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How to Apply Webb’s Depth of Knowledge: Questions, Examples, Activities and Strategies

You may have learned about Norman Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DoK) from a theoretical standpoint, but many teachers feel they’re missing a puzzle piece.

That’s because there are hurdles to consistently applying each of the pedagogy’s four levels in your classroom, from recall and reproduction to extended critical thinking. Above all, it demands creativity and calculated preparation to deliver engaging tasks that range in complexity, while providing scaffolding.

This resource will help.

All about applying Webb’s Depth of Knowledge in your classroom, it offers definitions, questions, examples, activities and other tips for you to reference and use.

What is Webb’s Depth of Knowledge?

Four students, one male and three female, work together to create models of energy generation for a science project.

Feel free to skip this section if you’re familiar with the theory. Read on if you’re not.

Based on a 1997 monograph, Webb’s Depth of Knowledge categorizes contexts — prompts, scenarios and challenges — into four levels. As students progress through the levels, they will face contexts that demand learning and thinking at deeper cognitive stages.

A first-level challenge may only require reciting a math fact. A final-level scenario may involve solving a real-world issue using content from different subjects.

Keep in mind:

  • In action, these context levels look different between subjects and age groups
  • A student doesn’t have to “master” learning and thinking at one level to progress to the next
  • As a teacher, you can deliver different levels to your students through diverse activities, assessments and assignments

Referencing Depth of Knowledge levels should help you create an engaging classroom environment, filled with distinct learning and thinking experiences.

Level 1

A teacher stands at her whiteboard at the front of class, looking at students in the foreground who have raised hands.

The first Depth of Knowledge level is defined as recollection and reproduction.

Rooted in simple exercises and procedures, students must remember facts, terms and formulas. There is little to no need for extended processing, as there aren’t opportunities to “solve” anything. A student will or will not know the answer.

Question Stems and Examples

Asking specific questions can launch activities, exercises and assessments that only require recollection and reproduction. For example:

Recollection Reproduction
When did ____ happen? What is the formula for ____?
Who discovered ____? How would you write ____?
Can you identify ____? How would you describe ____?
What would you include on a list about ____? How can you find the meaning of ____?

How would you use these questions in, for example, math class? You could ask each student to reproduce a specific formula on paper. Then, test recollection of math facts by calling out numbers for them to plug into the formula.

How about language arts class? If the class recently explored a book’s theme, ask students if they remember the activity. Then, everyone can write down steps the class took to identify the theme. As a bonus, the product serves as a template to help them determine elements of future stories.

Just make sure your questions are basic. This helps ensure exercises don’t require deep thinking levels.

Activities and Products

Despite a question’s simplicity, you can still provide your class with many activities, having them finish a range of products.

Depending on the question’s purpose, students can:

  • Paraphrase a passage or chapter of a book
  • Outline and re-iterate the main points of a recent lesson
  • Complete a quiz or series of questions that only requires fact recall or fluency
  • Make a timeline that maps historical or storybook events in relation to each other
  • Deliver a short presentation to classmates that doesn’t require independent research

While focusing on the first Depth of Knowledge level, you can differentiate your instruction by rotating through this blend of exercises.  

Level 2

Two students sit at a desk together, one of whom smiles as he prepares to write in an open book with red pen.

The second Depth of Knowledge level is defined as knowledge application.

Students must choose the appropriate route to correctly solve a question, making decisions and completing distinct steps along the way. For example, as opposed to reciting a math fact, they may have to solve a multi-step equation. To successfully do so, they may have to apply information in a different way or scenario than they learned it.

Question Stems and Examples

Like the first Depth of Knowledge level, you can ask specific questions to launch exercises that build skills and understandings of concepts.

To get students in the proper mindset, ask:

Concept Reinforcing Skill Building
What steps are needed to proof your answer for ____? Can you demonstrate the steps to determine ____?
How would you estimate ____? Using the concept of ____, can you solve ____?
Can you explain, in your own words, how ____ impacted ____? Using the method of ____, can you explain how ____ impacted ____?

Returning to the example of math class, you can reinforce concepts by holding a classwide discussion around the different ways to use a formula. You can subsequently provide worksheets that require solving questions with the formula.

In language arts or a similar subject, you can ask students to work in small groups to identify and explain a book’s core plot points. This helps them understand concepts surrounding plot devices, while developing analytical skills to dissect them.

You can use such questions to frame activities across grades and disciplines.

Activities and Products

Requiring deeper thought than recollection and reproduction, there are many activities that stop just short of the third Depth of Knowledge level.

Using questions as starting points, your class can:

  • Write blog, diary or journal entries
  • Review texts in pairs or small groups
  • Complete isolated, multi-step calculations
  • Synthesize an explanation of a complex concept
  • Create mind maps that show relationships between topics
  • Design a physical model to demonstrate a scientific concept or historical event

These activities are time-flexible, lending themselves to many kinds of lessons and assignments.

Level 3

Two students -- a boy and a girl -- site a desk, each writing in a notebook.

The third Depth of Knowledge level is defined as strategic thinking.

Students must face problems and scenarios that are more abstract than those in the previous level. Often, there may be different correct steps and answers. For example, writing an essay based on a defined topic can lead students in unique directions. As a result, they’ll likely reach dissimilar conclusions.

Question Stems and Examples

Question stems that promote strategic thinking include:

Strategic Thinking
How would you test ____?
What would happen if ____? Why?
Can you predict the outcome of ___? How?
What conclusions can you draw from ____?
What facts would you use to support the argument that ____?
What is your interpretation of ____? Support your theory or ideas.
Explain and justify the single best answer to this open question: ____?

The goal of such questions isn’t solely to gauge a student’s understanding of lesson material, but to have them link concepts through independent thought.

Activities and Products

Activities and products associated with the above questions shouldn’t inherently involve long-term research or drawing ideas from different subjects. That would extend into the final Depth of Knowledge level.

Keeping this in mind, third-level activities include:

  • Writing an essay
  • Composing venn diagrams
  • Exploring a research question
  • Delivering a persuasive speech
  • Preparing and participating in a debate
  • Completing complex equations related to real-world problems

These may all seem like solo assignments, but some — such as preparing debate points — can involve cooperative learning.

Keep this in mind if you feel classroom engagement dwindle due to lack of group work.

Level 4

Four students sit in a row, each facing a desktop computer's monitor and typing on keyboards.

The fourth Depth of Knowledge level is defined as extended critical thinking.

Students will get a mental workout. To complete a given challenge, they must typically gather information from different sources and disciplines. These challenges — such as problem-based learning activities — are usually linked to real-world problems without clear solutions, requiring students to justify their ideas and address counterpoints. As a result, students must critically think over relatively-long periods of time.

Question Stems and Examples

To encourage continuous strategic thinking, questions must be open-ended. This requires students to independently research and — in the spirit of interdisciplinary learning — fuse information from different classes and subjects.

Some examples include:

Extended Critical Thinking
What information can you find and use to support your idea about ____?
Follow the scientific method to design and conduct an experiment, using ____.
Write and defend a thesis, forming your conclusion based on at least __ number of sources.
Apply information from one source to another source in a different subject. Develop an argument about the overarching topic.
From this list of topics I provide, pick one you know nothing about. Research the topic using at least __ number of sources.

Whereas the third level aims to spur strategic thinking, fourth-level questions should result in products born from longer periods of critical thought.

Activities and Products

Activities that require these longer periods of critical thought lend themselves to high school or older elementary students.

But, with a few changes, you can offer similar activities to younger pupils. For example, students can work in small groups to form and test hypotheses under in-class supervision.

They can also:

  • Debate on one side of a contentious issue
  • Partner or group with other students to complete a cross-subject research report and presentation
  • Apply lessons from different subjects to pinpoint a problem’s underlying issues, subsequently solving it

As they finish products, you’ll gain clear insight into each student’s distinct thought processes.

Additional Strategies for Applying Depth of Knowledge in the Classroom

A teacher stands at the front of class, pointing to students who have raised their hands.

Referencing question stems and activity lists are useful steps in designing lessons, but there are other helpful strategies for teaching at each Depth of Knowledge level.

Consider:

  • Listing and Reviewing Activities: At week’s end, list each exercise you had your students do. Then, categorize them into the four Depth of Knowledge levels. This lets you reflect on how you structure your lessons, helping you target underrepresented thinking levels in upcoming classes.
  • Asking “Why?”: If you spend too much time on the first level, ask “why?” more. This challenges students to think about the facts and concepts they’re recalling and reproducing. For example, if you’re teaching how to make a slideshow, ask students why they think it is or isn’t a viable supplement to presentations.
  • Allowing Students to Influence Lesson Structure: You know a lesson’s essential questions, but you may not know how each student would best approach them. So, once per week or month as a higher-order thinking activity, allow students to brainstorm the lesson’s hypothetical structure. Take their suggestions to deliver the ideal lesson the next day or week.
  • Switching, Freely, Between Levels: There’s a common misconception about applying Webb’s theory. That is, students must grow proficient in one level before reaching the next. Such falsehoods are counterproductive. An engaging third-level task can, for example, help students build skills aligned with the first and second levels. Plus, dwelling on a level can dull your class. 

Keep these strategies in mind as you strive to establish an environment rich with distinct learning and thinking levels.

Final Thoughts About Webb’s Depth of Knowledge

Whether you see it as basic or complex, effectively applying Depth of Knowledge theory in your classroom takes practice.

Using the questions, examples, activities and strategies in this guide should help you consistently craft engaging lessons that vary in cognitive effort.

The content of these lessons will differ based on grade and subject. So, don’t be skeptical if a colleague’s strategic thinking exercises have little in common with yours.

It’s likely a sign of properly recognizing your students’ distinct learning needs and styles.


>>Create or log into your teacher account on Prodigy — a free math game that reflects different levels of Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DoK), helping students build skills and exercise strategic thinking. Aligned with curricula across the English-speaking world, it’s loved by more than 500,000 teachers and 16 million students.

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Marcus Guido

Marcus is Prodigy's content marketing specialist. He has academic backgrounds in journalism and professional communication, and avoids semi-colons at all costs.

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