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Depth of Knowledge: 4 DoK Levels & Proven Strategies to Increase Rigor

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In theory, Norman Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DoK) makes sense. But, many teachers feel they’re missing a puzzle piece.

That’s because there are hurdles to consistently applying each of the four DoK 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 — all while providing scaffolding.

This resource will help.

All about applying Webb’s Depth of Knowledge in your classroom at different DoK levels, it offers definitions, questions, examples, activities and strategies you can use.

What is Webb’s Depth of Knowledge definition?

Based on his 1997 study, Webb’s Depth of Knowledge is a framework that categorizes contextsprompts, scenarios and challenges — into four levels of rigor. As students progress through the DoK levels, they will face contexts in assessments 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

The Depth of Knowledge wheel (and why educators shouldn't use it)

As you’ll soon see below in depth, there are four DoK levels:

  1. Recall
  2. Knowledge application
  3. Strategic thinking
  4. Extended thinking

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

But, before we go on, there's something you should know about the "Depth of Knowledge wheel". You've likely seen the circular DOK diagram, broken into four parts, with accompanying activities attributed to each level.

Webb does not endorse the DOK Wheel Chart

Fun fact: While it may be an interesting (and popular) visual, the DOK wheel that's commonly referenced as Webb's work was not actually endorsed by Webb himself.

As John Walkup, Ph.D. and founder of The Standards Company, writes:

The problem with the DOK wheel chart rests on the fundamental, but completely false, premise that teachers can simply select certain action verbs to raise and lower the DOK level of their instruction... In December 2013, I emailed Norman Webb for his views on the DOK wheel chart. Apparently, he is asked quite regularly for permission to use the chart in the mistaken belief that he created it. In his response, Webb explicitly stated that he considers the wheel chart misleading and has always discouraged its use.

Understanding DoK levels 1 to 4

Recall: DoK level 1

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.

Application: DoK level 2

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.

Strategic thinking: DoK level 3

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.

Critical thinking: DoK level 4

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.

Webb’s Depth of Knowledge questions for every level

1st level Depth of Knowledge question stems

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

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.

2nd level Depth of Knowledge question stems

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:

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.

3rd level Depth of Knowledge question stems

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.

Active learning strategies use a similar tactic.

4th level Depth of Knowledge question stems

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.

DoK questions for math

Adaptive and curriculum-aligned, Prodigy Math delivers questions that reflect Webb’s DoK levels one to three.

This helps students build skills and exercise strategic thinking in an exciting fantasy world where answering math questions correctly allows them to progress through the story.

Plus you can make your teacher account for free and start enjoying all of its time-saving tools and features.

Try Prodigy today! 🎉

Depth of Knowledge activities for any subject

Level 1 DoK

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 DoK

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 DoK

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 DoK

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 Depth of Knowledge questioning strategies to apply in the classroom

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:

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 and DoK levels

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.

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.

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