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The Right Way to Ask Questions in the Classroom

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Updated 10/2013

Have you ever thought about how silly we teachers can be? When we get in front of students, we present ourselves to be the ones with all the answers, and then after we talk to the students, we start asking questions as if we don't know anything we just talked about. No wonder students get confused!

The Goal of a Question

On a more serious note, as teachers, we need to come to grips with the fact that we really do not know everything, and there is no reason to assume that the students know nothing. But perhaps the most important question to ask is, "What does a teacher asking questions of a class expect the class to learn from the questioning process?"

There are a number of things to consider in this scenario. Some teachers might answer that the reason to ask questions is to check for understanding, which benefits the teacher more than the student. Ostensibly, after we have taught a principle or concept, we could ask, "Does everybody understand?" Even though we all realize that students not answering -- or even answering in the affirmative -- may not really understand, we still ask it. Are we aware of how many times we ask this useless question during a day of teaching?

What we really end up telling the students when we ask this sort of question is, "Ok, here is your last chance. If you don't ask any questions, then you understand completely, and I am free to go on to the next subject. Because I asked this fair question, and gave you a fair chance to answer, I am absolved from any lack of understanding on your part."

The fallacy with this thinking is that sometimes the students do not understand that they do not understand, and if they do not know what they do not know, there is no way that they can ask a question about it.

The other element about this question is that it is a yes-or-no question, and we all know it's all too easy to guess what answer the teacher wants to hear, and does not push the students into the higher-order-thinking stratosphere.

How do we then go about appropriately checking for understanding?

We ask specific questions! Great, you may be saying, but how do we do that?

Typically, these are the questions that are thrown out to the class as if they were tantalizing treats to be snatched up by all of the eager students. The reality is far different.

Classroom Observations

If we look at the dynamics of any classroom, it doesn't take more than a week for students to figure out who is smart, who is not, and who doesn't care. What is worse, studies show that after fourth grade, students know how they are perceived and play their roles accordingly. So, here comes one of those hook-laden questions bobbing about the classroom: "Class, if you could stretch string from here to the moon, how many balls of string would it take?"

The students who know they are not smart are not going to take the bait, and neither will the students who do not care. This leaves the smart kids as the only ones interested in answering, and almost before the question is finished, they have their hands up with an answer, right or wrong. The other two groups of kids are perfectly fine with this routine. Most likely, they will complacently say to themselves, "Let them answer the questions so I don't have to."

A teacher may defend this practice because the motivated student who answers will help the whole class to learn the answer. That might be true if the whole class were listening, but, when the teacher starts pacing the room and stops to ask a question, if the students know that the question will be open to the entire class, then most likely two-thirds of the class will not even pay it any attention and continue doodling or daydreaming.

I spent the day as a first grader, a third grader, a fifth grader, a sixth grader, and a ninth grader. I followed these students to all their classes. One astounding thing that I discovered is that some students went through a whole day -- maybe even weeks and months -- and never answered a single verbal question!

Once again, I ask, do we realize how many general questions we throw to the air in the course of a class period? We would be astounded at the results if we simply assigned a student to tally how many of these questions we actually ask each class period. Old habits are hard to break, but the students would love to help you break this one.

Let's say we notice this problem and decide something has to change. "Jeffry, What do John the Baptist and Kermit the Frog have in common?" Several hands slowly recede and all eyes are on Jeffry. Well, some eyes are on Jeffry. The rest of the students just breathed sighs of relief that their names were not called. The question asked is not their problem, and neither is the answer.

Some teachers may say that while Jeffry is thinking of the answer, the rest of the students are, too. Wouldn't that be nice? Once again, maybe one-third of the students are thinking about an answer, but the rest are just glad it wasn't them.

So, how do teachers ask a question the right way?

A Simple, Effective Approach

Most of us have been exposed to the questioning strategies researched by Mary Budd Rowe. She proposed that teachers simply ask a question, such as "What do you call it when an insect kills itself?" pause for at least three seconds, and then say a student's name: "Sally." By doing this, all the students will automatically be thinking about an answer and only after another child's name is said will they sigh in relief because they were not chosen.

Creative teachers accompany this technique with a system to make sure that every child gets to answer questions in a random fashion. If it is not random, then once they answer a question, they think they have answered their one question and are done for the day. I did some online research on questioning and found these questioning and discussion resources from UMDMJ useful.

So, if we are not planning to use total physical response (TPR) to have all the students answer questions at the same time, then at least we should be asking a question, pausing for three seconds and then saying a student's name in order to get the most effect out of questions. However, if we are satisfied with only some students paying attention and learning in our classrooms, then we can continue as usual.

Any questions?

What innovative strategies do you use to make sure every student gets a chance to ask and answer questions?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Comments (155)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Cheryl Bradham's picture

I use a random "candy question" basket. I ask the question, give the student 3 seconds to answer, and then go on to the next student if they don't get it. I wish I could come up with a way to ensure that the student that doesn't get the answer "correctly" would get a chance to show me that he learned the information. Any ideas?

Cheryl Bradham's picture

Laura, I'm also getting my degree at Walden. This is my first blog experience, also, at least for posting a response.
I do the "Think, pair, share" also. I teach second grade, too. In addition, I do a little ditty called "buddy buzz". This is where they say something at the same time to a buddy. The buddy I call on tells me what he said and tells me if his buddy buzzed the same thing. I have a group buzz and a class buzz that works the same way.
I'm interested in this topic. Questioning is so important!

Endrias's picture

It is a wonderful idea to appropriately use questions in the classroom!

Endrias's picture

Currently,I am conducting a research for my MA THESIS on teachers and students' perceptions towards Questioning, Language instruction and Students' Achievements.So I benefit a lot from the Blogs.

Ray OBrien's picture

Great idea, Laura and others. There are many useful variations of this that help students take responsibility, not shirk it. At the beginning of class students have three half sheets of copy paper that you are re-using before you recycle. Name on each and Q1, Q2, and Q3. After asking question 1, they all jot down a response, then pair and discuss, then share an agreed upon answer. Same with Q2 and Q3. Have a student in charge of collecting each question at the end of class. You can look them over quickly then store them for later. Once a week or at give each pair of students a pile of answers to the same question for their review. All answers to Q1 get reviewed by a pair of students, then a general summary of the answers gets presented to the class. Same with other selected questions. This serves as a review of the important material, creates experts on the topic, and makes each student's response an important contribution. Recycle the papers when you're done.

David Olio's picture

While insightful about teachers' questions, I'm a bit surprised that the focus here is on teachers asking questions. Responses above demonstrate my point. Why are we as teachers not training learners to ask "the right question"? Why not be learner-based, instead of teacher-based?

Cproia's picture

I am looking for any ideas that can help so that I can stop having my supplies stolen from me. I have been teaching for three years now and continue to have more and more of my stuff disappear. If you have any ideas on how I can keep my supplies out on my students supply bookcase but still manage to keep my stuff that would be great. They are items such as glue, scissors, rulers, markers and more. I would rather not have to lock it up just because it is easier for students to access like this. Please

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

[quote]While insightful about teachers' questions, I'm a bit surprised that the focus here is on teachers asking questions. Responses above demonstrate my point. Why are we as teachers not training learners to ask "the right question"? Why not be learner-based, instead of teacher-based?[/quote]


Exactly the right question! "What do you think?...How would you do this?...What questions do you have that could shed light on this topic?...Where should we look for answers?...How would you go about discovering the truth?...How will you judge what is correct?...

These are modeling the right kinds of questions that we want students to ask--unfortunately, many students do not get to experience these types of questions until they get to college and sometimes not even then.

So... I whole heartedly agree with you. If from elementary school on, teachers train students to ask questions and inquire, then teachers will not have to ask so many questions.

Well Stated!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Erin Wilson's picture

I agree that wait time is very crucial to questioning. I too use the turn and talk method and then move about the students and listen as they turn and talk. I will share a few answers I heard as I moved about the room. Another idea is to do the same turn and talk and have a student share their partner's idea or answer to the question. Thanks Ben for the great article. It really made me notice and reflect upon the questions I ask my students daily.

Scott's picture

I really enjoyed your blog Ben. It reminded me of my days in school where I was the shy student who breathed a sigh of relief when someone else was called on to answer a question. I only raised my hand when I was absolutely certain I had the right answer because I had an extreme fear of failure in front of my peers.

As I look at the questioning techniques that I use in my high school math classes I realize that I am often guilty of relying on the same students to answer questions. There are a couple of techniques that do work well for me. First, I like to use white boards and have students hold up their answers. This is a great way to determine which students do and do not understand, as well as which students are not participating. I also use the think-pair-share method and then randomly call on pairs to explain their answers. I like both of these approaches because they get most students involved in a less stressful way.

As I look back to when I was a student, I realize now that it would have been beneficial for me if teachers would have called on me more often. Maybe I would have gotten over this fear quicker. I enjoyed the ideas that I read in everyone's comments and am sure that I will put some of them to use this coming school year.

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