Structured Questioning

Reformatted: January 2010 

Background: I arrived in a nontracking urban high school to find a classroom where the range in skill levels from the lowest to highest student in each class was greater than four years. The higher performing students performed at about grade level. The middle students vacillated between doing one problem right and the very next problem wrong. The lower performing students crossed their arms and claimed they just couldn't do it. Many of the students openly admitted they simply memorize material just long enough to pass the chapter test, then they forget it. This lessons was used to get them to focus on their own awareness and thinking. Purpose: We obviously needed students to recognize that learning involves much more than short term memorization. I recognized that I needed to offer an approach that worked at three different levels. Here's how I worded the purpose for the students:
Approach: Start by coaching the students with atlevel problems in the following structured sequence of questions:
Focus on distinguishing between: "what I see," "what I believe," and "what I don't understand." Gradually raise the problem level (e.g. use trig functions, summation symbols, etc.) above the common skill level of the class to get them to focus on how the questions may lead them towards a solution. Require lower performing students to introduce all questions by stating what they see. Require students who claim they did not do the homework, because they didn't understand it to write out their answers to the structured questions for each problem they can't do. Discuss what can be learned from those answers. Have midlevel students compare what they see in similar problems. 
Related Pages at this site: 

Example: For students who have just practiced solving using factoring and the quadratic equation, give a problem such as: x^{3}  x^{2} = 6x . Coach answering (Of course, answers will vary with skill level):
Observations:The structured questions approach has made it easier for me to go over material by stopping at each step and asking, "What do we see?" and "What do we already understand about that?" For example, when working with a problem that had complex fractions I was able to say, "We see a fraction which has fractions being subtracted in the numerator." "We believe that we may subtract fractions by finding a common denominator, so let's do that to the fractions in the numerator." At the very same time, our English / Social Studies teacher, facing the same frustrations, changed her lessons to "Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?" Some students expressed being uncomfortable with this approach. They wanted to go back to having me show them steps to memorize. But is memorizing real learning? Even worse is memorizing until the test, then forgetting, as many of the students have acknowledged they do, real learning? On one advanced problem a few students said, "I don't understand anything!" So we went through the structured questions as a class, and determined that they understood almost every part of the problem except for one unknown symbol (S). At that point, it was obvious they could look it up, ask someone to explain what that symbol meant. By the end of the year a noticeable increase in math standardized test scores did occur. 

