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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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

joel blaylock's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

ADD/ADHD Students Need A Strategy to Appear Successful

I think allowing students to answer in writing also helps ADHD students. You can ask them to write out their answer and to put their finger on the answer. You can walk by and read their answer. If their answer is correct you can call on them; If it isn't, you can call on someone else. ADD/ADHD students need some positive coping mechanisms to help them look as smart as they actually are!

Rich Morrow's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There are some other techniques that can be used to get students to pay more attention. I should mention that I teach mostly middle school mathematics.

One of my favorites is the use of slates (or white boards), as mentioned by Nancy. Even then students will watch others and use their answers, but this is easy to observe. That gives the teacher a way to see what misapprehensions exist and leads to immediate ideas on how to correct the error.

One of my favorite techniques, especially early in the year, is to get a correct answer and then ask another student the same question. All the students assume the first answer was wrong, but they don't quite know what to do. That gets them thinking more. They also know that the act of calling on one person does not mean it is time to space out.

The think-pair-share method mentioned by Jennifer is useful on questions that need more thought. This can be combined with slates. This method tends to lead to consensus, so I like to use it when I think there is enough knowledge in the classroom for everyone to eventually figure it out or get it explained clearly by another student.

It is also possible to keep track of who had already answered questions. With a bit of practice teachers can be very good at this. If you spread the questions around this way, students come to learn that they will be called upon each period. Even so, don't forget to call on some students a second time before everyone gets called on once.

Teachers also learn which questions individual students can handle best. This knowledge allows teachers to call on everyone while keeping the class flowing and reducing embarrassment to particular students.

Remember that three seconds of wait time is at least five seconds of apparent time, unless you count out the seconds.

Rich Morrow, NBCT

Siggi Holmgren's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi there,
I'm a new teacher, so my questioning skills definitely need practice and refinement.

One strategy I've just learned in one of my classes at my college is writing questions with specific students in mind. This is obviously very time consuming, so we can only rarely do this, but for the most important discussions I think it's worth it. I'm learning this in my biology methods class. Our professor wants us to follow up every lab we do with a 15 minute discussion on the results and meaning of the lab. He has us write questions at three levels (obvious, inferential and conjecture questions) and asks us to note ahead of time which students we would ask which question to, realizing which level question is appropriate for which student. Based on the above article, I will from now on ask students these preplanned questions, but with the pause and the student's name AFTER the question so everyone can think about it. Thanks for the tips!

Siggi

Dan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wait time (3 seconds or more) is a great start to allowing students the opportunity to think about the answer to a quesiton. This works great for questions that require students to give a recall answer. However, the real crux of the problem is that most teachers don't ask the right questions. Getting information from students is important, but doesn't require higher level thinking. Try asking questions that instead require students to explain their thinking or justify their reasoning. When students are required to give responses such as these, the teacher won't have to worry about wait time because students will be giving longer answers. An even better question is to ask another student to comment on what someone else just said. This will make students responsible for listening to each other and evaluating each other's thinking AND students won't rely on you to tell them whether or not they are correct as much. Plus, you get more students involved.

so yes, let students have time to think about an answer, but ask questions that require more than just recall of information. You won't have to worry if you are waiting enough time or not.

Tina Simons, NBCT's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Aw, Ben- you mean "insect-i-cide"??!! (...insect killing itself...)
Tina Simons

Tina Simons, NBCT's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ben,
Kermit and John ... both liked grasshoppers (or, wild locusts) and honey??? I'm stuck on that one!
Tina

Jeff Goldstein's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I use TI Navigator in my class to ask quick questions, via Quick Poll. I teach 8th grade at Princess Anne Middle School in Virginia Beach. I can ask a question, get 26 anonymous answers, instead of one answer and 25 shut downs. This tool itself is very effective in motivating and keeping the class engaged. By keeping student answers anonymous, there's no fear in not knowing the answer. Teachers can get quick feedback if the students are "getting the concept" or not. I use the Navigator, daily, for Quick Polls, and often give students math activities that could not easily be done without these tools. I really enjoy using the Navigator, and the kids never get tired of answering electronic questions!

Cheryl Noland's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'll take the bait. So what do John the Baptist and Kermit the Frog have in common?
(something about water??)
Great article, by the way. I work in C&I in our district, and examining questioning strategies is one of the things we are doing as well, particularly as it relates to differentiated instruction.

Tina Simons, NBCT's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

WAIT WAIT!! I thought of something! They both have a middle name of "the"!
Is that it??!!
Tina

Krystal 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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

I wouldn't call my strategy "innovative" but I find it easy to make my questioning random by using popsicle sticks for each of my periods. At the beginning of the school year, students are given a stick to decorate and to put their names on it. We then discuss the expectations of the student when their stick is drawn.

I also utilize the questioning strategies of Rowe, by clearly stating my question and waiting a few seconds to let it sink in before I draw a stick. I also give student "life lines" where they can "phone a friend" and ask a classmate for a hint. They can also ask for hints from myself and I walk them through the questioning process till they can rationalize their thinking to answer the question even if it's incorrect.

In some classes, I have students with IEP's that require documentation of student involvement and participation, which I consider answering questions (right or wrong) as such. So on my podium station, I have a clipboard where I mark whether a child is participating or not. As mentioned in the initial article, you can tell when some students are praying the "smart kids" will answer the questions instead of them. So if I pull one of their sticks and they respond with a correct answer, I just mark a star next to their name on the roster. If they respond with an incorrect answer, but it still shows that their involved and listening, then I mark their names with a check-mark. If they respond with an, "I don't know" or "how should I know" kind of response that gives me indication that they aren't willing to try or give some effort than I mark their name with a zero. After a certain number of zeros, a discussion needs to happen with the student to see why they don't feel like they can make an effort for some questions.

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