3 Tips for Great Question Writing

Tower of Hanoi Puzzle

Figure 1. Tower of Hanoi Puzzle

Count the number of moves required to duplicate the exact arrangement of disks on the first tower and the last tower.

Rules: Only move one disk at a time. You may never place a larger disk on top of a smaller disk.

Hint: Sketch out your strategy versus trying to walk through the steps in your head.

Possible answers: 5, 7, 9 or 11 moves

Most blog posts don’t open with an assignment for the reader. Why have I chosen to do so? And do you even care why, or are you hoping that in the next few lines I will reveal the correct answer? Chances are, if you actually tried out the puzzle above, you want to know the solution. Is the majority percentage displayed in the poll correct?

I first encountered Tower of Hanoi when I was reading Daniel Willingham’s terrific book, Why Don’t Students Like School. As soon as I started working on the puzzle, I was hooked: I quickly pulled out a piece of paper and a pencil, and started sketching and drawing out different disk-moves. I could not continue reading until I believed I had the puzzle figured out. Then, I started to turn the pages anxiously looking to see if I was right.

Willingham does not reveal the correct answer; my desire to know was strong enough that I had to Google the Tower of Hanoi before I went on to the next chapter.

I did not intend to break from my Willingham reading to Google “Tower of Hanoi” and I certainly did not care about the puzzle beforehand from a personal or academic standpoint. But something made me exceptionally curious about finding out the solution.

What if you could design questions that engage students at this level in your classroom? What if you could do so without the burden of having to make the subject matter relevant or relatable to every single student?

The secret to writing good questions or problems may surprise you. The key, according to Willingham, is to pose questions or problems that can be solved. That means questions or problems that are not too hard and not too easy, but just right. Think Goldilocks.

Goldilocks and the Key to Writing Good Questions

One of Willingham’s primary points is “people are naturally curious, but curiosity is fragile.” He emphasizes that as human beings, we are wired to take pleasure in solving problems, like the Tower of Hanoi; we may even boost our brain chemistry when we are successful.

But our pleasure sensors do not ignite with just any old problem or question.

To be engaging, problems or questions need to be designed to hit at just the right level of difficulty. In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink refers to activities in this just-right zone as “Goldilocks tasks.” If you pose questions that are too easy, says Willingham, you will bore students. Pose questions that are too hard, they will check out even faster.

So, how can you appeal to the inner Goldilocks in all of your students? Try these three tips:

  • Shore up students’ prior knowledge

Make sure your students have enough prior knowledge to self-assess accurately whether they can do a problem or not. “We quickly evaluate how much mental work it will take to solve a problem. If it’s too much or too little, we stop working on the problem if we can,” says Willingham.

There are a number of ways to help build students’ prior knowledge. Try readings, audio, video, or even a mini lecture.

The most reliable way to ensure students move new information into their prior knowledge frameworks is to get them to think about that information. Find ways to compel students to think about and retrieve the knowledge you want them to retain. My go-to method is Peer Instruction (PI), developed by Eric Mazur at Harvard University. In PI, teachers pose a question to students, students respond individually, then discuss their answers in groups, and then respond again on their own.

  • Lighten students’ cognitive load

Respect the amount of information humans can take in and process in working memory. According to Willingham, our working memory is the area in our minds that “holds the stuff” we are actively thinking about, or the “site of awareness and thinking” (p. 15). The demand placed on our working memory at a given time is called our cognitive load. Working memory is very susceptible to overload because there is only a finite amount of space available for it.

But, what causes cognitive overload?

Willingham provides the following list of attributes of questions or problems that can cause working-memory overloads:

      • Multistep instructions
      • Lists of unconnected [uncategorized] facts
      • Chains of logic more than two or three steps long
      • Application of a just-learned concept to new material

I would add problems that feature more than one unknown variable to Willingham’s list.

And, how can you reduce cognitive load?

One research-based tip is to scaffold students’ learning (see Ambrose et al.’s, How Learning Works). Scaffolding happens when teachers give students more support for learning early on, but then remove those supports after more frequent exposure. Try providing students with frequent practice with the individual steps or logic chains in a longer problem first, before posing questions where students must combine steps to find a solution. When a problem gets even more complex, such as one where students are required to derive or estimate missing variables on their own, try providing students with a few “worked-examples” that lay out problem-solving strategy and logic (see How Learning Works).

  • Un-situate students’ learning

So far, we’ve talked about how to avoid making problems or questions too hard.

It certainly does not make sense, however, to only pose questions to students that require only one step, one chain of logic, provide them with all the variables, or that never require them to apply their learning to new material. In fact, in the 21st century, the problems de rigueur are all highly complex, multistep, and often marked by multiple unknowns. Moreover, I believe the application of learning in new and foreign contexts is the core purpose of education.

So how do you avoid asking questions that are too easy and that challenge students just enough?

The easiest questions are those that require simple fact recall. For example, when you tell students the Pythagorean theorem is a2 + b2=c2 or that Hamlet’s famous “To be, or not to be” speech is a soliloquy and then you ask students: “What is the Pythagorean or what kind of speech is To Be or Not to Be?” Such questions can (and should) be used very early on in the process of learning to grab students attention, or as memory boosters throughout; however, such questions are generally far too easy to maintain a student’s interest for the long haul.

Transfer or application questions are the definitive question types; they also happen to be the hardest for students. Questions that transfer learning to uncharted situations is very challenging for students because they primarily view their learning as situated or bounded by subject, classroom or even topic.

    • Hugging:

      There are two approaches to designing transfer questions that I recommend using to draw students in. The first approach is called “hugging,” which works toward near transfer (see Perkins). These questions ask students to apply knowledge in new but very similar contexts. For example, perhaps you tell students the Pythagorean theorem and then pose the question in Figure 2.

    • Bridging:

      The second approach, called bridging or far transfer (see Perkins), is the ultimate goal of education. Bridging questions require students to make significant leaps between the learning and a new or foreign application context. In the case of the Pythagorean theorem, a bridging question might be, “Estimate the shortest distance between first and third base.” This question takes math learning out of the situated context of triangles and plugging in and puts it in the unpredictable context of baseball. In such questions, students need guided practice in solving problems with missing variables, so they can draw on those strategies for harder questions.

By shoring up students’ prior knowledge, lightening their cognitive load and un-situating students’ learning, you can design questions that hit at the Goldilocks range of desirable difficulty: Not too hard, not too easy. Just right.

Now, go look up the answer to the Tower of Hanoi puzzle if you haven’t already, or try writing a new question that adheres to one or more of these tips.

Julie SchellJulie Schell is Director of OnRamps and Strategic Initiatives at The University of Texas at Austin’s (UT-Austin) Center for Teaching and Learning where she leads signature, curricular innovations that extend the reach of the University. In 2014, she was identified by Teachers College, Columbia University as an Early Riser in Higher Education. She is also a Clinical Assistant Professor at UT-Austin’s top ranked College of Education. Julie is an internationally recognized expert in flipped learning and Peer Instruction and served as a fellow at Harvard University from 2010-2014. She writes on these topics and more on her blog, Turn to Your Neighbor.