Complexity! Rigor! Increasing Cognitive Demand!

Buzz words aside, what does it mean to ask the “right” question?  How do we scaffold in a balanced classroom with a variety of questions and tasks at multiple levels of cognitive demand?

Misconceptions Abound.

As we tease apart what it means to ask a “recall” or DOK1 question (memorization, flashcards)… or a more analytical DOK2 question (apply to a new situation)…or a more extended thinking DOK 3 level (evaluate it, defend your opinion)…teachers begin to critically think about classroom tasks.  There are stark differences between the levels of questioning and it is important teachers be intentional with their instruction and questioning.


A variety of levels of questioning are important.  BUT…To our dismay, inevitably, teachers in the workshop begin to assign a rank order value to these levels.  It is as if one level should be considered “better” than the other.  This is a misconception mindset.

I want to challenge this mindset.

One level of complexity is not inherently “better” than another.  For example, I hear Middle School Science teachers complaining that they have so much content to teach and now we are asking them to reach DOK2 — to not teach content.  Teachers complain that now the memorization core of the classroom at DOK1 is considered “bad.”

This is false.

Students who do not have a baseline level of understanding including vocabulary, key concepts and other memorizable facts (DOK1) can not possibly advance to the level of application (DOK2).  Think of the range of question complexity like a staircase where one must step on the first level to advance to the second and third.  While stopping at one level and ignoring the rest of the steps could miss an opportunity to access advanced thinking….you can not reach the advanced thinking without first progressing through the lower levels of complexity.

Complexity Builds through Teaching & Experience

Initially, students will be exposed to some content which may require recall and memorization of terms, dates, theories, etc.  Yet a classroom full of students who can recite impressive vocabulary words and important dates is NOT necessarily a classroom full of students with certain readiness for the next level of learning, or any degree of skills that can be leveraged.

As educators, we can go deeper.  In fact, we need to go deeper.  

We can ask the students to take the information memorized and apply it to new and novel situations.  We can ask students to evaluate work of others, take opinions and defend their opinion based on what they have memorized or interpretations they are making in the text aligned to connections they make back to what was memorized. Notice that as students progress through levels of complexity in thinking, they draw back to the DOK1 levels as well.

This should not be an excuse for teachers to spend an exaggerated amount of time at the DOK1 level, however.  Memorized facts are quickly forgotten if not applied and used.  Thus progressing into DOK2-4 as soon as possible gives the content flight and meaning and allows students to engage with their learning in a way that will stick with the learner.

All Ranges:All Ages?

Commonly, we see that at some grade levels there is more time in higher levels of complexity than other grade levels.  

For example, at the kindergarten level students must memorize the letters of the alphabet and the sounds they make.  It is not possible to have students evaluate the letters or create their own.  The task of learning letters is intrinsically DOK1.  The application piece comes when students will apply the sounds letters make to their initial decoding and reading.  Will they then get to DOK3?  Probably not until they are reading and comprehending.

Yet, in an AP English class there may be very little memorization (DOK1) and far more complex reasoning and analysis.

In short, the complexity of the question and the range presented to students is variable based on the course and students involved.  The most important take away:  No teacher should get “stuck” at a single level, but rather ask questions at a variety of levels of cognitive demand to encourage complex thinking for all students.

Anne Weerda
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Anne Weerda

This article was written by Kids at the Core founder, Anne Weerda.

Anne is an assessment and curriculum specialist best known for her work in assessment design, data analysis and instructional effectiveness. Anne is a sought after speaker in the area of assessment design, curriculum and instruction.
Anne Weerda
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