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What’s the prof gonna ask?

question mark with speech bubles, vector on the abstract background

Every August, I teach a 3-credit course at McGill called Academic English Seminar, which is an academic skills course for incoming undergraduate students who speak English as a second or other language. The course runs 39 hours over 13 days. It’s intended to support students’ transition from high school or CEGEP learning to university learning. Every time I teach the course, I introduce at least one new topic or one new learning strategy. Last year, the new topic was the learning merits of taking handwritten notes versus laptop notes. This year, I introduced students to a study strategy to help them address a question students frequently pose when they’re studying together for a test: What’s the prof gonna ask? The strategy was the application of Bloom’s Taxonomy of levels of learning to the creation of questions as a means for anticipating what information professors might deem important in the readings they assign. I encouraged students to think: Why would the professor have assigned this reading? What are the salient points the professor wants me to draw from this reading?

Students read the blog post Why Good Students Do “Bad” in College: Impactful Insights. The author applies the Pareto Principle to the transition from high school to college. (The blog post is written from an American perspective, thus “college,” but the point applies to Quebec students making the transition from CEGEP to university.) The principle described is that prior to tertiary education, about 80% of the information students need in order to be successful academically comes from the teacher. The roughly 20% balance consists of students reviewing material on their own. At university, the 80/20 ratio shifts, such that students generate roughly 80% of what they need to know “by synthesizing, grounding, and expounding upon the class information.” The class information is the roughly 20% that comes from the professor. (Of course, it’s the principle that is important and not the exact numbers.) Students who are unaccustomed to this new balance may suffer from higher education culture shock.

Bloom’s Taxonomy is typically represented in the form of a pyramid with the lower levels of learning at the bottom and the higher levels at the top. In order for college/university students to get to that 80%, students need to develop their ability to think vertically: by moving up the pyramid, one’s learning goes deeper.

Crumpled question marks heapBack to my class … Working with a couple of different readings, students practiced using question prompts to intentionally create questions at different levels of the pyramid. In lieu of providing answers to their questions, students had to reflect on the thought process they would go through to answer each question. These reflections were shared in class. For example, in reference to Why Good Students Do “Bad” in College, a student asked, “What is the concept of vertical mobility as applied to thinking?” She then explained that in order to answer the question, she’d have to remember the explanation given in the section of the article entitled Reason #2: Immobile Thinking. Remembering is the first level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. It’s not so cognitively demanding. In reference to the same article, a student asked, “Keeping in mind the reading and class discussion, what is one change that could be made to the secondary educational system so that students would be better prepared for university learning?” He then explained that in order to answer the question, he’d first have to have a clear understanding of the 80/20 principle. Then, he’d want to give a concrete example of a learning responsibility that could be shifted from the teacher to the students. Next, he’d want to propose how teachers could teach students to be responsible for that learning. Such an answer would compel a student to think at the application level of the Taxonomy. To my delight, a different student then asked, “How would you know if the change really resulted in better university preparation?” She was moving up the pyramid to analysis and evaluation, two yet more cognitively demanding—i.e., deeper—levels of thinking.

Teaching students to apply Bloom’s Taxonomy to question creation is not novel. (See, for example, Chapter 6 of Nilson’s Creating Self-Regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-Awareness and Learning Skills). What might have been novel, though, was sharing with my students that Bloom’s Taxonomy is often taught to educators so that they learn how to foster “vertical thinking” among their students. McGill, for example, offers a two-day course design workshop for faculty where they are introduced to Bloom’s Taxonomy as a means for articulating learning outcomes. I included in my students’ course pack the same page on Bloom’s Taxonomy that appears in the faculty course pack, and I made a point of directing students’ attention to the citation so that they could see from where I had taken the page. “Imagine,” I exclaimed in class, “the explosion of learning that could occur when professors and students are both engaged in asking and answering questions that go deeper and deeper by moving up the pyramid!” It’s an exhilarating and inspiring thought!

What experiences have you had teaching students to apply Bloom’s—or another—Taxonomy as a strategy for anticipating professors’ questions?

If you buy into the 80/20 principle with respect to secondary/tertiary education, why do you think we aren’t teaching students to be “vertical thinkers” earlier in their schooling so that culture shock is minimized when they get to university?


Nilson, L. (2013). Creating self-regulated learners: Strategies to strengthen students’ self-awareness and learning skills. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

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Associate Director, Faculty and Teaching Development, and Senior Academic Associate, at McGill's Teaching and Learning Services; former Senior Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre; area of specialization: Second Language Education; loves teaching and learning!

(Photo credit: Owen Egan)

1 comment on “What’s the prof gonna ask?

  1. Pingback: Getting students to focus on questions, not the answers | Teaching for Learning @ McGill University

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