Essential Questions 101

An Evidence-Based Practice for Student Engagement.

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"The Essential Questions have had a positive impact and made a huge difference with student learning."

- Elementary Principal

Student Engagement

One of the most frequently discussed topics in classrooms and schools is student engagement.  When you do a Google search for “Student Engagement Strategies” you get almost two million hits that range from why it’s important to blog after blog that list engagement strategies. When you review these one pattern that you can clearly see is that they mostly focus on tasks, listing general answers like use technology, play games, etc.

But they also miss an important engagement strategy - helping students understand “What’s In It For Me (WIIFM)”. The missed opportunity occurs at the start of the lesson and the process used to share your Essential Question.


The Why Is Essential

One of the first key hurdles to learning is to set the stage for why what students are about to learn is important. As teachers, many of us have said to our students that the reason you need to learn this is… because it is in the standard, you will use it next year, or you will be tested on it at the end of the year. While all of these statements are technically true, in most cases all of these statements decrease students’ internal motivation and push their disengagement. The standards and assessment are important to narrow down what is taught, but how we help students find their purpose is on us. Two studies and findings support this:

The importance of the ”Why” was demonstrated in a study (Patall, Cooper, & Robinson, 2008) of several hundred elementary and middle school students. The researchers concluded that choice alone did less to support engagement than showing students how what they’re learning is important to them and connects to real life.

In addition, another study (Dean et al, 2012)  found that the two most powerful strategies to employ to connect learning with the why were to 1) provide students with information at the outset of a lesson about where a lesson is going that connects what students know with what they will learn and 2) use advance organizers - stories, pictures, concept maps, and other introductory materials to help students focus on learning.


The First Engagement Strategy - Using Essential Questions to Communicate Expectations

“The starting place for all effective instruction is designing and communicating clear Learning Goals.”

- Marzano (2009)

What is a Learning Goal?

Learning Goals, as defined in the quote above have been known by many names. These include Lesson Objectives, Learning Targets, SWBAT, and I Can Statements.  In all of these different labels, the process begins with looking at your grade-level standards. While the label may be different, the end product is the same - Learning Goals are a representation of your learning expectations. The conversation often ends here, but the second part of Marzano’s quote focuses on how these expectations are communicated. This process of communication provides an important opportunity for your first engagement strategy.

It Is All About Essential Questions

essential questions exampleUsing Essential Questions to communicate your expectations is an evidence-based practice that was seen in 97% of schools evaluated by the Education Consortium. These schools were selected because they achieved 85%+ overall proficiency with a student demographic that consisted of at least 50% AALANA students and 50% of their students qualifying for free and reduced lunch as well. In these schools, teachers converted their Learning Goals into Essential Questions. 

What Makes an Essential Question Effective?

  • It passes the “so what” test
  • It focuses on matters of importance
  • It is posed within the context of important content
  • It is written so students can understand them (kid-friendly)
  • It can be answered, but may not have an obvious correct or simple answer
  • It requires higher-order thinking, problem-solving or decision-making
  • It uses concepts that require students to use their knowledge in developing responses
  • It causes students to organize their knowledge to uncover important ideas now and in the future
  • Serves as a formative assessment tool (when answered)
essential questions overview

What was your Essential Question? A K-12 Journey

Essential Question Examples

Here are a few examples that show the connection between a Learning Goal and an Essential Question.

  • Example Learning Goal: Analyze the impact of geographical regions on the development of culture.
  • Example Essential Question:  Why do regions differ?

  • Example Learning Goal: Explain how the congruence of geometric figures and the correspondence of their vertices, sides, and angles.
  • Example Essential Question:  How are corresponding parts of geometric shapes used to determine congruency?

  • Example Learning Goal: Analyze the role of the cell organelles for both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells including the cell membrane, in maintaining homeostatic and cell reproduction.
  • Example Essential Question: How do the functions of the cell organelles affect the performance of the cell?

  • Example Learning Goal: Investigate how rules and laws are used to maintain order in a society.
  • Example Essential Question: How do rules and laws create an effective government?

  • Example Learning Goal: Analyze the viewpoints of various groups living in colonial America (including large landowners, farmers, artisans, women, indentured servants, slaves, and Native Americans).
  • Example Essential Question: Multiple essential questions are needed. One could be: How did geography, climate, and natural resources affect the way people lived and worked in the thirteen colonies?



How to Use Essential Questions

Teachers who use Essential Questions for their greatest impact do not simply post it in their room or read the question once at the start of class, but instead, use it to engage students by getting them thinking about the content they are about to learn.

Here are best practices for using essential questions:

  • Engage the learner, activate prior knowledge, focus on the learning and stimulate thinking
  • Have evident value, clear goals, and generate more ideas, connections, and challenges the more it is pursued
  • Organize learning about the topic
  • Be posted in the classroom where it is easy to read
  • Introduce a lesson
  • Make sure students understand the question and that they are responsible for answering it at the end of the lesson
  • Refer to the question during the lesson often to gather evidence of learning throughout the lesson and to maintain focus
  • Assess student learning by ensuring they can answer the question at the end of the lesson

Essential Question Lesson Plan Examples

Essential Question Example - Kindergarten ELA

How do I retell stories connecting the details with sequence signal words?

The primary standard for an upcoming lesson is RL.K.2 which expects students to retell familiar stories, including key details. The most important verb is retell, so it will be important to include it in my Essential Question. In addition to retelling a familiar story, I need for students to focus on connecting the story details to important words that signal their understanding; in this case, sequence and its transition words: beginning, middle, and end. It will be important to introduce these words at the beginning of the lesson by connecting them to the skill of retelling. If the Essential Question is, “How do I retell stories connecting the details with signal words?” then I can elaborate on the words connecting and signal words. I can underline the word, connect, and draw three dots connected by a line. I can then circle, sequence signal words, and branch out from it the words beginning, middle, end. This will help me explain the relationship between connecting and sequence. I will be able to refer back to this question every time students connect details using sequence words throughout the lesson, reminding them that retelling stories require connecting the details.

Essential Question Example - 4th Grade Math

How can you use arrays to discover patterns in prime or composite numbers and justify your conclusions?

My curriculum resource has an Essential Question for an upcoming lesson that I want to adapt to focus more on constructing an argument. The current question is, “How do you use arrays to discover patterns in prime and composite numbers?” but I know that students need to justify their conclusions, so my revised Essential Question is, “How do you use arrays to discover patterns in prime and composite numbers and justify your conclusions?” This ensures that my Essential Question focuses on Higher Order Thinking (Determining Patterns) and on the Mathematical Practice of Constructing Arguments. To help students with these complex thinking skills, I need to make sure they understand the vocabulary. I will elaborate on the content vocabulary words: arrays, prime, and composite, as well as emphasize the relationship between justify and conclusions by drawing an arrow to connect these two terms. Under each word, students will help me brainstorm other important words that describe each. For example, under the word justify, we may add evidence, prove, or show/draw, while under conclusions we may add answer, reasoning, or inference.

Essential Question Example - 7th Grade Civics

How did the purpose and goals of the Preamble to the Constitution meet the intentions of the Founding Fathers?

Despite the fact that my Essential Question, “How did the purpose and goals of the Preamble to the Constitution meet the intentions of the Founding Fathers?” is easily decodable, the context needed to fully understand the question is extensive. To launch this lesson, students will need to know what the Preamble is and form connections between their background knowledge about the Founding Fathers and the purpose and goals of the United States new government. I will elaborate “purpose” by branching out with “reason for writing,” “goals” with “Social Contract” and from that the words “abolish or alter,” “Preamble” with “introduction of a legal document,” and “Constitution” with “the plan for the US government since 1789.” I want students to form connections with previous lessons about the failure of our government, so I will underline the words purpose and goals, and partner students using Numbered Heads so they may discuss and answer: What is the purpose of the government? Predict why the Preamble famously opens with the line, “We the People of the United States…” Why does the failure of the Articles of Confederation justify the need for a new government?

Essential Question Example - Biology

How do the relationships between the reactants and products for photosynthesis impact people and organisms? 

This Essential Question connects back to students’ existing understanding of the relationships between reactants and products for photosynthesis, so to launch the lesson, I want to ask students to think about what they already know about the key vocabulary words and their relationship to photosynthesis. I will use the Essential Question as an opportunity to do a Word Splash with the students. Above the question, I will add a simple description of photosynthesis: A process that converts light energy to chemical energy. I will ask students to collaborate with a partner to retrieve what else they may know regarding the question. For example: occurs in the chloroplast, reactants = light energy, water, carbon dioxide, and chlorophyll, products = glucose, oxygen, and water, removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, etc. Answers will be collected and splashed around the question in one color. Students will use this information to write a prediction about the impact of photosynthesis on people and organisms. As an extension, I want students to revisit the Essential Question as we learn more about the impact and so as additional facts and vocabulary are discussed, they will be splashed around the question in a different color. The Word Splash will then be used to help students answer the Essential Question at the end of the lesson.

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