the students to express themselves as they demonstrate their ability to reason in the subject.

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

Memory and Reasoning Objectives
Type of Questioning
Remembering or recognizing something without necessarily understanding, using, or changing it.
Convergent: Recalling or recognizing information as learned.
Comprehension Understanding the material being communicated without necessarily relating it to anything else. Convergent: Demonstrating understanding of the materials; transforming, reorganizing, or interpreting.
Application Using a general concept to solve a problem. Convergent: Using information to solve a problem with a single correct answer.
Analysis Breaking something down into its parts. Divergent: Critical thinking; identifying reasons and motives; making inferences based on specific data; analyzing conclusions to see if supported by evidence.
Synthesis Creating something new by combining different ideas. Divergent: Original thinking; original plan, proposal, design or story.
Evaluation Judging the value of materials
or methods as they might be applied in a particular situation.
Divergent: Judging the merits of ideas, offering opinions, applying standards.

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,
in Jupiter’s atmosphere?

Application: Given the mass and mean radius of Jupiter, calculate the weight of
a person with a mass of 70kg.

Analysis: Io, the closest of Jupiter’s moons, has a mean temperature of 130 K
(with hot spots of 2000 K), and a mass of 8.93x1022 kg. What types of
elements or compounds are likely to be found on the surface or in the atmosphere of Io? Justify your answers.

Synthesis: Design a life-form that could survive on Jupiter, keeping in mind the
large gravitational field, composition of the atmosphere, and that there
may be no solid surface to the planet.

Evaluation: It has been suggested that there is a large diamond at the core of
Jupiter. Evaluate whether this is indeed a possible scenario.

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 their interest.

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)


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