The interaction between teacher and learners is the most important feature of the classroom. Whether helping learners to acquire basic skills or a better understanding to solve problems, or to engage in higher-order thinking such as evaluation, questions are crucial. Of course, questions may be asked by students as well as teachers: they are essential tools for both teaching and learning.
For teachers, questioning is a key skill that anyone can learn to use well. Similarly, ways of helping students develop their own ability to raise and formulate questions can also be learned. Raising questions and knowing the right question to ask is an important learning skill that students need to be taught.
Research into questioning has given some clear pointers as to what works. These can provide the basis of improving classroom practice. A very common problem identified by the research is that students are frequently not provided with enough ‘wait time’ to consider an answer; another is that teachers tend to ask too many of the same type of questions. (Adapted from Types Of Question, section Intro). (ORBIT)
In 1940, Stephen Corey analyzed verbatim transcripts of classroom talk for one week across six different classes. His intent was to interrogate what the talk revealed about the learners’ increase in understanding. He wrote, however, that “the study was not successful for the simple reason that during the five class days involved the pupils did not talk enough to give any evidence of mental development; the teachers talked two-thirds of the time” (p. 746). The research focus thus shifted to patterns of questioning.
- For every student query, teachers asked approximately 11 questions
- Students averaged less than one question each, while teachers averaged more than 200 questions each
- Teachers often answered their own questions
- Fewer teacher questions requires deep thinking by the learner
Much has changed since 1940 – except, it seems, these patterns. Classroom discourse continues to be dominated by the ‘recitation script’: teachers asking known-answer questions (Howe & Abedin, 2013) that limit opportunities for learners to experience cognitive challenge, thereby inhibiting effective learning (Alexander, 2008).
Effective questioning techniques are critical to learner engagement and are a key strategy for supporting students to engage thoughtfully and critically with more complex concepts and ideas
(UQx:LEARNx Deep Learning Through Transformative Pedagogy)
The purposes of questioning
Teachers ask questions for a number of reasons, the most common of which are
- to interest, engage and challenge students
- to check on prior knowledge and understanding
- to stimulate recall, mobilizing existing knowledge and experience in order to create new understanding and meaning
- to focus students’ thinking on key concepts and issues
- to help students to extend their thinking from the concrete and factual to the analytical and evaluative
- to lead students through a planned sequence which progressively establishes key understandings
- to promote reasoning, problem solving, evaluation and the formulation of hypotheses
- to promote students’ thinking about the way they have learned
The kind of question asked will depend on the reason for asking it. Questions are often referred to as ‘open’ or ‘closed’.
Closed questions, which have one clear answer, are useful to check understanding during explanations and in recap sessions. If you want to check recall, then you are likely to ask a fairly closed question, for example ‘What is the grid reference for Great Malvern?’ or ‘What do we call this type of text?’
On the other hand, if you want to help students develop higher-order thinking skills, you will need to ask more open questions that allow students to give a variety of acceptable responses. During class discussions and debriefings, it is useful to ask open questions, for example ‘Which of these four sources were most useful in helping with this inquiry?’, ‘Given all the conflicting arguments, where would you build the new superstore?’, ‘What do you think might affect the size of the current in this circuit?’
Questioning is sometimes used to bring a student’s attention back to the task in hand, for example ‘What do you think about that, Peter?’ or ‘Do you agree?’ (Adapted from Types Of Question, section Why).
A striking insight provided by classroom research is that much talk between teachers and their students has the following pattern: a teacher’s question, a student’s response, and then an evaluative comment by the teacher. This is described as an Initiation-Response-Feedback exchange, or IRF. Here’s an example
I – Teacher – What’s the capital city of Argentina?
R – Pupil – Buenos Aires
F – Teacher – Yes, well done
This pattern was first pointed out in the 1970s by the British researchers Sinclair and Coulthard. Their original research was reported in: Sinclair, J. and Coulthard, M. (1975) Towards an Analysis of Discourse: the English used by Teachers and Pupils. London: Oxford University Press.
Sinclair and Coulthard’s research has been the basis for extended debates about whether or not teachers should ask so many questions to which they already know the answer; and further debate about the range of uses and purposes of IRF in working classrooms. Despite all this, it seems that many teachers (even those who have qualified in recent decades) have not heard of it. Is this because their training did not include any examination of the structures of classroom talk – or because even if it did, the practical value of such an examination was not made clear?
A teacher’s professional development (and, indeed, the development of members of any profession) should involve the gaining of critical insights into professional practice – to learn to see behind the ordinary, the taken for granted, and to question the effectiveness of what is normally done. Recognizing the inherent structure of teacher-student talk is a valuable step in that direction. Student teachers need to see how they almost inevitably converge on other teachers’ style and generate the conventional patterns of classroom talk.
By noting this, they can begin to consider what effects this has on student participation in class. There is nothing wrong with the use of IRFs by teachers, but question-and-answer routines can be used both productively and unproductively. (Adapted from The Importance of Speaking and Listening, section IRF). (ORBIT
Professor Robyn Gillies, from The University of Queensland, explores some questioning techniques and strategies that can support deep learning.
Example questions that promote dialogical discourse include things like:
- On one hand you’re telling me this, but on the other hand you’re saying something quite different.
- I wonder how these two positions could be reconciled?
- Can you explain that another way?
- Tell us again what you meant by …?
- Have you considered looking at it this way What might this or that type of person think about that?
These kinds of questions are designed to challenge students’ thinking and encourage them to think about things in different ways. By creating a state of cognitive dissonance in students, they have to reconsider their thinking.
Questions that scaffold students thinking might include things like:
- Have you considered using different descriptors in your search for the information you need?
- Have you thought about using some of this information to help you develop your ideas?
- Why don’t you try brainstorming some of the problems and how could you solve them?
Both types of questions are used interchangeably to help students clarify their thoughts and think more deeply about issues.
(UQx:LEARNx Deep Learning Through Transformative Pedagogy)
In this next video Professor John Hattie, from the University of Melbourne, elaborates on our understanding of why questions are an essential component of developing self-regulated learners.
Click here to watch video (4:43 minutes)
(UQx:LEARNx Deep Learning Through Transformative Pedagogy)
Summary of research
Research evidence suggests that effective teachers use a greater number of open questions than less effective teachers. The mix of open and closed questions will, of course, depend on what is being taught and the objectives of the lesson. However, teachers who ask no open questions in a lesson may be providing insufficient cognitive challenges for students.
Questioning is one of the most extensively researched areas of teaching and learning. This is because of its central importance in the teaching and learning process. The research falls into three broad categories
- What is effective questioning?
- How do questions engage students and promote responses?
- How do questions develop students’ cognitive abilities?
What is effective questioning?
Questioning is effective when it allows students to engage with the learning process by actively composing responses. Research (Borich 1996; Muijs and Reynolds 2001; Morgan and Saxton 1994; Wragg and Brown 2001) suggests that lessons where questioning is effective are likely to have the following characteristics
- Questions are planned and closely linked to the objectives of the lesson.
- The learning of basic skills is enhanced by frequent questions following the exposition of new content that has been broken down into small steps. Each step should be followed by guided practice that provides opportunities for students to consolidate what they have learned and that allows teachers to check understanding.
- Closed questions are used to check factual understanding and recall.
- Open questions predominate.
- Sequences of questions are planned so that the cognitive level increases as the questions go on. This ensures that students are led to answer questions which demand increasingly higher-order thinking skills, but are supported on the way by questions which require less sophisticated thinking skills.
- Students have opportunities to ask their own questions and seek their own answers. They are encouraged to provide feedback to each other.
- The classroom climate is one where students feel secure enough to take risks, be tentative and make mistakes.
The research emphasizes the importance of using open, higher-level questions to develop students’ higher-order thinking skills.
Clearly there needs to be a balance between open and closed questions, depending on the topic and objectives for the lesson. A closed question, such as ‘What is the next number in the sequence?’, can be extended by a follow-up question, such as ‘How did you work that out?’
Overall, the research shows that effective teachers use a greater number of higher- order questions and open questions than less effective teachers.
However, the research also demonstrates that most of the questions asked by both effective and less effective teachers are lower order and closed. It is estimated that 70–80 percent of all learning-focused questions require a simple factual response, whereas only 20–30 percent lead students to explain, clarify, expand, generalize or infer. In other words, only a minority of questions demand that students use higher-order thinking skills.
How do questions engage students and promote responses?
It doesn’t matter how good and well-structured your questions are if your students do not respond. This can be a problem with shy students or older students who are not used to highly interactive teaching. It can also be a problem with students who are not very interested in school or engaged with learning. The research identifies a number of strategies which are helpful in encouraging student response. (See Borich 1996; Muijs and Reynolds 2001; Morgan and Saxton 1994; Wragg and Brown 2001; Rowe 1986; Black and Harrison 2001; Black et al. 2002.)
Pupil response is enhanced where
- there is a classroom climate in which students feel safe and know they will not be criticized or ridiculed if they give a wrong answer
- prompts are provided to give students confidence to try an answer
- there is a ‘no-hands’ approach to answering, where you choose the respondent rather than have them volunteer
- ‘wait time’ is provided before an answer is required. The research suggests that 3 seconds is about right for most questions, with the proviso that more complex questions may need a longer wait time. Research shows that the average wait time in classrooms is about 1 second (Rowe 1986; Borich 1996)
How do questions develop students’ cognitive abilities?
Lower-level questions usually demand factual, descriptive answers that are relatively easy to give. Higher-level questions require more sophisticated thinking from students; they are more complex and more difficult to answer. Higher-level questions are central to students’ cognitive development, and research evidence suggests that students’ levels of achievement can be increased by regular access to higher-order thinking. (See Borich 1996; Muijs and Reynolds 2001; Morgan and Saxton 1994; Wragg and Brown 2001; Black and Harrison 2001.)
When you are planning higher-level questions, you will find it useful to use Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives (Bloom and Krathwohl 1956) to help structure questions which will require higher-level thinking. Bloom’s taxonomy is a classification of levels of intellectual behavior important in learning. The taxonomy classifies cognitive learning into six levels of complexity and abstraction.
On this scale, recalling relevant knowledge is the lowest-order thinking skill and creating is the highest.
Bloom researched thousands of questions routinely asked by teachers and categorized them. His research, and that of others, suggests that most learning- focused questions asked in classrooms fall into the first two categories, with few questions falling into the other categories which relate to higher-order thinking skills.
Common Pitfalls of Questioning and possible solutions
Although questions are the most common form of interaction between teachers and students, it is fair to say that questions are not always well judged or productive for learning. This section identifies some common pitfalls of questioning and suggests some ways to avoid them.
Not being clear about why you are asking the question: You will need to reflect on the kind of lesson you are planning. Is it one where you are mainly focusing on facts, rules and sequences of actions? If that is the case, you will be more likely to ask closed questions which relate to knowledge. Or is it a lesson where you are focusing mainly on comprehension, concepts and abstractions? In that case you will be more likely to use open questions which relate to analysis, synthesis and evaluation.
Asking too many closed questions that need only a short answer: It helps if you plan open questions in advance. Another strategy is to establish an optimum length of response by saying something like ‘I don’t want an answer of less than 15 words.’
Asking too many questions at once: Asking about a complex issue can often lead to complex questions. Since these questions are oral rather than written, students may find it difficult to understand what is required and they become confused. When you are dealing with a complex subject, you need to tease out the issues for yourself first and focus each question on one idea only. It also helps to use direct, concrete language and as few words as possible.
Asking difficult questions without building up to them: This happens when there isn’t a planned sequence of questions of increasing difficulty. Sequencing questions is necessary to help students to move to the higher levels of thinking.
Asking superficial questions: It is possible to ask lots of questions but not get to the center of the issue. You can avoid this problem by planning probing questions in advance. They can often be built in as follow-up questions to extend an answer.
Asking a question then answering it yourself: What’s the point? This pitfall is often linked to another problem: not giving students time to think before they answer. Build in ‘wait time’ to give students a chance to respond. You could say ‘Think about your answer for 3 seconds, then I will ask.’ You could also provide prompts to help.
Asking bogus ‘guess what’s in my head’ questions: Sometimes teachers ask an open question but expect a closed response. If you have a very clear idea of the response you want, it is probably better to tell students by explaining it to them rather than trying to get there through this kind of questioning. Remember, if you ask open questions you must expect to get a range of answers. Acknowledge all responses. This can easily be done by saying ‘thank you’.
Focusing on a small number of students and not involving the whole class: One way of avoiding this is to get the whole class to write their answers to closed questions and then show them to you together. Some teachers use small whiteboards for this. Another possibility, which may be more effective for more open questions, is to use the ‘no-hands’ strategy, where you pick the respondent rather than having them volunteer. One advantage of this is that you can ask students questions of appropriate levels of difficulty. This is a good way of differentiating to ensure inclusion.
Dealing ineffectively with wrong answers or misconceptions: Teachers sometimes worry that they risk damaging students’ self-esteem by correcting them. There are ways of handling this positively, such as providing prompts and scaffolds to help students correct their mistakes. It is important that you correct errors sensitively or, better still, get other students to correct them.
Not treating students’ answers seriously: Sometimes teachers simply ignore answers that are a bit off-beam. They can also fail to see the implications of these answers and miss opportunities to build on them. You could ask students why they have given that answer or if there is anything they would like to add. You could also ask other students to extend the answer. It is important not to cut students off and move on too quickly if they have given a wrong answer.
- Be clear about why you are asking the questions. Make sure they will do what you want them to do.
- Plan sequences of questions that make increasingly challenging cognitive demands on students.
- Give students time to answer and provide prompts to help them if necessary. Ask conscripts rather than volunteers to answer questions
- Look again at the list of pitfalls and think about your own teaching. Which of these traps have you fallen into during recent lessons?
- How might you have avoided them?
100 questions that promote Mathematical Discourse- Download Printable Version for quick reference
ORBIT: The Open Resource Bank for Interactive Teaching, University of Cambridge, Faculty of Education. Retrieved from http://oer.educ.cam.ac.uk/wiki/Questioning_Research_Summary and http://oer.educ.cam.ac.uk/wiki/Teaching_Approaches/Questioning (CC BY NC SA)
LEARNx Deep Learning through Transformative Pedagogy (2017). University of Queensland, Australia (CC BY NC SA)