Higher Order Thinking: Are You Asking the Questions You Think You Are Asking?

higher order thinking

Higher Order Thinking

Are You Asking the Questions You Think You Are Asking?

written by Bill Reed


When I was still in the classroom I would ask, what I thought was, a great question, only to have students answer the question I had asked, which was not the question I had intended in my mind! I would then say, “You are correct! Now, let me ask the question I intended.” Teachers are NOT perfect! When it comes to higher order thinking, are you asking the questions you think you are asking?


As much as we try to convey exactly what we are thinking to ask students or direct students to what we want them to do, sometimes our words have multiple meanings and do not convey the correct message we thought they would. Students should NOT be penalized for responding to the questions we worded incorrectly or what we thought we asked or stated in our directions.



higher order thinkingOne of the biggest problems with teachers asking low level DOK 1 (Depth of Knowledge 1), Memory/Recall types of questions, is when there is exactly one correct answer and only one way to work the problem. These are the types of questions where if the question is not asked precisely enough, students can misinterpret the question and give a wrong answer.  Since DOK 1 Memory/Recall questions are by far the most commonly asked questions by teachers, this confusion happens quite often. These are also the types of questions where frequently the student must try to guess exactly what the teacher is thinking and give the exact answer the teacher has in their mind.


Please know that there is nothing wrong with DOK 1 – Memory/Recall questions when used sparingly and mostly used at the beginning of a unit. The problem lies when teachers try to delve further into the topic and continue to ask DOK 1 – Memory/Recall questions. As a unit or topic of discussion moves further along in a class, so should the questioning skills. Many times teachers continue to ask low level DOK 1 – Memory/Recall questions to try and reinforce prior skills and information students have learned. Instead, they should be asking students Higher Order Thinking questions like, “What previously learned skills could you use to help solve this problem?”. This forces the students to either remember or look up the important skills they should have already learned and mastered. Teachers do not do this in lieu of expediency and opt to try and cover more in less time. Many teachers have heard the phrase “Mile Wide and an Inch Deep.” This is a practice that must stop!


For true learning to take place teachers must limit DOK 1 – Memory/Recall questions and start asking more Higher Order Thinking questions. My favorite question that I love to ask teachers is, “Are you a Facilitator of Learning or a Conveyor of Knowledge?”. Too much of the time in education today, teachers put themselves in the role of Conveyor of Knowledge to try to cover all the topics and standards they must cover to complete a grade level or course. The biggest problem with this is we have created students who are not expected to truly learn and master the material teachers are teaching. Instead, students memorize the facts and information the teacher has presented and retain it long enough for the students to answer the questions they are asked on quizzes and tests. This is backed up by the results on all the standardized testing like the ILEARN, SAT, and NAEP. 


What is interesting is that when teachers slow down and ask Higher Order Thinking questions,  students retain the information longer and are able to use and apply the information later when asked to do so. In the longer run, you spend more time up front presenting and having the students master the information, and far less time on future topics since you do not have to reteach the information over and over again when those skills are used in another lesson. Sometimes we are our own worst enemy. If we would have taken the time to make sure students have mastered the skills we are teaching them, they do not need to be retaught over and over again as those skills are applied in other topics.


Putting this into practice

higher order thinkingA good example of this might be a topic such as the Distributive Property. This standard is introduced all the way down in the 5th grade! Indiana State Standard 5.C.9 says, 

Evaluate expressions with parentheses or brackets involving whole numbers using the commutative properties of addition and multiplication, associative properties of addition and multiplication, and distributive property.”


When I have observed 5th grade teachers teaching this topic, they do a wonderful job introducing the Distributive Property at a very basic level. They show the procedural methods for the Distributive Property and ask many DOK 1 – Memory/Recall questions. Most students do well on this topic and can answer the questions on their quizzes and test over the topic. This is all well and good until those same students are then required, the following year, to learn the 6th grade standard 6.C.6 which says,

 “​​Apply the order of operations and properties of operations (identity, inverse, commutative properties of addition and multiplication, associative properties of addition and multiplication, and distributive property) to evaluate numerical expressions with nonnegative rational numbers, including those using grouping symbols, such as parentheses, and involving whole number exponents.” 


Then again, in 7th grade when standard 7.C.3 say, 

“Understand that multiplication is extended from fractions to rational numbers by requiring that operations continue to satisfy the properties of operations, particularly the distributive property, leading to products such as (–1)(–1) = 1 and the rules for multiplying signed numbers.” 


In 8th grade when the standard says,

 “Solve linear equations and inequalities with rational number coefficients fluently, including those whose solutions require expanding expressions using the distributive property and collecting like terms.  Represent real-world problems using linear equations and inequalities in one variable and solve such problems.” 


Finally this same skill is taught again in Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2 since the students still do not fully understand this topic.


Asking the right questions

If teachers start to ask Higher Order Thinking questions about the Distributive Property and facilitate students learning about the Distributive Property you would see much less reteaching of this skill over a 7 year period. Questions that need to be asked by teachers in 5th grade would be: 

  • What previously learned skills must you know and use to use the DIstributive Property?
  • What does the word distribute mean? 
  • How is this related to the distributive property of multiplication?
  • How can you use the DIstributive Property to work problems like 7 x 23?
  • How do you think you might use the Distributive Property next year

in your 6th grade math class? 


If students can answer these questions they have a much greater chance of remembering the Distributive Property not only for the quizzes and tests in 5th Grade but also for 6th grade and beyond.

Teachers MUST be asking Higher Order Thinking questions where there is more than one correct answer and more than one method to work the problem. If they are doing this it also allows them to assign far fewer problems to the students and get much more understanding from the students on the problems they do assign. Staying with the same topic of the DIstributive Property look at the assignment below with only 9 problems assigned.


  1.   5(2x+1)  2.    3(x+5)  3. -4(3x+2)


  1.   x(4x+7)  5.    3x(2x+3)  6. -3x(2x+3)


  1.   -2(-4x+3)  8.    (x+2)(2x+3)  9. (3x+1)(2x+4)  


After the teacher has introduced the lesson, asked questions as previously stated, they should ask students to share their answers to these problems and lead a discussion with the students to see if they agree or disagree with the answers given. Finally, the teacher should ask questions like:

  • How are these problems all alike?
  • Which problem was the most difficult for you to work?
  • How are problems 8 and 9 the same as 1 – 7?
  • Write a set of rules that would solve all 9 of these problems.

Notice in all these questions the teacher is asking, there is only 1 DOK 1 – Memory/Recall questions. The rest are all Higher Order Thinking questions. 


From my own experience, and now watching and coaching other teachers who use these types of questions regularly, not only do the students know and understand the topic much better, they remember the topic much longer and with much better abilities to work problems on quizzes, tests, and standardized tests they are taking. Teachers who are using these types of questions also cover more topics in less time in their classes as they are not reteaching all the information students are expected to know and have learned in their previous classes. 


Integrating Higher Order Thinking Questions

There are many excellent examples and ways to easily take your DOK 1 – Memory/Recall questions and turn them into Higher Order Thinking questions. In my newsletter this month I give some great resources for Higher Order Thinking question stems. There is also a great list of questions teachers can use to get students thinking and discussing the mathematics they are learning. Here are some examples we brainstormed to get your creative juices flowing. 


Overall teachers must use more Higher Order Thinking questions in their classes. If they do, students will perform better on assignments in their classes, on formative and summative assessments in the classroom, and on all the standardized tests they must take. Students will have a much deeper understanding of the mathematics they are learning and retain the skills they are learning much longer. Overall, we will be educating our students to be thinkers instead of fact regurgitators. We do not need human fact repositories. We have Google easily accessible for that on our phones and tablets. Additionally, we have smart devices like Alexia and our computers. We need thinkers who can use the skills and knowledge they have gained in school to solve problems and make their world a much better place. If that is not reason enough to use Higher Order Thinking Skills, nothing is!



higher order thinkingIf you want to dive deeper into the topic of Higher Order Thinking Questions and receive many more resources you can use in your classroom, please join me for a FREE 1-hour Online PD Pop on “Higher Order Thinking, DOK 2 and DOK 3 Questions” on Thursday, February 23, 2023 at 4:00 PM EST. Please register for this opportunity here. 


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