This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in January 2017. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.
You can read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here.
Why do teachers ask questions?
According to Professor Dylan Wiliam there are only two valid reasons for asking a question in class: either to provide information to the teacher about what to do next, or to cause students to think.
The latter involves dialogic questioning, which is to say questions that encourage discussion, questions that are open, philosophical, and challenging.
And dialogic questions – such as Socratic questions – don’t just cause thinking, they promote critical thinking. Open questions which cause students to think in this way are widely regarded in academia as effective teaching strategies – as Socrates said: “Questioning is the only defensible form of teaching.” I shall look at dialogic questions in my next article in this series (due out on Thursday, February 2).
However, what is perhaps less widely regarded, or at any rate less fashionable to admit to these days, is that closed questions can continue to play a vital role in an effective classroom.
Indeed, if – as Prof Wiliam said – there are two reasons for asking questions (to provide information to the teacher and to cause thinking) and open questions accomplish the latter, then closed questions can help us to achieve the former.
In other words, closed questions are great assessment tools to use in the classroom. They can provide valuable assessment information to the teacher about their students’ learning and progress, about who has “got it” and who has not, and about what needs reteaching, recapping or developing further.
What’s more, closed questions used as a form of assessment reduce the marking load on teachers and make assessment “live” and responsive. Further, closed questions used as a form of assessment turn assessment into a means of learning, they are assessment as learning rather than assessment for learning.
And one of the most effective forms of closed questions is the “hinge question”. Hinge questions are multiple-choice questions so, before we go any further, let’s explain and defend the humble multiple-choice question which, although once a stable of schooling, has become somewhat unfashionable in recent years. So, are multiple-choice questions:
- Useful diagnostic tools.
- A complete waste of time.
With open questions, the rubric defines the rigour. With multiple-choice questions, however, the options define the rigour. This is particularly true of hinge questions which can be used just as effectively with the most able students as with the less able.
The trick to making multiple-choice questions effective is to create several wrong options which are nevertheless plausible and closely related to the right answer. The best “wrong” options also uncover common misconceptions or false assumptions. As such, the best way to create the wrong options in a way which makes them plausible is to mine a class’s work – or look back to a previous year when the topic was last taught – for students’ common misconceptions, misunderstandings and mistakes.
If nothing else, trawling through students’ work to discover what they tend to get wrong and what tends to stump them, helps inform the lesson planning process, allowing the teacher to dedicate more time to those elements with which students most often struggle.
This act of mining students’ work for misconceptions and then applying the findings in a way that helps anticipate students’ difficulties and questions, is the difference between content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge, between knowing your subject and knowing how to teach your subject in a way which makes sense to students.
Analysing misconceptions also helps an expert teacher to view a topic through the lens of the novice student, to narrow the knowledge gap between them, and to improve the lesson planning process.
What is a ‘hinge’?
A hinge is a point in a lesson when a teacher needs to check whether or not students have grasped a key concept and are ready to move on to study another. Usually, students’ mastery of the concept that has just been taught is contingent on them being able to understand the next concept. It is important, therefore, that the teacher assesses students’ levels of mastery before moving on, and this is exactly what a hinge question can do.
A hinge question is a diagnostic tool which a teacher employs when their students reach the “hinge” point. Students’ responses provide the teacher with valuable evidence about what their students know, don’t know and need to do next. A class’s response to a hinge question should inform the teacher whether to completely reteach the topic, recap the main points, or move on to the next topic.
Of course, not every student in a class is likely to answer a hinge question in the same way, so the teacher needs to decide on the level of mastery they will accept. We’ll explore this situation in a moment but we’re getting ahead of ourselves…
How do hinge questions work?
A hinge question, then, is a multiple-choice question which provides an immediate check of students’ understanding. Crucially, a hinge question provides a check of understanding for every student in a class. A hinge question informs the teacher if students have understood what they have taught and, if not, what they have misunderstood.
As I say above, a hinge question should be asked at the end of an activity as the teacher moves from teaching one key concept to another, when the teaching of the second concept is reliant on understanding the first.
Every student must respond within a set timeframe, ideally one to two minutes. A hinge question is a quick assessment – a line in the sand – and, therefore, responses should be instinctive and almost immediate.
All students must participate in the process. As such, it is best to avoid a “hands up” approach and instead employ a tactic that ensures every student shows the teacher their answer at the same time. This enables the teacher to assess every student and prevents students from being unduly influenced by their peers.
Simultaneous, all-class responses can be achieved by using mini-whiteboards on which students write their answers then hold them up when instructed. Alternatively, voting buttons could be used, perhaps on iPads, with the responses – anonymised, of course; perhaps reported as a percentage response against each option – displayed on the interactive whiteboard.
Or, perhaps more simply, students could hold up lettered, numbered or coloured cards to indicate their answer. A set of four cards could be kept on desks or given to students to retain in their books or planners in order to reduce the logistical strain and permit hinge questions to become a quick, simple, everyday feature of lessons.
The teacher must be able to interpret students’ responses quickly, ideally within a minute, so that the flow of the lesson isn’t stunted.
Before students show their responses, the teacher – as I say above – needs to set a pass rate for what they consider to be an acceptable level of “mastery”. For example, the teacher might decide that they will move on to the next topic if in excess of 80 per cent of students answer the hinge question correctly. They will then need to consider what to do to support the 20 per cent who got the question wrong.
The teacher could set a task for the 80 per cent to do while working with the 20 per cent, scaffolding their learning, recapping on key points, and so on. Or perhaps the teacher could enlist some of the 80 per cent as peer-teachers to explain the topic to the
20 per cent. This notion of students acting as teachers is proven to be extremely effective, and we will explore this in next week’s article on classroom discussions and dialogic questions.
What does a hinge question look like?
If the teacher had just concluded a topic on word classes and wishes to assess whether or not students can identify a verb, they might ask the following: The cat purred loudly at me. Where is the verb in this sentence? Is it word A, B, C or D?
If the teacher had just taught rhetorical devices, he/she might ask the following: which of these is alliteration?
- The golden disc of the sun burned.
- The sizzling summer sun smiled sweetly.
- I felt the red hot sun on my back.
- The trees swayed gently in the wind.
And, finally, if I wanted to ascertain whether or not you had understand the main thrust of this article, I might ask the following: which of these sentences best summarises the main point of the article?
- It is about the importance of asking closed questions.
- It is about the use of hinge questions to assess learning.
- It is about questioning as a means of deepening understanding.
- It is about teacher explanations and modelling.
In each case, it is feasible and even advisable to explore the reasons why some students have answered incorrectly. For example, if a student had responded to the question about alliteration with “A” then the teacher might ask the student why they responded thus.
This can lead to a discussion – and a reaffirmation – about what alliteration is. But it might also lead to an interesting debate about the use of metaphor in option “A” whereby the sun is compared to a golden disc.
Once these discussions have concluded, the teacher might also ask the class if they could have written a better set of options. Perhaps the teacher could ask the class if they can generate a better hinge question to have asked at this point in the lesson.
All these discussions have the potential to generate rich and meaningful conversations about what has been learned, and how that learning can be demonstrated and assessed.
If time is of the essence, the teacher could give the hinge a quick oil by asking a binary question (which has a yes or no answer), such as “Do you agree with this statement…?” Students could respond with a thumbs up or thumbs down. Though limited in its application and rather “rough and ready”, this approach can provide a quick assessment of students’ learning and progress, and provide valuable information to the teacher about whether or not they can move on.
Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley