Higher and Lower Cognitive Questions

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There are two sorts of questions: those that require higher-level thinking skills and those that demand lower-level cognitive skills.

  • High cognitive questions are those which demand that the student manipulate bits of information previously learned to create and support an answer with logically reasoned evidence. This sort of question is usually open-ended, interpretive, evaluative, inquiry-based, inferential and synthesis-based.
  • Lower cognitive questions are more basic. They ask students to recall word-for-word material previoulsy presented. These questions are generally fact-based, closed, direct, recall-related and questions that measure knowledge.

Many research projects have been initiated, attempting to determine which sort of question is most effective in the classroom. As Cotton says, "The conventional wisdom, 'ask a higher level question, get a higher level answer,' does not seem to hold. The research has presented conflicting reports as to which sort of question is more productive in the classroom.


It is not whether the question is high or low on a cognitive scale, but a teacher's question must be looked at in relation to the subject matter, the students and the teachers' intent. Research findings include:

  • In classrooms, approximately 60% of questions asked are lower cognitive questions, 20% are higher cognitive questions and 20% are procedural.
  • Higher cognitive questions are not better than lower cognitive questions in eliciting from students a higher level response.
  • When it comes to younger learners, lower cognitive questions are more effective when a teacher wishes to teach factual knowledge and the teacher would like the information memorized.
  • In environments where lower level questions are appropriate, there is a positive correlation between frequency of questions asked and student achievement.
  • When using lower level questions, the level of difficulty should be such that students' answers will be correct.
  • From middle school and up, a mix of lower cognitive questions and higher cognitive questions should be used. There shouldn't be exclusive use of one or the other.
  • More capable learners should be presented with higher cognitive questions while weaker students should be presented with fewer.
  • Especially for secondary students, the more higher cognitive questions are asked, the better the learning gains will be.
  • Higher cognitive questions do not necessarily yield higher cognitive responses.
  • Higher cognitive responses can be attained by teaching students to draw inferences and providing them with practice in doing so.
  • When it comes to older students, an increase in the use of higher cognitive questions (50% or more) is positively related to increases in:
    • on-task behavior
    • length of student responses
    • number of relevant contributions volunteered by students
    • number of student-to-student interactions
    • student use of complete sentences
    • speculative thinking on the part of the students
    • relevant questions asked by the students
  • When it comes to older students, an increase in the use of higher cognitive questions (50% or more) is positively related to an increase in teacher expectations of students' abilities, especially the abilities of those students the teacher has deemed a poor learner.


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