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Advice from an Expert: Deeper Learning and Cognitive Rigor

“Sometimes it is the second question a teacher asks that is the best question.” – Karin Hess

CCE is excited to bring you Part 2 of our interview with Karin Hess. In this post, Dr. Hess discusses the importance of, challenges to, and strategies for engaging students in deeper learning through formative assessment. You can find Part 1 of this mini-series here.

CCE: What teaching strategies do you recommend for the development of deeper learning in students?

Karin Hess (KH): First, a teacher has to know the content deeply enough to be able to ask deeper questions. So, if I’m teaching about cell division, but I don't know much about cell division myself, I’m going to ask low level questions. If I know the content and why we care about cell division, and I know that in a deeper way, that’s the first step.

Then I usually suggest that teachers plan out a series of questions--a variety of questions-- that start with the low-level basics but begin to build to deeper understanding: “how does this skill or concept apply in a routine way?” or “what would you typically look for if you were looking at cell division?,” for example. Then I would go to the even deeper--the kinds of questions that require transfer—the performance task types of questions. An example of a transfer question might be, “what’s the relationship between cell division and mutation or genetic engineering and how might that explain certain approaches to a genetically transmitted disease?” Now students have to delve into other content in order to figure out how to answer those advanced, open-ended questions.

CCE: What challenges do teachers face in getting to students to engage in deeper learning?

KH: I think [typically] when teachers plan their questions, they don’t plan them out along a continuum of basic to routine application to the non-routine, real-world kind of questions. So with my work with depths of knowledge, that would be starting with a DOK 1 (do you understand the term or basic facts) then moving to a DOK 2 (can you explain or apply it in a routine way), and so on until you reach the DOK3 and DOK 4 which are represented by non-routine questions that underlie problem solving tasks.

CCE: How easy is it for teachers to incorporate formative assessment of deeper learning into their current teaching practice?

KH: In my experience, teachers first have to have mental schema for what deeper thinking looks like. I often open up my workshop by saying “what are some words or phrases that come to mind when you think of cognitive rigor in learning or teaching?” We get a whole variety of words and phrases and nobody means exactly the same thing by those words and phrases. As you work through these ideas, you start to develop a common language and a deeper understanding of what that might look like in math, science, ELA, etc. Once you have established that deeper understanding and schema, then you look at your own practice.

I've yet to have a teacher who can pull out maybe a test they've written or a prompt from a performance assessment they've written in the past and say it's as clear as it could be and really does get at the deepest aspects of understanding. Usually what they say is, “I can now see a better way to word this question and if I word it differently, I will tap into other areas of that student thinking so that they have to bring in other sources in the process.” In student work analysis, a lot is revealed. Teachers often say the students answered exactly what they asked, but the teacher wanted more. Sometimes it is the second question a teacher asks that is the best question. This is the question that probes more deeply – “how can you prove this?” or “what evidence supports your thinking?”

CCE: What advice do you have for veteran or new teachers incorporating cognitive rigor into their teaching practice?

KH: Collaboration is key to gaining a deeper understanding of how students learn and develop understanding over time. When teachers can share (and collaboratively analyze) student work, a dialogue develops with teachers asking one another about what they were expecting to see and what they saw that they weren’t expecting.

It’s important to build leadership skills within your faculty by creating space for teachers to stand in front of their peers to share what they’re learning. I use this term—leadership density—which describes leadership among faculty which builds local capacity to implement change in assessment practices. It essentially means that when we encourage teachers to share their craft, more leaders develop, and the more the new structures will hold. Having common ways to talk about assessment and learning is important. It’s easy to become defensive, so we need protocols to keep the evaluation objective and transparent.

Note. This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Click here to read Karin’s blog post on effective formative assessment.