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Why is questioning important?

High-quality classroom talk is a powerful tool for learning (EEF, 2019). It can support pupils to articulate key ideas, consolidate learning and extend their vocabulary. This is supported by Rosenshine (2012) as he found that the most effective teachers spent more than half of the class time explaining, modelling and asking questions. Questioning is a vital teacher tool for two main reasons (Rosenshine, 2012):

  • It enables you to assess pupils’ understanding to determine whether there is a need for additional instruction
  • It enables you to provide pupils the opportunity to practise what is being taught to consolidate and extend learning

The importance of questioning - Claire Stoneman

In this section, you will explore how questioning can be used to check for pupil understanding and build learning. Start by listening to Claire Stoneman talk about using questioning as part of effective classroom practice and answer the questions in your notepad:

  • when might you use questioning in a lesson?
  • what are Sherrington’s (2019) ‘relevant instructional procedures’ of questioning?
  • how do you think questioning links to effective explanations and modelling?
Video transcript

Muijs and Reynolds tell us that due to its importance, questioning is one of the most widely studied elements in teaching research. Questioning is a crucial element of effective instruction and can be used throughout the lesson. For example, it may be used during retrieval practice, which might occur at the beginning of a lesson. Questioning can also be used during an explanation or during modelling to gauge whether information has been understood. Questioning is a vital and flexible tool at any part of a lesson.

Questioning is essential to great teaching and should be interactive and responsive. Sherrington provides what he calls the ‘Relevant instructional procedures of questioning’. They are:

  1. Ask a large number of questions and check for understanding
  2. Ask students to explain what they have learned
  3. Check the response of all students
  4. Provide systematic feedback and corrections

So questioning helps us do a lot. It’s essential to be a good questioner as a teacher and again it needs lots and lots of practice. Our questions can help us gauge many things, from how well the pupils understand, to whether we need to reteach something, to whether pupils have understood a complex concept. We need to ask loads of questions and involve loads of pupils. We may need to take more time in a lesson to explain something further if our questioning has shown us that pupils don’t really get it. Questioning enables us to be responsive teachers and to act on the information we glean from our pupils. Questioning is really key and, as Rosenshine found, less successful teachers ask fewer questions and almost no process questions. There’s an array of questioning strategies that you can employ in your teaching. It’s worth focusing on a few and practicing them until you’re more comfortable and they come more naturally. Practice is key.

In this session you’ll explore how to check pupils’ understanding by asking pupils a number of different questions and gaining feedback about what they understand. As Rosenshine and Sherrington emphasize, this reinforces the need to present material in small steps. If there’s too much at once then errors and misconceptions will potentially occur more frequently. Therefore chunked explanations supported by models and reinforced by regular questioning and checking for understanding is vital.

Questioning to assess understanding

Assessing understanding is an essential part of teaching as it gives you an insight about the level of knowledge pupils have. It should be used throughout explanations to check whether you need to re-teach the step you have just introduced or move onto the next.

Assessing understanding can be challenging to get right. In order to appreciate how to check for understanding effectively, it is helpful to consider what constitutes poor practice to highlight strategies to avoid. Rosenshine (1982), cited in Rosenshine’s Principles in Action (2019, page 31) highlights that the wrong way to check for understanding is:

“…to ask only a few questions, call on volunteers to hear their (usually correct) answers, and then assume that all of the class either understands or has now learned from hearing the volunteers’ responses. Another error is to ask, ‘Are there any questions?’ and, if there aren’t any, assume that everybody understands. Another error is to assume that it is not necessary to check for understanding, and simply repeating the points will be sufficient.”

Rosenshine (2019)

Checking for, and building, understanding through questioning is a vital process that should occur continuously throughout the lesson. Below are some key features of checking for understanding that should be incorporated into your questioning, which will be explored in this session:

  • Avoid self-report questions - ask questions that directly assess pupil understanding of the material being taught
  • Check whole class understanding
  • Provide appropriate wait time after asking a question to allow pupils to generate a response

Avoid self-report questions

Self-report questions are generally the rhetorical questions which ask pupils to tell you whether they understand or not, such as:

“Is everyone clear on…?” or “Does that make sense…?”

These are the types of questions that Rosenshine recommends you avoid asking because such rhetorical questions typically generate a passive “yes” response and do not inform you about what they have understood or any misconceptions they may have developed.

Pupils are likely to give a passive response for a number of possible reasons:

  • Embarrassment – pupils are less likely to stop the teaching to say they don’t understand
  • Pupils aren’t aware of what they don’t know – because pupils are novices in the topic you are teaching, they are unlikely to be aware of misconceptions or inaccurate knowledge they may be developing
  • Pupils might find it hard to reflect on the question of whether they have understood something

To avoid asking rhetorical questions that don’t give accurate detail about pupil understanding, you should ask carefully chosen questions that are directly linked to the material you are teaching.


Have you asked pupils a self-report question in a recent lesson?

If so, consider the following questions and record your answer in your notepad:

  • what was the pupils’ response?
  • did it help you to check pupil understanding accurately?
  • what could you have asked instead that would be a better assessment of pupil understanding?

Check whole class understanding

Rosenshine suggests that the wrong way to check for understanding is to call on only a few pupils who have volunteered their answers and then assume the rest of the class have the same level of understanding. This is because such a method doesn’t capture the understanding of the whole class. There may be pupils who do not understand the material you have taught but have not revealed this because they haven’t been asked to demonstrate their understanding. Therefore, it is important that you plan opportunities throughout your explanation to allow all pupils to show you their level of understanding.

One way to check whole class understanding is to ask pupils to show evidence of their understanding.

There are two ways in which you can do this:

1. Multiple choice

Here you give pupils answers to a question with a corresponding letter (a, b, c… ) or number ( 1, 2, 3… ). Pupils choose which answer they think is correct and when asked to, they show this to you at the same time using fingers or by scribing the letter or number on their whiteboards. You then scan their fingers/whiteboards to check for their responses.

2. Individual response

Here pupils are not given multiple choice options. Instead, they show their working out or record their answer on a mini whiteboard and, when asked to, they reveal this to you at the same time. Although it can take longer to scan pupils’ answers, the process can still reveal misunderstandings.

It is important you ask pupils to show you their answer in unison to prevent them from copying one another. If they copy someone else’s idea, you don’t have an accurate understanding of how that pupil’s learning is progressing.

Once pupils have revealed their answer, you should target certain pupils and ask them to explain why they have given or chosen that answer, especially if pupils have given a mixed response. This will highlight where misconceptions have formed which you can then directly address.

What does this look like in practice?

Watch one of the videos below of teachers assessing understanding of all pupils. Consider the following questions and record your response in your notebook:

  • how did the teacher gather evidence of learning from all pupils?
  • what did the teacher do as the result of the information gathered?
  • how did this support subsequent learning?

Check whole class understanding - Early Years

If you require an audio description over the video, please watch this version: Check whole class understanding – Early Years [AD]

Check whole class understanding - Primary

If you require an audio description over the video, please watch this version: Check whole class understanding - Primary [AD]

Check whole class understanding - Secondary

If you require an audio description over the video, please watch this version: Check whole class understanding - Secondary [AD]

Wait time

When assessing pupils’ understanding, it is important that you allow pupils enough time to consider the question and generate a response.

Therefore, when asking questions, it is important you leave thinking time between asking the question and calling on the pupil who you wish to answer. This has two benefits:

  • It gives pupils time to think about your questions and apply their understanding to generate a suitable response.
  • By naming the pupil after asking the question, you encourage all pupils to be ready with an answer because they don’t know who you will call upon

What does this look like in practice?

Watch these videos of a teacher providing pupils with enough wait time. Consider the following question and record your response in your notepad:

  • what impact does this have on pupils’ engagement and quality of response?

Wait time – Early Years - Bella Sidenius at Reach Academy

If you require an audio description over the video, please watch this version: Wait time – Early Years - Bella Sidenius at Reach Academy [AD]

Wait time – Primary at Reach Academy

If you require an audio description over the video, please watch this version: Wait time – Primary at Reach Academy [AD]

Wait time – Secondary - Phil Fowkes at Reach Academy

If you require an audio description over the video, please watch this version: Wait time – Secondary - Phil Fowkes at Reach Academy [AD]

Wait time – Specialist setting - Ellen Tinkham School

If you require an audio description over the video, please watch this version: Wait time – Specialist setting - Ellen Tinkham School [AD]

Extending and challenging pupils

Whilst questioning should be used to check understanding, it can also be used to extend and challenge pupils. This can be particularly tricky to get right and relies on you as a teacher maintaining high expectations of pupil responses. There are two things you can incorporate into your questioning to maintain high expectations of pupils and build their understanding of the material being taught. You can:

  • Ensure you do not complete pupils’ answers for them. By extending their answer with your own ideas, you are lowering your expectations of what a good answer is and assuming pupils know more than they do
  • Ask pupils follow-up questions which encourage them to build on their answer to extend and challenge them

Do not complete pupils’ answers

One way to ensure you maintain high expectations of pupil responses is to ensure you ask follow-up questions to an incomplete answer rather than completing the answer for the pupils.

Often teachers, unknowingly, complete or ‘round-up’ pupils’ incomplete answers and then reward the pupil for their answer even though it wasn’t entirely their response.


Teacher: How do I know that the answer will be an integer if I divide 1230 by 10?

Pupil: Because it ends in a zero.

Teacher: Right. 1230 ends in a zero meaning it is a multiple of 10.

The teacher has added extra information but still indicated the pupil gave the correct response. The consequence is that pupils believe they are right and fully understand when they may not.

Asking further questions to enable the pupil to complete or build upon their answer

It can be difficult not to round-up pupils’ answers as you want to keep the pace of the lesson and praise pupils for sharing their ideas. However, if you don’t address partially correct answers and probe for more detail then you have lowered your expectations of pupils and don’t provide them with an opportunity to extend their leaning.

The best way to avoid doing this is to ensure you know what a good answer would be before asking the question. For example, it may be that the pupils need to give three specific pieces of information. Knowing this helps you identify exactly what you want pupils to say. If/when they don’t provide you with a full answer, you can probe further.

Ways you can further probe a pupil’s thinking will be explored in the following section.

What does this look like in practice?

Watch these videos to watch how teachers probe pupils to provide more detail in their answers. Consider the following questions and record your response in your notepad:

  • how did the teacher respond to the partially complete answer?
  • what impact did this have on the pupil’s response?

Do not complete pupils’ answers – Early Years - Maria Craster at One Degree Academy

If you require an audio description over the video, please watch this version: Do not complete pupils’ answers – Early Years - Maria Craster at One Degree Academy [AD]

Do not complete pupils’ answers - Primary

If you require an audio description over the video, please watch this version: Do not complete pupils’ answers - Primary [AD]

Do not complete pupils’ answers - Secondary

If you require an audio description over the video, please watch this version: Do not complete pupils’ answers - Secondary [AD]

Do not complete pupils’ answers – Specialist setting - Ellen Tinkham School

If you require an audio description over the video, please watch this version: Do not complete pupils’ answers – Specialist setting - Ellen Tinkham School [AD]


Listen to Robert Gardener talking through why he ensures he does not complete pupils’ answers and an example of when he probed a pupil to provide more detail.

Do not complete pupils’ answers - Robert Gardner at Bishop Chadwick Catholic Education Trust

Video transcript

Teacher questioning is a very powerful tool in the classroom. One of the key aims of teacher questioning is to increase accountability or create accountability for all students in the room, and to generate a learning environment that is high challenge for all students, and that is regardless of their ability, we want to create that sense of challenge. Probing for more detail is one thing that we can do that helps us to achieve that goal, so using further questioning, further probing.

This is about us, as teachers, having high expectations of all students in the room, and high expectations of the answers that they give in response to our questions. We don’t accept want to accept half-formed or, especially, inaccurate answers; we want to push for the best possible answer.

There are a number of ways that we can do that in the lesson:

  • We can further probe, so we can ask further questions, we can pose further questions to reshape the answer
  • Using wait time is important as well, so once we’ve posed a question, if we just wait for a moment, that allows a student time to articulate their thoughts, to shape their response
  • Also, we can, if we’ve posed a question, we can ask other students and they can then support the original student; so, for example, the student gives a half-formed answer, an inaccurate answer, we leave that student for a moment, and then we question other students around the room. That allows the student, the original student, time to reformulate, to reflect, to listen to other students, and helps to push them to give a better answer. So, in a recent lesson (I’m an English teacher) on Macbeth, we were looking at some close analysis of a speech by Lady Macbeth. A student that I questioned about the speech gave an incorrect or a partially correct answer about a crucial plot event in the play. They indicated that Lady Macbeth “puts the blame on someone else for what Macbeth does”. Now, this is partially correct, this answer, I just wanted more from the student. So what I did was I asked the student to reread the speech that we were looking at, the speech in question by Lady Macbeth where this plot detail is elaborated on by Lady Macbeth to Macbeth. Once the student had done that, I began to further probe, so I unpicked that speech with them, the key parts of the speech. So I was asking questions, for instance, such as:
  • “What did Lady Macbeth do with the bloody daggers?”
  • “Why did she do that?”
  • “What was the impact of those actions once Duncan’s body was discovered?” As I say, I really wanted to push the student to give a more full, a more complete answer. After thiat, I then returned to that key original question about who Lady Macbeth intentionally frames for Duncan’s murder, so this probing made sure that the student eventually got to a fuller, more rounded out, fleshed out answer.

As teachers, I think it is sometimes tempting to accept poorly formed, maybe even inaccurate answers. Maybe we want to appear encouraging to students, for instance, or to we want to maintain the flow of the lesson, the pace of the lesson. But the issue with that is that we can’t allow these misconceptions or even errors to become embedded – that’s the danger if we don’t challenge them. So we must always challenge, we must insist on challenging incorrect or partially formed answers.


Describe an example of when you rounded up a pupil’s answer.

Explain why you think you did it, what impact this had on pupil understanding and what you could have asked instead.

Ask follow-up questions

When pupils give a correct answer, you can increase the challenge and extend their understanding by giving them further, more complex questions such as:

  • Ask how or why
  • Ask for another way to answer
  • Ask for better vocabulary
  • Ask pupils to integrate a related skill

These can be used in all subjects and phases.

Ask how or why

Rosenshine (2012) found that more successful teachers ask more process questions. Asking pupils to explain how or why they have come to an answer is an example of a process question as it checks pupils’ reasoning and working-out. This is a simple way to stretch pupils’ answers.

By doing this, you are:

  • Checking pupils’ level of understanding and possibly revealing otherwise hidden misconceptions
  • Extending their understanding by asking pupils to verbalise their thinking - elaboration helps pupils to build mental models

Below is an example of what this might look like in practice:

Example of asking how or why questions

Teacher: What is the perimeter of the square?

Pupil: 20 metres.

Teacher: How do you know?

Pupil: Because all the sides add up to 20.

Teacher: How did you know the length of all the sides?

Pupil: Because one side was 5 metres and because it’s a square, all sides are the same length.

Teacher: So…

Pupil: So, all the sides are 5 metres and 4 times 5 equals 20.

Here, the teacher has pushed the pupil to reveal their deeper understanding by asking ‘how’ questions. It has helped the pupil make links with other knowledge, enabling them to provide a comprehensive answer.

Ask for another way to answer

Sometimes there is more than one way to give an answer. You can check pupil understanding by asking them to give another way of solving a problem or explaining their reasoning.

Teacher: Fill in the blanks: *+ * = 4

Pupil: Three plus one equals four

Teacher: Can you think of another way to make four?

Pupil: Another way to make four is two plus two.

Teacher: What if one was the first number in the equation? 1 + __ = 4

Pupil: One plus three equals four.

By doing this, you help pupils to build links within their knowledge and deepen their understanding of the concept, which in this case was addition.

Ask for better vocabulary or more precise expression

Pupils often provide answers in the simplest language, especially when they are unfamiliar with certain vocabulary. A great way to enhance vocabulary is by probing pupils to improve their language choices and use target vocabulary. In Early Years, it might look like this:

Teacher: Why was mouse scared? Pupil: Because he saw a cat. Teacher: Because he saw a what cat? Can you use an adjective to describe it? Pupil: Because he saw a scary cat.

By including the ‘what’, the teacher has supported the pupil by indicating where the descriptive word should go in the sentence, providing a scaffold for their next response. In older age pupils the prompting might be slightly different:

Teacher: Why was the mouse scared? Pupil: Because he saw a cat. Teacher: Can you use two adjectives to describe the cat? Pupil: Because he saw a large, scary cat. Teacher: OK, how about using one of our vocabulary words? Pupil: Because he saw a large, menacing cat.

Here the teacher has prompted the pupil to challenge themselves and improve their initial response. In other subjects or contexts, you might use the same structure to encourage pupils to use subject specific or technical language.

To help pupils build connections between their learning from one lesson to the next, you can ask pupils to integrate one skill with another they have recently mastered. The example below demonstrates how this might look in a primary P.E. lesson:

Teacher: Who can show me a narrow movement? Pupil: Walks around with arms up high. Teacher: Who can show me a low, narrow movement. Pupil: Slithers narrowly on the floor. Teacher: Who can show me a low, rolling, narrow movement. Pupil: completes a pencil roll.

By doing this, you are joining up pupils’ learning and connecting new learning with existing knowledge in their mental model, in this case, of how to move your body in different ways.

What does this look like in practice?

There are many ways you can extend pupils’ understanding when they present correct answers.

Watch these videos of teachers challenging pupils with follow-up questions to extend their understanding. Whilst watching, consider the following questions and then record your response in your notepad:

  • what type(s) of follow-up questions were used?
  • how did this impact pupils’ responses?

Ask follow-up questions – Early Years - Maria Craster at One Degree Academy

If you require an audio description over the video, please watch this version: Ask follow-up questions – Early Years - Maria Craster at One Degree Academy [AD]

Ask follow-up questions - Primary at Reach Academy

If you require an audio description over the video, please watch this version: Ask follow-up questions - Primary at Reach Academy [AD]

Ask follow-up questions - Secondary at Reach Academy

If you require an audio description over the video, please watch this version: Ask follow-up questions - Secondary at Reach Academy [AD]

Ask follow-up questions – Specialist setting - Ellen Tinkham School

If you require an audio description over the video, please watch this version: Ask follow-up questions – Specialist setting - Ellen Tinkham School [AD]


Questioning is a vital tool to use within the classroom as it enables you to both assess pupils’ understanding and extend pupils’ learning. To use questioning to best effect, there are some principles to consider:

  • Avoid self-report questions - ask questions that directly assess pupil understanding of the material being taught
  • Check whole class understanding
  • Provide appropriate wait time after asking a question to allow pupils to generate a response
  • Do not complete pupils’ answers
  • Ask follow-up questions to extend and challenge pupils
  • Will pupils’ benefit from scaffolds such as sentence frames when answering questions?

In your next mentor session and training session, you will explore questioning further and will plan questioning into a future lesson.

In the following week, you will then be observed using questioning to assess pupils’ understanding and extend and challenge pupils.

Additional resources

Below are some additional resources that you might find useful in supporting your classroom practice:

Scaffolding learning - Primary

Listen to Katherine Fas talk about scaffolding, how she has used it to support pupils and how to gradually reduce it in Primary

Video transcript

Scaffolding is a term that refers to a variety of instructional techniques and resources that are used to move pupils toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process.

Three key things that have supported me across the curriculum to scaffold learning are:

  • Worked examples, sometimes known as WAGOLLs, which stands for ‘What A Good One Looks Like’
  • Checklists
  • Thinking aloud Worked examples or WAGOLLs are brilliant resources that demonstrate the final outcome expected to pupils. They can be used to model the skills and standards expected through shared or guided writing, or they can simply be shared with your pupils who might find it challenging when conceptualising the expected outcome of a task. These WAGOLLs can then be displayed as a visual prompt for learners to access throughout the sequence of lessons and support them in magpie-ing ideas for their own work.

Checklists are amazing. Giving pupils a checklist of criteria to meet when answering a question or completing a task is a really simple but massively effective way of scaffolding. A checklist provides a visual prompt and gives pupils an idea of how many steps they need to take in order to be successful, as well as the order in which they should take them.

‘Thinking aloud’ or verbalising your thought processes as you complete a task is one of the most effective ways to demonstrate to pupils how they can apply their skills and prior learning to support them in achieving the learning goal. Talking through the steps and orally rehearsing example phrases shows pupils that answers aren’t automatic and take careful thought and planning. It’s also important to allow the pupils time to do this with their peers. Orally rehearsing the steps that they might go through first and giving feedback to each other before putting pen to paper is a really effective way of developing their metacognition and supporting them achieve.

Once pupils have been successful at a task using scaffolds, it’s important to challenge the learners to become more independent in their work. Over time, physical scaffolds should be removed so pupils don’t become dependent on them and, instead, internalise that process so they can draw upon it whenever they need. If we think of a house that has scaffolding round it, we wouldn’t want to keep the scaffolding up once the work had been completed! We would want to show off all the work that has gone on in developing it!

The first thing I would say when removing scaffolds is, it’s really important not to take away everything all at once. I would often start by reducing one element from my scaffolding bank, for instance: covering up the WAGOLL, or reducing the thinking aloud time to just ‘thinking time’, where pupils have time to plan the next stage of their work independently, whilst keeping all of the other components there. I would often vary this for different learners, depending on their needs. For instance, I found that children who struggle with processing benefit from discussing things out-loud more frequently, so I grouped these pupils together and encouraged the rest of the class to work independently using the checklist and WAGOLL alone. I would always remove the checklist last, and only when I was sure the items on them had been achieved whilst using it. To slowly remove the scaffold that the checklist provided, I wouldn’t take away the whole thing, but instead would leave gaps in the checklist according to my assessment of what the pupils were attaining. I then slowly reduced the number of items on there until pupils were completing the task independently. I would always build periods of reflection into this process whereby pupils could assess their progress against their independent piece and make amendments where necessary.

Scaffolding learning - Secondary

Kelly Challis talks about scaffolding and why it is so important when planning, drafting and editing writing in Secondary

Video transcript

If there is one thing which I used constantly with all of my learners when I was teaching it was scaffolds.  Now these could range from structured frameworks for accessing and for exploring written text to a mind map for ideas which are to be developed into a body of text. Scaffolds don’t make the content easier, they create access to that content and help pupils, particularly those with literacy difficulties, to demonstrate the richness of their answers on paper.

It is important to consider the idea of cognitive load when focusing on the purpose of a scaffold. Cognitive load theory by Sweller (1988) is a way of thinking about the total amount of information which a person is dealing with and processing at any time. For example, if you have a learner that finds reading text difficult but the objective of that lesson is to comprehend that text, a learner’s cognitive load may be taken up with the process of reading, decoding the words, the speed of reading, the length of the text, the familiarity of the text or the stress of doing something which they perceive as a challenge rather than the set task of comprehending.

This is where scaffolding comes in. That same learner, if they are aware of some of the complex vocabulary that they will be reading in that text, if they have been given some guidance on how to scan a text and read it for meaning or signposted to the areas of text which they need to read closely, or if they have been modelled how to read through that text and identify the areas by highlighting parts of the text to aid comprehension later in the lesson. Everything I’ve just described could be a scaffold, none of them make the content any easier but the process of reading has become easier and thus the working memory load has more capacity for the teaching material.

Another example of a good scaffold to use and one which I have recommended several times to the schools that I work with is a task planner. This really helps those learners with literacy difficulties but also those that struggle with organization as it allows them to make sense of what they need to do. It also enables them to tick off what they’ve achieved in the lesson and for you, as a teacher, to see whether they are ready to move on from a scaffold.

This is an example of making the implicit explicit through the use of concrete examples. Sharing those planning techniques that we may take for granted as teachers. The Education Endowment Foundation in their ‘Metacognition and self-regulated learning’ resource make reference to research supporting the idea that those learners who find learning difficult do not use these kinds of scaffolds and strategies inherently as some more successful learners do. Teaching those learners these kinds of strategies is not giving them an advantage, it’s equipping them with useful strategies they can continue to use in their learning.

Let me finish off by giving you some examples of strategies for planning, drafting and editing.

When planning, mind mapping is fantastic for getting ideas down quickly and this can then be extended by linking the ideas and prioritising them using numbers to then create a plan.

When drafting writing, having an expectation of what the finished article will look like to demonstrate how the piece of text should start and what content should be included in the body will help a learner frame their ideas. It is important to explicitly teach different purposes of writing and how these impact upon the writing structure, for example, teaching pupils what a compare and contrast essay would be like or what a newspaper article would look like. When doing this you can use effective questioning to draw out known information.

Finally both when writing and editing work, using a checklist can act as a great scaffold. For example, when I was teaching, I would often suggest to their learners in exams to put the punctuation at the top of the page and whilst they were writing tick them off. Being able to critically look at your own piece of work is difficult, and editing is hard at any age, so having a criterion to check your work against helps make the implicit explicit.