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Test-taking strategy: Teaching question stems
MONDAY, MAY 11, 2015 10:20 AM

With tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards being administered this spring, it's important for educators to prepare their students both with the knowledge they'll need and the effective test-taking strategies they can use to do well. One such strategy teachers can cover with their students is learning how to break down and analyze questions using question stems. Here's a guide for what question stems are and how they can be used to help students become better test-takers:

What are question stems?
The idea of question stems comes from Bloom's Taxonomy, a widely used education framework created by education experts Benjamin Bloom and Howard Gardner. The taxonomy holds that questions can be divided into a hierarchy of six different levels: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. The idea is that teachers can use these six levels to ask their students a variety of questions and help them think about topics in different ways. Question stems can be thought of as templates to craft questions within each of these categories. 

What are some examples of question stems?
Each category of question has different stems in order to encourage students to think critically and analytically. Here are some examples for each level:

  • Knowledge: "How did he ... ?" "What is ... ?" "Can you list ... ?"
  • Comprehension: "What were the main character's feelings about ... ?" "How can you compare/contrast ... ?"
  • Application: "How is ... an example of ... ?" "What would happen if ... ?"
  • Analysis: "What are the main themes?" "Can you distinguish between ... ?" "Can you classify ... ?"
  • Synthesis: "How could you improve ... ?" "What conclusions can you infer ... ?" "Can you come up with a new ... ?"
  • Evaluation: "Do you agree with the character's ... ?" "Can you justify ... ?" "Why was this better than ... ?"

How can students use question stems?
Teachers can use question stems to encourage new ways of thinking, but understanding the stems can help students gain valuable test-taking insight as well. If students learn how to break down a question by looking at key words like "compare," "judge," "predict" and "define," among others, they can better understand what the author of the query expects. Then, the children can easily determine how to answer fully and correctly. Ask students to read a passage and craft six different questions, one in each category. Then discuss the questions with the class, and decide together how students might go about answering them. Or, write varied questions down on flash cards, divide students into groups and give each group a handful. Ask the teams to sort the note cards into question categories and have students explain why each question goes in the category they choose.