Revealing Questions: How student responses can inform instruction

Recently I had the opportunity to observe an IB Economics class at an international school in Portugal.  Although the class was taught entirely in English, only the teacher and 25% of the students were native English-speaking.  While the teacher was highly experienced, a content specialist and TEFL certified, he expressed frustration with students’ inability to write clear, coherent answers to questions that required a synthesis of their learning.

Because the students would be required to write these kinds of responses on the IB exam in the spring, the teacher was especially keen to help them improve.  I asked him if their oral responses to questions in class were any better than their written responses.  When the teacher told me he was unsure about the quality of their oral answers,  I suggested that I could script the questions and answers during the observation.  The teacher thought this information would certainly be revealing and give him some information for next steps.

When we met after the twenty-minute observation, the teacher reviewed the table of scripted questions and answers (see sample below).  He immediately noticed that students were responding mainly with one word answers and any questions that demanded higher order thinking  got a zero response from the students.  When he did not get a response to these questions, he tended to briefly answer the questions himself and move on.

The teacher was genuinely interested in the information on the table.  Because his class was fast-paced and high energy, he had not realized that students were responding with one word answers and that only a few were responding at all.  He was especially concerned that students were avoiding questions requiring more thought.  In order for more students to engage with more thoughtful answers, he planned to provide time for a Think-Pair-Share or a Think-Write-Pair-Share after asking more challenging questions.  He also planned to ask students to explain their thinking or expand upon one word answers by asking “What makes you say that?” 

Reviewing the table of questions and answers inspired the teacher to make changes in his class that will hopefully make a significant positive impact on students’ ability to express their ideas clearly and justify their thinking.  What do the questions and answers in your classroom reveal about students’ thinking and understanding?

Teacher Questions                                                    Student Responses

What is development economics?  It cares about standards of living, health careTechnology


Low income countries

Human rights

Equality between men and women


Does that matter? Why?You don’t want ½ the people not producing?
When we are talking about gas, electricity water, what is that?  Utilities
What does GDP mean?  Gross Domestic ProductTotal output of a country
Equality?  Are your moms and sisters treated equally?  Yes, I think they are.
Why are women treated equally here?We live in Europe.


Who is over 18?  You will be treated the same under the law as an adult.Equity does not apply to us in the class.  Why?  Think about equity and equality and how it applies.


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