Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

The Question of Questions

Posted by douglashunter on July 12, 2007

My participation in this blog has been marked by a closer examination of how I present lessons, my goals, and expectations when presenting a lesson. I have to say that in the past 6 months I’ve made significant changes to how I prepare and present lessons. In short the change can be described as a move away from a close analysis of the material, the reading of supporting scripture and the structure of the lesson to a concern for being able to ask good questions. It seems to me now that the single most powerful form of preparation I can do is to create good questions.

Questions, what and how to ask is an often discussed topic in pedagogical circles. Perhaps the most commonly cited description of questions and their purpose is Bloom’s Taxonomy that describes several types of questions in a range from lower to higher level thinking skills. In Brief the Taxonomy is as follows:

1) Knowledge- Recalling previously learned material such as definitions formulas etc.
In an educational setting knowledge questions might be like the following:
-What are the parts of an atom?
-What is the capital of Alaska?
-What is the definition of Epistemology?
In the church setting knowledge question may be like the following:
-Who is the current leader of the Church?
-What is the second article of Faith?
-What is the definition of repentance?

Such questions are designed to test the respondent’s ability to recall facts, they don’t require interpretation or understanding. For example one can state that Juno is the capital of Alaska without knowing anything about the city or where it is in Alaska.

2) Comprehension- These questions show how well a respondent understands the meaning of material either remembered or in review. Here are some examples from the SWK manual:
– Review Matthew 6:14-15 quoted by president Kimball on page 92. Why do you think we must forgive others in order to receive the Lord’s forgiveness?
– Review the story on pages 89-91. Why is it sometimes so difficult for people to forgive one another?
-Review the section beginning on page 105. In what ways can the lord help us withstand evil?
As you read President Kimball’s comparison between “blind obedience” and “faith obedience” what differences do you see?

Comprehension questions of this kind are more specifically called reading comprehension questions. They test the respondent’s ability to read a passage of text and extract specific information from it. It’s worth noting that these are by far the most common type of question found in the Church’s lesson manuals. In The SWK manual just about all the questions are reading comprehension question, with only a tiny number of application question thrown in.

3) Application- To answer such questions the respondent must be able to use information in a novel context to solve a problem or perform another task. These questions involve rules, principles formulas, concepts, procedures, etc.
Examples from the SWK manual:
-Read about the decision President Kimball had to make in March 1972 (pages 135,137) What gospel principles do you think apply when we are faced with difficult decisions?
-Ponder this statement: “Whatever thing a man sets his heart and his trust in most is his god” (page 146). What are some false gods in the world today?

4) Analysis- Analysis questions require breaking material into its parts and dealing with the relationship between the parts.
-What economic factors are at work to keep home prices high in the Los Angeles area?
– What are the main Ideas that Barthes uses to develop his ideas on photography in Camera Lucida?

This type of question does require some independent work on the part of the respondent, they must be able to judge the importance of information, organize it and describe why it is important.

5) Synthesis- Putting parts together in a new way. Often times the respondent has access to a model which they can apply to a new situation. Examples:
-What procedures would you use in an experiment to test the caloric value of different foods?

6) Evaluation- In these types of questions the respondent must be able to apply a set of criteria to make a judgment. Aesthetic criticism can offer a number of examples of this kind of questions. As can economics and science. Examples:
– Does Hemingway use adjectives effectively to enhance his theme in The Old Man and the Sea?
– How well does the Stillman Diet meet the criteria for an ideal weight reduction plan?1

Bloom’s Taxonomy also describes lower and higher level questioning. Lower level questions deal with knowledge, comprehension and simple examples of application. Higher level questions require more complex analysis, independent thinking, synthesis and evaluation.

To be honest I think that Bloom’s taxonomy is only a starting point for us because it’s distinctions are based on how respondents utilizes discrete pieces of information. I think leading a discussion in a Church setting needs to be based on a number of additional variables. One way in which I do think the Taxonomy is useful is as a tool for evaluating the questions we create or the questions found in the church manuals. For example as I mentioned earlier the overwhelming majority of questions in the SWK manual (and many other church publications) are lower level reading comprehension questions. One can then ask why this would be the case. The first reason that comes to mind for me is that the stated purpose of the manuals is to keep the emphasis on the words and teaching of the presidents of the church. Reading comprehension questions are indeed one way to achieve this end.

The difficulty is that lower level questions often do not work well with adults, because adults perceive such questions as asking them to state the obvious, which is either a little embarrassing or feels unnecessary. I think many teachers can empathize with the experience of using a comprehension question and having it fall flat. So the second way that the Taxonomy might be of interest to us is that it may provide ideas of how to take lower level questions and turn them into higher level questions which often work better for adults. Consider the example I gave above:

– Review Matthew 6:14-15 quoted by president Kimball on page 92. Why do you think we must forgive others in order to receive the Lord’s forgiveness?

The quote from Matthew reads “But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

The difficulty with the question for teaching adults is that it’s so pointed. It strongly implies a single correct answer and this answer is obvious due to the context “because if we don’t forgive, we won’t be forgiven.”

Two ways to improve such a question for teaching adults would be to include a bit more scriptural context, read the verses before and or after the verse 14. And to ask a question that does not seek an obvious answer. It’s a common tactic to start a question with the obvious information and then move to a higher level. For example, one could reframe the issue as follows:

“So Matthew tells us that we can’t have forgiveness unless we forgive first. Intellectually I think we are all familiar with, and comfortable with that idea. Yet we still often have very real struggles with forgiving. Why might this be the case? What gets in the way of forgiveness? What are we holding onto when we are slow to forgive?”

I apologize for this very bland example. Putting aside its blandness, it has several positive features:
1) The information the lesson wants us to foreground is conveyed.
2) The question is raised from a lower level question to a higher level question that has a number of potential answers, and that often work better with adults.
3) The question personalizes the issue, moves it from the abstract to the concrete. It places emphasis on the participant’s own understanding of scripture and experience.
4) The way the question is asked implies that the participants have something unique to contribute to the discussion.

Granted this kind of questions has two risks in that the participants might not feel comfortable sharing their personal experience and the discussion may require some management on the part of the instructor to keep it on track. But it’s been my experience that the benefits of higher level questions far outweigh the risks.

Bloom’s Taxonomy is not the only way to evaluate questions but I think it’s a positive starting place to organize one’s thinking about how questions are structured and what they hope to achieve. There is a lot more to the question of questions and I hope to discuss some more interesting aspects of the issue in another post.

1- These last two questions were taken from the University of Illinois Center for Teaching Excellence’s web site. A Google search for “Bloom’s Taxonomy” will lead the curious to many sites that have various takes on the issues of questions.

12 Responses to “The Question of Questions”

  1. Robert C. said

    Douglas, I think this is a very important and fascinating issue you raise, and I like how you’ve broached it.

    I think a lot of the art of leading a good discussion with questions, is having a deep understanding of the issues at play. I like how you’ve asked altered the Matthew question on forgiveness in order to help adults think more carefully about how this intellectual point really plays out in our own lives. This is the type of question that I use as a default teaching method, and I think it works reasonably effectively. However, I think there is a better approach, and it’s related to the problems we’ve discussed before about “applying the scriptures to ourselves” vs. “applying ourselves to the scriptures.”

    Let’s look at the manual question more carefully (at least how you wrote it): Why do you think we must forgive others in order to receive the Lord’s forgiveness?

    The “obvious answer” you give is, because if we don’t forgive, we won’t be forgiven. I don’t think think this really answers the question, rather it just asserts what the question is asking. The question is why won’t be forgiven if we don’t forgive? At first blush, this seems to imply that God is acting non-mercifully, even hypocritically: God tells us that we are “required to forgive all men” (D&C 64:10), whether they seek forgiveness or are themselves forgiving, and yet God is allowed to forgive only those who are forgiving!? (Notice, we discussed somewhat related issues in BrianJ’s post a while back here….)

    Now, I haven’t taught adults at Church for quite some time, and I worry my points above are a bit more . . . abstract and philosophical, I suppose, than I would be inclined to actually pursue in elders quorum, but somehow I think that a better discussion that stays more focused on the words of SWK and relevant scripture would take place with a different approach to the manual’s question (which I actually think, in this particular case, is a very difficult question!).

    If I sound like I’m coming down hard on your question, it’s more because your question is exactly the kind of question that I would be inclined to ask. Joe Spencer esp. has me thinking that there is a better approach, an approach which I am trying hard to understand and internalize better. Toward that end, I think next time I post on a RS/MP lesson, I will try to take up one of the manual questions in depth—I think that would be a very useful way to think about how to think about the questions in these manuals….

  2. douglashunter said


    a couple of points.
    1- Actually I don’t think the way I restructured the question helps participants think more carefully about the intellectual point. I think it shifts the emphasis away from the intellectual to the emotional.

    2- You wrote:
    “Let’s look at the manual question more carefully (at least how you wrote it): Why do you think we must forgive others in order to receive the Lord’s forgiveness?”

    Just so you know this is the exact wording from the manual.

    You wrote:
    “The “obvious answer” you give is, because if we don’t forgive, we won’t be forgiven. I don’t think think this really answers the question, rather it just asserts what the question is asking.”

    Two thoughts here. First, Bloom’s Taxonomy is a tool for examining the cognitive challenges present in different types of questions. It looks to me that you were responding to the thematic content of the questions in my post not their structure, but my entire post was about structure!

    Second, context is everything here. Perhaps we interpert the context differently which is fine, but my reading of the question in the context of the lesson, and the specific verse quoted is that this is a textbook example of a reading comprehension question, and as you point out such a question will have an answer that tends to re-asserts the question.

    In relation to Bloom’s Taxonomy when you say my obvious answer does not really answer the question you have already begun the process of re-formulating the question from a lower level to a higher level question, and that’s fine. In fact, Its a good point that some class participants will “upgrade” a question on their own. But not all class participants will do that, so what I was getting at in the post was the idea that when we present a lesson we need to know our audience and structure the cognitive demands of our questions in a way that will be most beneficial to that audience. For adults this usually means using more higher level questions, as we are both suggesting.

    Or you could be saying that I both misunderstand Bloom’s Taxonomy and the question that I quoted from the manual. If that’s the case disregard my comments.

  3. robf said

    I think that in asking questions, one purpose should be to help the class get closer to Christ. No matter where the question falls in Bloom’s Taxonomy, if we just wander across the gospel landscape without getting closer to Christ, I think we’ve failed. I like how my recent thoughts here about D&C 76 have led me to think more deeply about the Glory of God and what that might mean. Pondering on that has gotten me closer to Christ than any other studying I’ve done lately. To that end, there may be many questions that may appear to be simple “knowledge” type questions that actually take us to much deeper levels of thought–and lead us closer to Christ. Questions such as “what is the glory of God?” or “what is the Atonement?”

  4. Robert C. said

    Douglas, this is an excellent and insightful response to my comment, thanks. It seems we agree that higher questions are a good method to keep a lesson from becoming perfunctory (i.e. “drawing near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me”). I’m less convinced that we agree that an emotional question is better than an intellectual one. Actually, I think I’m too confused about this to really make agreement or disagreement possible. This is something I have a very hard time understanding—finding the right intellectual and emotional approach so that the spirit can maximally thrive….

  5. douglashunter said

    Rob, We can also make a distinction between open and closed questions. I didn’t go into it because my post was already quite long but a closed question has a small number of correct answers while open questions have many more possibilities. Further, I don’t think that either of your examples are necessarily simple knowledge questions. Or they are but only to the extent that one believes the glory of God or the Atonement have simple, factual definitions. “What is a circle?” and “what is the Atonement?” are very different questions because of the nature of the object of each question. The level of cognitive work necessary to answer the first question will not be adequate to answer the second, unless the context is a primary class.

  6. douglashunter said

    Robert, I don’t think that an emotional question is necessairly better than an intellectual one. They are both tools to use as the spirit guides us.

  7. joespencer said

    Bloom’s taxonomy seems, in the end, to be too… laden with presuppositions. That is, it assumes that thinking and knowledge have a certain (unquestionable?) meaning or structure. As many who follow this blog can guess, I’m not very comfortable with the assumed meaning or structure that guides the taxonomy itself.

    But I think Douglas is raising a very important question, in fact the question of questions. And I think he is thinking in the right direction by trying to think the structure of questions as such. But I wonder if Bloom’s taxonomy helps us get to the most important structural points here.

    A first structural point, then: a question is always structured as a call. By its very nature, a question is a function of community or communion, perhaps as the ground of community or communion since it functions as a kind of summons. It is worth noting that this is the case even when a question is asked rhetorically: a rhetorical question summons one, but summons one to silence (an ultimately vocal silence). Can we therefore call the question as such ethical? And how are we to think about the distance between the question and the proper name? How is a question a name? And what does all of this imply about teaching?

    A second structural point: questions structure discourse by transgressing it. Inasmuch as questions establish (or confirm) community or communion, they also disrupt it by grounding (or confirming) that community or communion on the unknown or the still-to-be-worked-out. That is, even as a question functions as a summons, it is always heard as a summons to an incomplete (non-completeable?) task. If the task to which a question sets the community were, as such, completeable, communion would cease with the given answer. Questions thus (at least generally) unite communities in communion precisely by pointing those gathered into the communities away from each other in that and as they are pointed to each other. What does all of this imply about teaching?

    A third structural point: any given question is laden with presuppositions. As Gadamer (drawing on Heidegger) has taught us most effectively, questions determine answers. That is, a question, by its very phrasing and positioning, betrays a whole world of presuppositions. This is perhaps the most dangerous structural point to be raised about questions: the question as summons and the task to which such a question summons one might well be totalitarian in nature. In other words, questions, if they are taken as answerable, lead to closure. But perhaps this point has a nice converse: questions, if they are taken as unanswerable, lead to openness, in fact lead to questions. Questions, because they are laden with presuppositions, might best be taken as summonses to question, to inquire, to counterquestion, etc. And what does this imply about teaching?

    Obviously, there are many other structural points that could be raised. What are some?

    In the meanwhile, how do these three points helps us to rethink Bloom’s taxonomy? What do the several question structures in the taxonomy do in a classroom setting understood as community or communion? Thoughts?

  8. robf said

    Yesterday I taught a Relief Society teacher development lesson on teaching with the Spirit relying mostly on D&C 50 and Alma 5. Since I had been thinking a lot about questions, we talked about how questions allow everyone to determine their position vis a vis the question–and if the questions point towards a relationship with Christ, allow everyone to see where they are in relation to Christ and make decisions about how they will better build that relationship. If done correctly, questions can facilitate the shared positioning/standing/”understanding” and dwelling creation/”edification”/building upon the foundation of Christ and rejoicing in the gospel characteristic of “teaching by the Spirit” (D&C 50:22). Alma 5 is a masterful discourse using mostly questions to accomplish this.

  9. robf said

    In passing, a quote from David Bohn in a piece brought to my attention by Robert C on the LDS-HERM list.

    “Proper questioning “foregrounds” assumptions and brings into the clearing of common agreement the discussant’s understanding of a subject matter.”

    And then…

    “Authentic discussion, that is a space in which a true hearing and a true saying occurs, is a place of peace, a place in which we can all find room to stand.”

    I like how these references to the thoughts of Gadamer and Levinas seem to approach our scriptural teachings on the imperative nature of common understanding (standing together) and edification.

  10. brianj said

    douglas—I’m late to the discussion (which quickly went over my head), but I have a simple question: You say that Bloom’s taxonomy is listed in increasing degree of intellectual activity; is there also a proportional increase in the number of possible answers? Could this be why the manuals stop at #2, because they do not want to create an environment that is too open-ended?

  11. Jim F. said

    robf: I too like what Bohn has to say, but there is a logical problem embedded in his interpretation of Gadamer: Any foregrounding of assumptions is part of a larger discussion, and that larger discussion has its own assumptions that are notforegrounded. So one’s assumptions can never be completely foregrounded. That doesn’t change the need to foreground our assumptions as appropriate and possible, but it does change our confidence that we have done so, that we know what to foreground. We cannot but remain tentative.

  12. robf said

    Yep Jim, its turtles all the way down.

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