Hinge Questions: A Case for Closed Questions

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Much talk about questioning in the classroom will focus on the dichotomy between closed questions being problematic and open questions as very much the idealised tool for challenging students in their learning. Closed questions typically test recall skills whereas open questions allow students to explore viewpoints and to reason, argue, hypothesise, judge, evaluate and may other of the skills at the higher end of Bloom’s taxonomy.

In some respects I understand why this idea has gained traction. By their definition, closed questions are framed in a way to encourage students to ‘find’ the correct answer that the teacher is looking for and therefore become part of the ‘guess what the teacher is thinking’ game. Closed questions are also designed to give facts, to be easy to answer, to be quick to answer, and to leave the questioner in charge of the conversation. All of which do not appear to promote a learner-centered engagement where ‘hard-thinking’ takes place.

However, that is not to say that there isn’t a time and a place for closed questions in the classroom. Whilst they arguably may not be particularly effective in stretching learners, they are certainly extremely effective in identifying where learners have misunderstood knowledge or have failed to fully grasp a concept; a form of assessment known as diagnostic assessment. Which is where hinge questions become an excellent strategy.

Hinge questions are so called because they influence a teachers decision whether to move on to the next part of the lesson or not; this choice effectively hinges on whether the students have understood ‘Point A’ which they need to grasp before they move on to ‘Point B’.

So, to take an English example. Before learners can grasp the difference between a compound and complex sentence (Point B), they need to have previously understood subordinate clauses (Point A). As a teacher therefore, at some point in the lesson I would ideally present a hinge question, which will test whether the class have understood the prerequisite knowledge of subordinate clauses. The result of this hinge question will give one of two outcomes; a) they have understood, which means we can move on, or b) they haven’t understood, which means I need to be flexible in my teaching and we may need to spend more time looking at clauses. Either way, I will have been able to diagnose what is in the best interest for the class.
*It is worth noting at this point that 80% has been offered as a rough guide as to how many students needed to have ‘passed’ a hinge question before you move on, but of course, that will be down to your judgement. 

Which brings me finally to what a hinge question should look like. And the rules are:

  • It should be a closed question.
  • It should offer multiple choices (but only one correct answer)
  • The incorrect options should be varied in how they are incorrect.
  • It should be quick to answer (give them less than 60 seconds)
  • It should be quick to mark (mini whiteboards are perfect here)

For instance:
Question: In which of the following sentences is a subordinate clause underlined?

a) Harry went to the shops and bought a new jacket
b) Because he needed a new jacket, Harry went to the shops
c) Harry wanted a new jacket from Topshop
d) Harry went to the shops because he needed a new jacket.

If enough students picked the correct answer (b) then I could be confident that it was worth moving on. Importantly, each of the incorrect answers are different in the way that they are incorrect and so present a different thought process as to why the student might have considered them to be the right answer. The important aspect of a hinge question is to be clear about what the central concept/idea is that students must have had understood before the next stage of learning will make sense to them.

Since reading about hinge questions, I have been conscious to use this multiple-choice strategy quite extensively. In the past I would often throw out various closed question such as “What type of word is ‘under’?”. Perhaps one person would give me the right answer meaning I couldn’t then check if everybody had the same, correct answer. Perhaps no one would give me the answer because they couldn’t remember it amongst the plethora of other words/concepts they were expected to know so eventually I might give them a clue such as ‘it begins with ‘p’. Either way I wasn’t really testing very much at all by doing so: except maybe who had the best memory or most confidence.

As mentioned, students have a lot of information that they are expected to retain so by giving them the options, I can begin to tell whether a) they don’t actually know the answer, as opposed to whether b) they simply had forgotten the answer (which might be the case were there to be no choices presented). I believe that difference is crucial.

On the surface, it seems like such a simple activity. Just come up with a quick multiple-choice question and there you have it. In reality, the more thought that goes into the hinge questions, the better understanding of the learners’ knowledge you can have. Experience will give a teacher a very good understanding of the common misconceptions students have or the common mistakes they make. Therefore a well-written hinge question will be designed to test for those common mistakes or misconceptions.

The following example shows this.
Take a look at the following sentences

a) I like reading
b) I am reading a book
c) Reading is cool
d) I borrowed a reading book

In which sentence(s) is ‘reading’ a verb?

  1. Just A
  2. Just B
  3. Just C
  4. Just D
  5. All of them
  6. A & B

The correct answer in this case is b) ‘I am reading a book’. However, there is a particular, logical misconception that might have led them to thinking that ‘reading’ was a verb in them all. Equally there is an alternative, logical misconception and different reason that may had led them to think it was both A & B. Equally there are differing reasons as to why in both C and D, ‘reading’ is not a verb. Whatever answer students give, I would have a good diagnosis of the specific mistake they were making, just on the basis of one simple, closed, hinge question.