Current Issues

Essential Questions

In my previous post, I suggested an approach to designing assessment that begins by focusing on the learning goals. Learning goals, or content standards, tend to be expressed in “teacher speak”.  That is, they describe the intended outcomes in a way that makes sense to someone who already has a reasonable mastery of the subject.  For the uninitiated, they are a bit inaccessible and/or uninspiring.  This is necessary… but not generally a helpful starting place for students.  I have found that a more helpful and engaging way in for students is to frame the learning goals as a small number of questions that are:

  • phrased in student-friendly language.
  • about big ideas that are transferable to other content or even other disciplines.
  • not easily answered, or even have no conclusive answer.
  • provoke student interest, curiosity and further questioning.

Wiggins and McTighe (2005, 2013) call these “Essential Questions”.  Not all questions that you address in class would be considered “essential”, as they deal with the specifics of the content you are teaching.  However, it is these essential questions that I find help me to determine what evidence of student learning I need to collect and plan creative assessment tasks accordingly. They can also form a great “hook” to get students interested in the subject and help bridge the gap between what they already know or can do, and what they need to learn.

For example, a biology teacher may ask the question “What is the evidence for and against evolutionary theory”. This is a content specific question and results in students learning a set of arguments. This is not a bad thing, and could lead to some interesting debate in class, but can be uninteresting to many students and would not likely lead to transfer of learning to other areas.  The question “How do we decide what to believe about a scientific claim” is more provocative and would open the door to discussing evolutionary theory in the context of a bigger picture, potentially leading to higher student interest and the transfer of understanding to other fields of science.

Or, a social studies teacher could ask “what were the causes of the French (or American, or…) revolution?”, but a more engaging and transferable question would be “what makes people decide to rise up and overthrow their government?” or “what would you do if your basic human rights were being ignored?”.  If you are studying the French revolution, you will likely ask the first question at some point, but beginning with the second or third question is more likely to provide a greater context for pursing an answer to the first and enable students to connect what they learn with their world. The possibilities for assessment tasks based on such questions that require your students to demonstrate an understanding of the content are limitless.

Have you generated student interest, engagement and learning with these types of questions? Could you? What might it look like with the subject/s and age level/s that you teach? Share your ideas and experience in the comments below.


Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design, Expanded 2nd edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005). Essential questions: Opening doors to student understanding. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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