Questions to Ask Students

      In this article in Principal, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey (San Diego State University and Health Sciences High & Middle College) and Olivia Amador (Chula Vista Elementary School District) suggest visiting classrooms every day and quietly asking a sampling of students these questions:

  • What are you learning today?
  • Why are you learning that?
  • How will you know whether you’ve learned it?

Fisher, Frey, and Amador say that if 90 percent of students have good answers to these questions, the school has a high level of instructional clarity. “Simply put,” they say, “when students know what they’re supposed to learn,, why they are learning it, and how they will know whether they have learned it, they are more likely to demonstrate mastery.” Here are their thoughts on each of the questions:

            The first is different from asking, What are you working on today? which focuses on the task or the assignment. Better to ask about learning intentions which, if the teacher has been clear, should be on the tip of every student’s tongue. They might say:

  • We are learning about the impact of the setting on a character.
  • We are learning about the rotation of the sun and moon.
  • We are learning about persuasive techniques used in advertising.

Another advantage of asking about learning intention is that it’s easier for an observer to see if the instructional task is at the appropriate level of rigor. “An amazing lesson for third graders at first-grade standards,” say Fisher, Frey, and Amador, “produces fourth graders who are ready for the second grade.”

            Answers to the second question – why students are learning something – are a good way of assessing engagement and perceived relevance. A stellar response from a student might be, We are learning more about syllables today because they help us read big words, and reading bigger words lets us read new books and understand what we’re reading.

            The third question is about benchmarks for mastery, which are often a secret locked in the teacher’s mind. “Success criteria  provide students with clear, specific, and attainable goals,” say Fisher, Frey, and Amador, “and can spark motivation in some of the most reluctant learners. When teachers articulate success criteria, they are more likely to enlist students in their own learning.”

            What students say in response to these three questions can provide exceptionally helpful feedback to teachers after classroom visits. There’s no better gauge of instructional clarity than what individual students say when they’re questioned one on one. This feedback to teachers, say Fisher, Frey, and Amador, can bring about marked changes in learning intentions, rationales, and success criteria, which are the foundation for good choices of pedagogy and materials.


“Clear Benefits” by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Olivia Amador in Principal, January/ February 2020 (Vol. 99, #3, pp. 42-43),; Fisher can be reached at, Frey at