Have you ever had a conversation, only to think of what you really wanted to say after it was over? These moments happen all the time in our everyday lives but are perhaps more significant when they occur within the context of teaching and learning.

As any teacher knows, classrooms are complex places with rich, layered lines of communication and meaning—so it’s little wonder that we often end a lesson thinking, “If only I had asked that question!”

Planning to respond to student thinking is an important step, so that you aren’t left regretting the question left unasked, and your students are more likely to think deeply about the content that matters most.

These are the kinds of instructional challenges we address at Deans for Impact, a national nonprofit working with educator preparation programs around the United States to apply cognitive science principles to practice.

How to Respond to Student Work

Drawing from my experience supporting novice and early-career teachers, let’s consider the following scenario and what it tells us about responding to student thinking.

You’re teaching an elementary math class on fractions in which students must complete this task: There are nine circles. Color some in and leave the rest white. What fraction of the circles are colored in?

While circulating, you see that a student has filled in four circles but hasn’t written the fraction. What you say in response to this student will determine what they think about next. It will either refine and extend their thinking, or mean they remember the wrong or incomplete information.

In this instance, the student hasn’t done anything “wrong” per se. They’ve successfully completed the first half of the task—coloring the circles—but the most important part, where effortful thinking can and should take place, comes in the second half of the prompt: determining what fraction is represented by the image.

The best way to ensure that this student engages in the rich thinking that you planned for is to offer an effortful (or elaborative) follow-up question. That is, a question that will make the student think more deeply about the content at hand.

We know this works because research in cognitive science has shown us that we are more likely to remember what we process deeply, or effortfully, than what we process shallowly.

To help us think about what we would say next, let’s consider two criteria for refining student thinking:

  1. Is my follow-up question effortful? Does it prompt analysis, justification, or detailed explanation?
  2. Is my follow-up question targeted? Does it prompt students to elaborate on the thing I want them to remember and not something else?

Even though formulating a question that fulfills these criteria might seem straightforward at first, crafting an effective, effortful question is difficult to do on the fly. To show how such follow-up questions can go right (and wrong), let’s use our criteria from above to explore four ways that a teacher could respond.

How Follow-Up Questions Affect Student Understanding

Now let’s consider the impact that different types of questions would have on student learning:

1. “What other colors could you use to shade your fraction next time?”

This question isn’t effortful or targeted because it won’t prompt students to think deeply about useful information. The color they shaded the circles has nothing to do with determining what fraction of the circles are colored in, and the closed-ended question will lead to short, often one-word answers (like “Red”).

2. “Why are fractions important?”

This “why” question is effortful, so students may remember their response later. However, it’s not targeted or focused on the information that students need to refine their answer. Even if a student answers the question correctly, they’re unlikely to get closer to understanding how to determine a fraction from its visual representation.

3. “The numerator is the number of shaded circles and the denominator is the total number of circles. Count each number with me and write it out. So, what’s the fraction?”

This question focuses on the right information, but it doesn’t prompt the effortful thinking required to remember the concept. The teacher is the one doing the effortful thinking in this case, and the student can simply follow along and count their way to the “correct” answer.

4. How can you use your picture to decide what to write as the numerator and denominator? How would your fraction be different if you colored in one more circle?”

This question is targeted at what we want students to learn and prompts effortful thinking about that content. This brings the student closer to answering the original effortful question and prompts the type of deep processing that makes it more likely that they’ll remember the information later.

If you want to make sure your follow-up questions are both effortful and targeted, here are three strategies for helping students refine and extend their thinking:

  1. Expect and anticipate student misconceptions. Consider the ways that students might misunderstand or have only partial understanding in answering the question. This will ensure that your follow-ups target the types of support that your students will need.
  2. Script follow-up questions in advance. Based on the anticipated student misunderstandings, craft follow-up questions that are targeted and effortful. Scripting questions in advance means that you’ll be more likely to prompt the type of effortful thinking that will ensure your students remember the content later.
  3. Answer your own follow-up questions. By responding to your own elaborative prompts, you can determine whether they will move the student any closer to the exemplar response you want them to take away.

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