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Strategy Spotlight: Moving Beyond Ambiguous Questions

The Four Question Method was developed to clarify what is being asked of students, negating the need to question the question being posed.

By Lani Aquino

In this Strategy Spotlight, the Four Question Method (4QM) is explored in 4QMTeaching’s The High Stakes of Getting the Question Right. Gary Shiffman, co-developer of 4QM, shares his work with a history teacher who was hitting a roadblock when it came to garnering student responses to an essay question. When this fellow teacher came to him with a plea for assistance, Shiffman knew his method would offer both teacher and students the tools and strategies to showcase their learning.

The problem with the essay assessment wasn’t the students’ lack of knowledge on the subject, it was the forming of the question they were being asked to answer. At the end of a Civil War unit, students were asked to respond to the prompt What’s the most important cause of the American Civil War? Students were given an article describing five causes of the war and asked to choose and defend one of these in response to the query. While the question seemed straightforward enough, it elicited zero response from the students. No pencils furiously scribing, no thoughtful contemplation followed by equally thoughtful responses; across the board, nothing.

Pinpointing the Crux of the Issue

With 4QM in hand, Shiffman was ready to aid his colleague in working through the question design process. While her initial question may have seemed direct, it was in fact ambiguous. The Four Question Method offered the lens for this discovery. The 4QM developers have determined that there are 4 quality questions to be posed in history classes. They are:

  1. What happened? (narration)

    What were the major events that led to the American Civil War?

  2. What were people thinking? (interpretation)

    What were the key players thinking on the eve of the war?

  3. Why then and there? (explanation)

    What changes in economics, politics, and demography made a violent constitutional crisis more likely in the middle of the 19th century rather than earlier or later?

  4. What do we think about that? (judgment)

    Who is to blame for the American Civil War?

Shiffman determined that, “Any student who took Ms. R’s essay prompt seriously would need to complete a number of challenging intellectual tasks. They would need to distinguish narration and interpretation from causal explanation. Then they would need to compare factors. Then they’d have to rank them in order of importance. The first two tasks are quite difficult. The third is impossible.” The result was that no students could muster the clarity to begin the process, much less end it by completing a thoughtful response to such an ambiguously assigned task.

While some students may try to fake their way through such assignments by touching on a component or two of what is being asked, the reality is that the question shouldn’t have been posed in the first place. When Mrs. R. next met with students, she honestly shared the error of her ways in formulating the question and offered a new one. She asked students to select a cause and state how it contributed to tensions between the North and South. Students were able to quickly begin posing a narrative about their chosen causes (e.g., Increased nervousness amongst Southerners due to the Abolitionist movement.).

The big takeaway here is that if a teacher can’t determine which of the big four a question is asking, then what can she expect of her students? The role of clarity is invaluable in the question formulation process. Teachers have to take the time to ensure their asking the right questions in the right way.

Applications for Other Areas

  • The foundational elements of 4QM can aid teachers in any curricular area in developing more concise and answerable questions.
  • 4QM could also be used as a way for students and teachers to analyze text and arguments to determine author’s purpose.

Other Strategies for History Assessments

Rather than posing difficult questions and having students only respond to a portion of them, it is better to pinpoint a succinct question that can allow students to thoughtfully respond. By exploring 4QM, students and teachers can feel more confident when it comes to formulating questions and showcasing knowledge in their responses. Be sure to check back for future Strategy Spotlights that highlight strategies teachers use to impact learning.

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