Eileen Depka, PhD, has a background in assessment, common assessment design, rubric development, standards-based assessment, question design, classroom questioning practices, positive practices in grading and reporting, and the implementation of standards-based grading and reporting.

What a Difference Our Words Make! Asking Questions that Require Understanding

There are so many ways to ask a question! I was reviewing some assessments yesterday and noticed that one or two simple word changes can totally change the sophistication needed for the response. When we consider what we want a student to know, and then create the question, I think we need to look at the question from a different perspective. We need to ask ourselves if the question leads to a response that truly measures understanding.

We have all seen examples of nonsense paragraphs like the one that follows.

In Ferenstein, the morgats turn into wolderdise in spring. As a result, wolderdise are picked and used to make Smacka. Smacka is important to people who suffer from Brethia because it essentially eliminates the symptoms by supporting the growth of nadites. Nadites have the ability to reverse the negative impact of this unfortunate disease.

I’ve created some questions below and am confident that they can be answered by anyone who can read the paragraph, even though many of the words are meaningless.

  • Where do morgats turn into wolderdise in spring?
  • To whom is Smacka important?
  • What is Brethia?
  • What can nadites accomplish?

So, although the paragraph contains meaningless words, we are able to answer questions. We have no level of real understanding, yet our responses to the questions can be accurate. If we think about this in reference to questions asked on assessments, it is similarly possible for students to answer questions correctly, even if they don’t understand the content.

The good news is, by using words slightly differently, we can we make sure that an accurate response truly indicates understanding. In the case of the nonsense paragraph, had we been asked to explain why wolderdise can make Smacka, but morgats cannot, we would not have been able to respond with any level of confidence or accuracy.

If we are teaching young children about quantity, we might ask if six is greater than or less than nine. Students have a 50 percent chance of getting a correct answer whether they understand or not. What if, instead, we asked them to show that the quantity of six is less than the quantity of nine? Through an illustration, they would not only prove it to us, but to themselves as well.

If our topic is the revolutionary war, we could ask students to name four key leaders. We could extend that by asking them to name four key leaders, then choose two of them, compare and contrast their leadership styles and state their impact on history. This would give us the confidence that students not only know who was involved, but can provide more in-depth insights on their impact on history.

Other examples are listed in the chart below. Our intent is the driving force. Knowing what we want students to understand drives the language we use in the questions we ask.

Desired outcome Question Question Revisited
Students know the process for solving an equation with variables. List the steps for solving a two-variable equation. List the steps and provide an example for solving a two-variable equation.
Students understand the process of photosynthesis. Define photosynthesis. Explain photosynthesis.
Students understand the preamble to the US Constitution. Recite the preamble to the US Constitution. Explain the preamble of the constitution.
Students understand the use of adjectives. Circle the adjectives in the following sentence.

The bright green snake slithered steadily through the hot desert sand.

Add adjectives to the following sentence:

The snake slithered through the desert.

Students understand characterization in fictional settings. List three traits of the main character. List three traits of the main character and explain their impact on other characters.
Students understand how to add 2-digit numbers. Solve: 27+43=____ Solve and prove your answer is correct. 27+43=___


The questions we pose should correspond with our purpose. If we look at what we’re asking and how we’re asking it, we can tweak questions to get students to think at higher levels. If students think more, it seems that it follows that they will learn more. We can encourage deeper thinking through the questions we ask. What a difference our words make!

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