Learn More by Crafting Better Interview Questions

by Paula Moran


I love making people think, not letting them off the hook until they've really used their brain. I love challenging people to think deeply and develop stronger more robust understandings by asking questions they can’t answer immediately. You can learn a lot about a person when you make them think. You can learn things like how long they will work at a difficult problem, or how robust their background knowledge is.

They key to all this is crafting a good line of questioning is writing questions that engage the brain at different levels. Bloom’s taxonomy is a handy tool to help you construct questions at all levels of brain engagement. Blooms taxonomy categorizes tasks and questions by how much they engage the brain. There are six levels of the taxonomy: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. The taxonomy language was updated in the 90s it was changed from nouns to verbs. More details about the update can be found about it on this site. You may still hear L&D professionals use the old terminology which was knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

By Xristina la (Own work) [<a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0">CC-BY-SA-3.0</a>], <a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABloom_taxonomy.jpg">via Wikimedia Commons</a>

By Xristina la (Own work) [<a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0">CC-BY-SA-3.0</a>], <a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABloom_taxonomy.jpg">via Wikimedia Commons</a>

To illustrate the different levels of Bloom’s taxonomy here is an example of questioning about a box of crayons at each level of the taxonomy.

  • List the colors in your box of crayons
  • Select a red crayon from the box
  • Place your crayons in rainbow order (for this you have to know the definition of rainbow order and apply it to the crayons in the box)
  • Differentiate between the shades of orange crayons.
  • Given the current colors in the 64 box of crayons pretend you are an executive and justify what new color should be added to the box based on current color composition.
  • Assemble the optimal pack of 10 crayons for a car trip.

Simpler questions or tasks don’t require you to think as much but they are essential to establish foundational knowledge for later use. For example, you must understand what the current computer policy is before you can analyze it and debate what changes need to be made. Starting a line of questioning in the lower levels helps build confidence and establishes a common ground that can be referenced later. Many interviews start with basic level questioning. For example, “describe what you do at your current job,” is an understanding level question. As the interview progresses questioning should progress through the levels of taxonomy.

Common interview questions don’t use all levels of the taxonomy. Questions such as “what is your greatest strength?” or “Describe how you dealt with a failure” are on the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. You learn the most about people by asking carefully crafted higher level questions.

How to write higher level questions

There are several websites that will offer word prompts geared at each level of Bloom’s taxonomy. I find having one nearby helps me craft higher level questions. Here are some examples:

  • Applying: organize, generalize, prepare, choose, sketch, use, apply, show, etc.
  • Analyze: compare, classify, distinguish, differentiate, select, subdivide, etc.
  • Evaluate: judge, relate, support, critique, summarize, appraise, etc.
  • Create: compose, design, construct, plan, invent, organize, etc.

For more word prompts I would recommend visiting this site.

If I were interviewing a candidate I would construct a line of questioning that involved multiple levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. For example,

  • We are having X problem, explain how you would solve it.
  • Compare your solution to a problem you successfully solved at your old job to show why they are effective solutions.
  • If faced with the same problem from your old job again, summarize what you would have done differently to solve it this time.
  • Organize your answers from the previous questions and explain the problem solving strategy you composed.

Writing questions around the same topic with escalating levels of difficulty allows the interviewer to ask higher level questions while providing common conversational ground for the interviewer and interviewee to reference.