Tasks and Questions Worth Collaborating On

Last week, I posted some ideas and guidelines about setting up some collaborative learning routines for students, and mentioned that there are two parts to ensuring that student-student collaboration is effective:

There are two parts to setting up strong collaborative learning: (1) Students need to have clear structures and ways of engaging with each other and with the content, and (2) Students need to be engaging with strong, meaningful content (more on this in a post to follow).

Well, here is that “post to follow”… What makes “strong, meaningful content” for our students to engage with in collaborative routines? How do we know when we are generating that content for them?

Again, this aligns precisely to Priority 2 for this quarter, which is:

Students are “On the hook” for their learning because they are hungry to discuss and engage with rigorous, compelling, and student-focused content.  This is because Teachers are ensuring students continue to collaborate daily, while also providing the rigorous content for students to collaborate around.

Step 1: First of all, we need to define what “strong, meaningful content” really is.

According to Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (authors of the ever-important Understanding by Design) have this to say:

The best questions are not merely emblematic of their fields, but really alive. People ask and argue about them outside of school! The most vital discipline-bound questions open up thinking and possibilities for everyone – novices and experts alike. They signal that inquiry and open-mindedness are central to expertise, that we must always be learners. In the more practical sense, a question is alive in a subject if students really engage with it, if it seems genuine and relevant to them, and if it helps them gain a more systematic and deep understanding of what they are learning.

– Wiggins and McTighe, Understanding by Design, page 108

However, one thing we need to clarify right off the bat is this: big, broad, open-response questions are NOT, on their own, rigorous. Take this for example:

Why do we still experience segregation in our society today?

On its own, this question could either spur a student to write a single sentence, or an entire dissertation. We need to be careful in assuming that stand-alone questions are the most rigorous form of posing an academic challenge to our students. Let’s take a look at this same question, but in a way that demands rigorous engagement:Why do we still experience segregation in our society today?

Why do we still experience segregation in our society today?

Write a 3-paragraph answer that includes (1) a strong claim to this question, (2) an example from the  Reconstruction to support your claim, and (3) an example from current events that supports your claim.

Your short essay will be evaluated using the Mississippi DBQ Rubric.

With these expectations set, a student knows what is being expected, and can rise to the occasion of this challenge.

Let’s return to the writing of Wiggins for a little more support on this:

Huh? How can the verb, itself, determine the rigor? Couldn’t the rigor of so-called high-level verbs be compromised by a simplistic task and scoring system? Vice versa: can’t we imagine some of the low-level verbs occurring in highly-challenging and rigorous assessments? (e.g. Who, what, when, and why in a complex journalism case would be rigorous work.)

Take “predict” for example. It is viewed as relatively low-level – Level 2. But what if I ask you to predict the effects on plants of using special soil, food, and artificial lights, and I score you against industry-level standards? Vice versa: suppose I ask you to critique a drawing against the criterion “pretty”. Pretty low level stuff.

– Wiggins, “Assessment, Grading, and Rigor”

With this definition in mind, we can start to distinguish between the different kinds of questions with which we ask our students to engage in a collaborative setting.

BUT WAIT JACOB: Does this really mean we don’t ask students to answer basic comprehension, fact-based questions? Absolutely not! But it means we need to locate and contextualize those “convergent” questions (which point to just one answer) within larger, “divergent” questions (which point to many possible answers and approaches).

Step 2: Let’s start planning the kinds of questions, problems, and tasks that benefit from collaborative learning… What does that “strong, meaningful content” really look like?


Rigorous questions are ALIVE and can torment us and be a cause for discussion even outside of class!

Convergent (Closed) Questions…

  • have very narrowly defined correct answers
  • have answers that usually require little reflection
  • Have answers that usually require the student recalls from memory factual information and applies it.
  • require little/ no original thought.

Divergent (Open) Questions…

  • can have multiple correct answers
  • have answers where the student must be able to recall some information from memory, but then must apply that knowledge to explain or further analyze a topic or problem.
  • always require original thought
  • lead to debates/ disagreement/ discourse among students

Step 3: Let’s dig into some strategies for making sure our questions are “divergent” instead of “convergent.”

  1. Consider what basic knowledge students will need so they can have a conversation about a more divergent question, and vise versa!  Why would a student even need to know that basic information?  What divergent question might it help them consider?  What divergent question might help make definitions/ factual knowledge more meaningful?
  2. Flip or reverse a closed question:  “Here’s the output, how do you think it happened?  How could we have gotten there?”
  3. Take out some of the givens:  In a lesson where you want Ss to be able to answer, “What are the causes of the civil war?”  ask first, “What are the causes of war?”.
  4. Ask for personal opinion/ judgment:  When you want to build the skill of students determining the probability of a gene/ genetic mutation being passed on to offspring, also ask, “Should these two people even have a child?  Is it worth the risk?”
  5. After the fact, re-engage: Open up convergent questions on the back end by asking students to give each other feedback or figure out why they got some answers wrong.

Step 4: Let’s make sure students are invested in the reason why they are engaging with the content in this particular way. Let’s get clear on the purpose of collaborative learning FOR STUDENTS… why should they want to partner up?

We should only be asking students to work together if the purpose is to be…

  • …discussing something worth hearing someone else’s opinion about so they can have multiple perspectives on one issue.
  • …ensuring that we are gaining depth of answers, and that everyone has a chance to share their thinking.
  • …combining knowledge from various sources (partner reads one document, I read another)
  • …providing feedback for one another so they can improve their work
  • …collaborating on completing a project that requires different skills, teamwork, and lots of time!

Step 5: Check out some resources that may inspire you to think more broadly or simply give you some examples of what rigorous questions can look like!


One response

  1. […] Rigor in our classrooms. I wrote about this previously in Supporting Student-Student Dialog and Questions and Tasks Worth Collaborating On. However, some fantastic new resources have been made available by Teaching Tolerance in the past […]

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