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Higher Order Questions and Tasks

Page history last edited by kieran.ohare@... 10 years, 4 months ago

Higher Order Questions and Tasks

This page will address the following questions:


What is meant by "higher order?"

The creators of the Common Core Standards had the goal of educating students in order to be “career and college ready.”  In order to be so, students need to develop critical thinking skills and a depth of knowledge which will allow them to successfully complete complex, multi-step tasks. 


To promote these abilities, New York City’s public schools have adopted Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK) as a framework for planning lessons and assessments.  The DOK framework provides criteria for evaluating the level of rigor that a particular activity or task entails.  Similar to Bloom’s taxonomy, but with fewer levels, Webb’s DOK will form the basis of criteria used to assess students’ learning in the future. 


  • Click here for more information about Webb's Depth of Knowledge levels.


  • The video below also takes you through the levels using The Gettysburg Address.



  • Click here to access Shop Talk, professional development material related to DOK.
  • The Common Core Institute also supplies an educator's guide for applying DOK levels here


Why "higher order?"


One aim of the Common Core Standards is to increase the rigor in our classrooms.  Students who are habitually exposed to literal level questions that involve recall of simple facts or pinpointing information that is explicitly stated in a text have little opportunity to practice the more complex, higher order thinking that will be tested through Common Core assessments. Webb’s Depth of Knowledge is a tool intended to help teachers build lessons that begin with simpler (DOK Level 1) tasks and build to more complex (DOK Levels 2, 3 and 4).


What are some examples of questions and tasks at different DOK levels?


Level One tasks

  Level One tasks involve recall of basic facts, details event or ideas. 


Examples of Level One tasks: 

  • Locate information found in a map, chart, tables, graph, diagram, caption.
  • Use a dictionary glossary or thesaurus to find word meanings
  • Make conversions between metric and customary units
  • Recall, restate, remember or recognize facts, terms or properties already studied


Level Two tasks

Level two tasks involve using information and often require more than one step.  They may involve summarizing results, concepts or ideas in one text or data set; supplying examples and non-examples; locating information in a text to support explicit or implicit main ideas; identifying use of literary devices, distinguishing between fact and opinion or relevant and non-relevant information.


Examples of Level Two tasks: 

  • Sequence a key chain of events and supporting details using a timeline, cartoon strip or flow chart
  • Write a summary
  • Write a diary/blog entry for a character or historical figure
  • Make a topographic map using data provided/data collected. 
  • Explain the meaning of a concept using words, objects and or visuals
  • Create a survey or questionnaire to answer a question
  • Conduct measurement or observational tasks that involve organizing the data collected into basic presentation forms such as a table, graph or Venn diagram


Level Three tasks

Level Three tasks demand planning and reasoning to solve real world problems.  Stating reasons and providing evidence are key markers.  Tasks require an in-depth integration of conceptual knowledge and multiple skills to reach a solution.  Tasks focus on an in-depth understanding of one text, one data set, or one key source, whereas Level 4 tasks expand the breadth to include multiple texts, sources, concepts or disciplines. 


Examples of Level Three tasks: 

  • Prepare an informational report about an area of study
  • Write a letter to the editor after evaluating a product
  • Make a booklet or brochure about a topic, organization or issue
  • Prepare a speech to support your perspective
  • Explain and apply abstract terms and concepts to real-world situations
  • Solve complex, non-routine problems that draw upon multiple skills, processes or concepts
  • Design, conduct or critique an investigation to answer a research question


Level Four tasks

 While Level Three tasks involve strategic thinking, Level Four tasks involve extended thinking.  Students engage in conducting multi-faceted investigations with unpredictable solutions.  Strategic thinking must be sustained over a longer period of time.  Key aspects involve authentic problems and audiences, and collaboration in a project-based setting. 


Examples of Level Four tasks: 

  • Create an agency presentation that uses evidence from more than one discipline to support a solution
  • Research tasks that involve generating questions and formulating and testing hypotheses
  • Create a short documentary, including writing the script, camera work, editing and finding actors
  • Organize a community service project




How do I apply DOK levels in each discipline?


  • One good source for examples of tasks and questions at different DOK levels in each reading, writing, math, social studies, and science can be found here.


  • To see an example of a GED Essay that was used as a model of completed work, click here for a document called "Friends Essay." 




What are some guidelines for planning instruction that will help students develop higher order thinking skills in each discipline?


Set well-defined learning objectives and communicate these clearly to students


Learning Objectives are clearly stated, specific learning targets for a particular lesson or curriculum.  Research in cognitive psychology shows that “students persist in achieving goals that are challenging, specific and attainable in the near future.”  Examples of well-formulated learning objectives can be found here.


Students should be informed of the day’s learning objectives when class begins.  A written agenda on the board along with a brief verbal review helps students understand the learning objectives.  At the end of each lesson, students should be asked to evaluate how well they think they have done in mastering the learning objectives.  


Make sure students understand assignments


Be sure to communicate clearly with students about the steps to be taken in completing an assignment. Teachers should consider preparing step-by-step instructions in simple, clear language, which can be passed out to students and reviewed as a class so that students have a chance to ask questions. 


Having students work in pairs to paraphrase an assignment or share their understandings of what is to be done can also help them be clear about what it is they are supposed to do.  


Model Thinking Processes


Research supports the use of demonstrations in the classroom—moments during a lesson when teachers model thinking processes such as summarizing, paraphrasing, making inferences, figuring out unknown words, solving problems, needed to complete higher order tasks.  Think alouds are one way a teacher can demonstrate different kinds of thinking and reading processes. The two links below provide information about think alouds, their purposes, and demonstrations of how to use them in the classroom.




Provide clear feedback on student work


Teachers should provide students with clear guidelines about work to be done, then provide students with specific feedback on their work.  The most specific feedback is the most helpful, especially when it connects to the guidelines and models students have been given to communicate what a “successful” assignment completion looks like.  This link provides guidelines for providing students with feedback that will result in learning.


Create a classroom atmosphere conducive to experimentation and learning


Research shows that students learn more successfully in classrooms where:

  • There are more positive interactions between teachers and students
  • Teachers use more eye contact and have closer proximity to students
  • Teachers give enthusiastic and follow-up questions
  • Teachers require more complete and accurate answers;
  • Teachers provide more prompting and encouragement
  • Teachers allow more wait time to answer questions
  • Teachers encourage students to learn from their mistakes


Try the following links to learn more about elements of a psychologically safe classroom:



  • A very complete discussion of the psychologically safe classroom, and what motivates students to learn, can be found here.


  • Finally, this link provides information about the research base supporting the need for a classroom environment conductive to learning.


Provide Scaffolding


Scaffolding is a term educators use to describe the ongoing support provided to a learner by an expert.  Normally we think of scaffolding as the framework that is created when a building is under construction for workers.  Scaffolding helps support the structure until the building can be fully built.  Similarly, when we scaffold instruction for students we begin with easier tasks, concepts and skills, and provide more support to students, then gradually withdraw that support as students begin to gain mastery.


Scaffolding refers both to the amount of teacher assistance that is given at the beginning, middle and end of a learning “arc,” and also the way concepts and skills are introduced so as to move to simpler/easier to more advanced/complex. 


This link describes ways to provide more teacher support in the beginning of learning, and gradually reduce it. 


This link includes suggestions for creating scaffolding in terms of introducing concepts, such as activating background knowledge as well as helping students gradually become more independent in using a skill:


 “Multipass” is one technique used build to background knowledge and improve reading comprehension.  In the first “pass” students survey material for a general idea of what the information covers and how it fits together.  In the second “pass,” students size up the important points, looking for cues to important information.  In the third “pass,” students attempt to answer questions about the passage.  This guided rereading approach allows students to gradually immerse themselves in material, become familiar with it, and finally “make it their own.”  Once students have “learned” the new information, it’s easier to add more information and/or use the information for higher level tasks.


Scaffolding and DOK Levels: The more challenging aspect of providing scaffolding is sequencing tasks and concepts so as to gradually build to more complex skills and understandings. It’s important to understand that teaching with increased rigor does not preclude the use of lower order questions and the acquisition of facts—in fact, this is counterproductive.  We must first acquire basic factual information before we can manipulate this information in increasingly complex ways.   The goal is not, therefore, to include only higher order questions/tasks in lessons, but to start with basic facts and build to more complex uses of information.


Here is an example of moving from easier to complex in an Earth Science sequence:


  • Describe three characteristics of metamorphic rocks is a simple recall question, at DOK Level 1.  Students begin by identifying basic information about a rock type—a task that can be accomplished by reading or rereading a text.
  • Describe the difference between metamorphic and igneous rocks is a level 2 question, as it requires thinking to determine the differences in the two rock types.  Here, it is assumed that students have read about both types of rocks and their characteristics.  They must now “think beyond the text” to identify which is the same, which different.  This task will provide students with an opportunity to review what they know about these rock types and bring in their own understandings.
  • Describe a model that you might use to represent the relationships that exist within the rock cycle.  This is a DOK Level 3 question which requires a deep understanding of the rock cycle and determination of how best to represent it.  Wide reading or intense instruction will be needed to understand how the rock cycle works.  It will also be helpful to have an understanding of other cycles in nature, such as the nitrogen cycle or the water cycle.  The learner must be able to identify the important characteristics of the rock cycle, the steps in it, and how it compares to other processes in nature.  


For a description of how a K-12 teacher used a scaffolding approach to teach his students about the American Revolution, click here.


Scaffolding instruction applies to all disciplines equally, and does not always have to be based on reading.  Consider, for instance, the way one teacher gradually built up her students’ understanding the difference between physical and chemical changes. 


  • Step 1: Students observed demonstrations about ice floating in water, then melting and drew diagrams of molecular structure
  • Step 2: Pairs of students were given cards with everyday events, then asked to sort them into two categories, physical changes or chemical changes, and to write why they put them where they did. 
  • Step 3:  Students wrote about what they learned about physical and chemical changes. 


In the this lesson on the book Siddartha by Herman Hesse, students are lead to build background knowledge of India gradually, building on what they know and reading to find out more.




Questioning is an important tool for helping students engage in higher order thinking.  Questions can be used to help students review what they have learned from a particular text or lesson; to integrate what they have learned in a lesson or text with their own prior knowledge; and to apply what they have learned to a larger context.  Research also shows that students who are able to ask and answer their own questions have higher levels of achievement.   


ReQuest is one technique that makes use of questions for reviewing material.  In this technique, students write questions for which the answer can be found in a particular text or texts.  The questions should be focused on important information, not insignificant details.  It helps if teachers model “good” questions.


Once students have formulated their questions and know the answers, each student asks a question of the class.  One student answers and the student who asked the question judges whether the answer is correct.  If there is disagreement, the whole class returns to the text to decide whether there is evidence to support the answer.  This procedure continues until most students have asked questions.  For a description, click here.


Question Stems are another helpful resource.  Students can be taught to write questions using question stems, then write answers to their questions—a practice that has been shown to significantly improve student learning. The process should be modeled the first few times so that students end up asking rich questions, rather than just questions that focus on insignificant details.  For examples of question stems, try the following links:






Question-Answer Relationships, or QAR, is a technique for helping students analyze questions, classifying questions into types, which then helps students know how to proceed when answering them.  QAR question types include Right There questions, which are literal questions with an answer spelled out in the text; Think and Search questions which require drawing information from several places in a text; Author and You questions which require inferences; and On My Own questions which require students to draw on their own knowledge.  This link provides a full description.


Graphic Organizers


Graphic organizers are great ways to teach students higher order thinking skills.  In the book “Higher Order Thinking Skills,” R. Bruce Williams shows how different graphic organizers can be used to help students develop the thinking skills of comparing/contrasting; classifying, sorting and ranking; explaining, inferring; sequencing and predicting; analyzing, generalizing, analyzing, making analogies and transferring. 


Some links to check out include:





This graphic organizer was used with a text that described the way of life of Native Americans before the arrival of Europeans.




One of the best ways to help students grow as higher-order thinkers is to take an inquiry approach to teaching and learning.  In an inquiry-based classroom, students are encouraged to ask their own questions and try to find answers, collaboratively build, test and reflect on their understandings, and “own” knowledge.  Try the following links to learn more about inquiry-based learning and to see examples.








Metacognition means thinking about thinking.  It’s what teachers do when they ask themselves “How did I know that was the main idea?” or when a student remembers the steps she followed to write a successful essay or find out more about electricity.


Research shows that metacognitively aware learners are more strategic and perform better.  They can plan, sequence and monitor their learning in a way that improves performance. 


Teachers can help students become more aware of their own learning processes by introducing reading and learning strategies, demonstrating the strategies, explaining when they are useful, and providing students with guided practice and feedback.  It is important to talk explicitly about the reading/writing/learning strategy so that students begin to gain awareness of what they are doing mentally when they perform a task successfully.


Below you will find some useful links for learning more about the role of metacognition in the classroom:



To learn more about the research on metacognition, try this article.


Writing to Learn


One of the best ways to promote metacognitive thinking in students, help students be more self-directed in their learning, and assess student learning in an informal way is writing to learn.  Writing to learn means having students write informally in a variety of ways to apply what they are learning, reflect on it, pose questions, and explore their understandings.  This is also a great way for teachers to get a “window” into student thinking and learning. 


Some writing to learn activities are designed to help students reflect on their own learning, while others focus on applying knowledge or responding to text.  There are many forms that writing to learn can take, and it can be implemented before, during or after a lesson. 


One very helpful and complete link for teachers who want to implement writing to learn in the classroom is located here.


Another very helpful link located here.



What are some other helpful resources for promoting higher order thinking in the classroom?


The following report provides a very comprehensive survey of the classroom elements that contribute to students’ ability to think at a higher level, along with links, examples of teaching sequences, and academic references:



The book “Higher Order Thinking Skills: Challenging all Students to Achieve” by R. Bruce Williams (published Corwin/Sage) provides a very helpful overview of the kinds of thinking that teachers should aim at in promoting higher order thinking in their classrooms, as well as examples of how to support that.



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