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Elevating Instruction With Essential Questions

By Dr. Rachel Ball
Elevating Instruction With Essential Questions

Teachers everywhere differ in subtle and marked ways in their styles of instructional delivery. These differences are attributable to an array of factors, including the training and skill set of the teacher, the classroom context, the content they teach, the age and developmental level of students, the individual needs of students, and even the personal preferences of the teacher. Each of these aforementioned factors results in unique classroom experiences for students. However, despite these differences, questioning is likely to be used as a tried-and-true instructional strategy across classrooms, levels, and disciplines anywhere in the world. Questioning has an effect size of 0.48, which means it is "likely to have positive impact on student achievement," but even this effect size masks the differences in the effectiveness and quality of questions (Hattie, 2017, p. 2; Hattie, 2009).

McTighe & Wiggins (2003) identified seven hallmarks of essential questions:

1. Essential questions must be “open-ended” in which there are opportunities for more than one acceptable response. 

2. Questions should result in continued conversation and student interest because they are “thought-provoking and intellectually engaging." 

3. Essential questions should necessitate “higher-order thinking” that reflect higher levels of cognitive demand. 

4. The questions also should support “important, transferrable ideas” across content. 

5. And when asked effectively, an essential question “raises additional questions” and encourages future interest in the topic or content. 

6. Answers to essential questions should necessitate “support and justification” rather than simple responses. 

7. And finally, an essential question is one that “recurs over time” and has an opportunity for multiple entry points throughout the year (p. 3).

To illustrate these characteristics more concretely, consider a classroom lesson in which one of the overarching objectives is that students develop an understanding of experimental design and the scientific method. Using the two scenarios crafted below, examine the differences in questions and how they might impact student attainment of the lesson’s objectives.

In scenario one, the teacher asks recall questions such as: 

What is the independent variable in this experiment? 

What were the controls in the experiment? 

Was your hypothesis correct and what were the results? 

These questions do not meet the criteria for essential questions according to the McTighe & Wiggins (2003) criteria. Instead, these questions can be answered with a simple response and do not require justification. When asked in this manner, it is unlikely that the questions will expand classroom discourse or engagement. While these questions may be efficient, it is unlikely that they will extend student understanding beyond a surface-level knowledge of content.
In scenario two, if the instructor were to make some modifications to the questions, the cognitive demand could be elevated and lead to higher levels of student understanding and engagement. 

Instead of asking students to simply identify the independent variable, the question could be reframed to ask: How might your experiment have been different if you had selected another independent variable and why? With this modification, students must first demonstrate that they know the meaning of an independent variable, but this question is also open-ended and provides opportunities for further discussion and justification. 

Using the next question from scenario one, the instructor could revise it to ask: What were some of the limitations of the experimental design and why? A teacher could assess student understanding of experimental controls with this question, so the same recall information can be assessed, but this question also requires students to analyze the experiment, justify their response, and think critically about experimental design in future research. 

Finally, the last question could be modified to ask: In what ways did the results support or fail to support your hypothesis? With this modification, students must relate the results to their initial hypothesis and substantiate their responses, allowing for more open-ended responses.

These scenarios do not, however, suggest that essential questions are the only types of questions that should be asked. Instead, teachers should be purposeful about the sequence in which questions are presented within a lesson. Structuring lessons in which questions increase in complexity should be purposefully planned to support student acquisition of new material (NSW Government, 2021).

Considering the frequency and widespread use of questioning is an important instructional strategy. Thinking critically about the types of questions teachers use is an important issue when planning for engaging instruction. Modifying the questions to be asked while planning for instruction enables teachers to see an immediate impact on student engagement and understanding when used in the classroom!



Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Routledge.

Hattie, J. (2017, November).  250+ Influences on Student Achievement. Visible Learning Plus. 

McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. (2013). Essential questions: Opening doors to student understanding. ASCD.

NSW Government. (2021, November 8). Key questioning strategies.


Dr. Rachel Previs Ball is an educational consultant for Stronge & Associates. She has served in various educational leadership roles, most recently as the director of a math and science governor's school program for gifted and high-ability secondary students in Virginia, and has previously served as principal of a primary school in a public school district in Virginia. She began her educational journey as an elementary classroom teacher and has taught second, third, and fifth grades. She received her undergraduate, master’s, and doctorate degrees from The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Stronge and Associates Educational Consulting, LLC (S&A), specializes in researching, developing, and supporting the design and application of educator evaluation systems both in the United States and internationally. They work extensively on the related issues of teacher and leader effectiveness with their research-based hiring protocols, professional development workshops, and technical assistance to districts, states, and other U.S. and international educational organizations.

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