Why are “how” questions harder than “why” questions?

A sixth grade student I was tutoring this past week commented that he would much rather answer questions that asked “why” than “how.”

“And why is that?” I asked.

“Because you can start a ‘why’ answer with the word ‘because,” but I don’t know how to start a ‘how’ answer,” he said.

I looked through a 2016 New York State sixth grade exam to find out which kinds of questions comply with the Common Core State Standards, and here are some of the questions I found:

  • “Why are the results of the survey important?”
  • “How does Trina’s mood change?”
  • “Why does the relationship between Julianna and her father change?”
  • How does the father’s idea that Juliana needed to start looking at the whole landscape relate to his description of a painting?”

Then I thought of my students’ written answers to these questions, and sure enough, the “why” questions were responded to better than the “how” questions.

Both “why” and “how” questions require students to analyze a text, a harder task than recalling knowledge or proving understanding, according to Bloom’s taxonomy.  So in that sense, they begin at about the same difficulty level.

A “why” question usually requires one reason although two or three reasons might contribute to a more complete answer.  For example, the question, “Why was George W. Bush elected US President in 2000?” can be answered with one idea:  He gained enough electoral college votes to win.  More could be said about the popular vote and the Florida debacle, but it is not required.  The electoral college information suffices.

But the question, “How did George W. Bush win the election in 2000?” requires more information, especially about the Florida recount and the involvement of the US Supreme Court.

Usually “how” questions require a sequence of information—more than one idea—or a comparison of information.  A “why” question requires one idea only.

For example, in the “how” exam questions listed above, to describe how Trina’s mood changes, the student must describe three things:  her mood at the beginning, the event which changes that mood, and her mood at the end.

To describe how a father’s advice that Julianna must look at the whole picture relates to his painting, the student must first describe the fragmented way Julianna is talking about her boyfriend’s eyes, hair and cheek color, and then relate the fragmented way her father talks about painting a cow, a meadow or sunshine, and then relate both conversations to the father’s statement that putting it all together is when the magic happens.

My student’s insight taught me that I need to discuss with my students what kinds of information are required to answer “how” questions.  To prepare them better for their exams, together we need to respond to more “how” questions, first discussing the kinds of information needed to supply a complete answer.  In this case, it is the thinking through of the answer rather than the actual writing which is difficult for students.

 

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