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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

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It was so interesting to read Ben's entry, because this is something the staff at my school has been talking about this year. I agree that the old traditional way of asking questions is probably just a waist of time for all the students except for the one that was called on. I also like to use the think-pair-share method in my classroom. This allows all students to have time to come up with an answer and then share it with a partner. This allows me the opportunity to walk around and hear many students thinking or answers to one question. However I am not always good at using the nontraditional ways to have students respond to a question. This article, once again, is a reminder to me that I have got to find different ways to get students activly involved in their learning.

Alison's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow! This article has inspired me to change my delivery in the classroom. When questioning my students, I will allow them to respond in writing, This will enable all of my studnets to respond comfortably. Also, it will provoke my "eager beavers" to wait patiently for their classmates to respond

Marguerite DeWitt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is very easy to fall into the trap of asking these sorts of silly questions. I am not even in the classroom full time yet and I find myself asking these sorts of questions when I do have the opportunity to work with students. Since I am still in school I hope to remedy this issue before I become a teacher, and this article really helped me to see which questions are good to ask and which ones are bad. Thanks for this!

Alicia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really struggled with waiting long enough for it to be effective with my middle and high school students. I finally did two things that really made a difference. First, I enlisted my students to help me. I explained what I was doing and why and I asked them to help keep me on the right track by reminding me when I began to forget to wait. Second, I actually held my hand up and counted to five on my fingers to make it very clear what I was doing and how long they would have to wait. No hands were allowed up until I got to five. If someone put their hand up too soon, I stopped counting. If I wanted a long "thinking time", I counted slowly. If I needed only a short time, I counted fast. The quality of responses increased immediately and the classroom environment changed -- more and different kids were participating.

Pat's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When I was a classroom teacher, I tried to vary my questioning strategies. Sometimes I called on those who raised their hands; sometimes it was those who didn't. Sometimes it was a random selection by getting out my deck of cards (index) and shuffling through student names.

When the same student tried to answer more than a few times, my remark was "Thanks, Joe, but you've done a lot today. Take the rest of the period off. Now let's hear from Bill."

nancy b grant's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thumbs up = yes, thumbs down = no, thumbs sideways = still need convincing, not sure (or don't know, don't care, don't understand) - works for simple voting type questions. Keeps everyone ready to give their thumb opinion, give a quick teacher overview of where clas is, involves all when you wait for all their answers.

Also a good starting point for dividing class into "yes"and "no" groups with "be ready to convince the other side to change their mind, or to defend your reason, or list all your reasons and then prioritize the list...", while the teacher works with the sideways group to discover why that choice.

Kathryn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is the strategy I have taught pre-service teachers to use: question first, name second. I know it works because I use it, too.

I have also used a variation on the popsicle stick thing when working with students in every level of education from elementary through college. I use two colors of idex cards instead of popsicle sticks. (My favorite cards are those half index cards one can get at some office supply stores.) I write or have the students write their names on two cards, one card of each color. In front of the class, I shuffle the deck of cards. I ask a question and turn up a card to decide who will answer. I give about 3 to 5 seconds of wait time. If the student doesn't answer, I turn up another card. Around here we call this "Kathryn's Card Trick."

The advantages of the card system are these: Using the cards reminds the teacher to ask questions first and call on students second. With two cards in the deck, students who have been called upon cannot just think, "Whew! I'm done!" If a student doesn't have an answer, there is no penalty -- I just put the card back into the center of the deck so that s/he knows she will be called on again soon. I can separate the colors and deal the cards out to form small groups on the spot without anyone claiming they've been "stuck" with this or that person -- they know it was entirely random (unless I stacked the deck beforehand!). I'm not forced to remain by a can of sticks; I can put the deck in my pocket and carry it around the room. Because the card is facing me when I turn it up, I can lie and call on a different student. :)

Elizabeth Kessler's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As an administrator/supervisor, I love visiting teachers in the classroom, and I come away with so many ideas. However, questioning remains one of the biggest problems I find. I will share with you the tips that I share with my teachers:

1. Wait time--a point that was brought up in the article. 3 seconds, however, are not enough. Students as well as teachers get giddy when there is silence in a room and no one answers a question immediately. So, what happens? The teacher answers the question himself/herself. Let the students get uncomfortable; someone will eventually speak up--even if it's the "good" student.

2. Extension--and then when that question is answered, call on Juan in the back and ask him what he thinks of the answer. Again, give him time to formulate a response. Not everyone thinks quickly. A little help might even be in order, like repeating what the answer was that he should be responding to because he wasn't paying attention. That will make the teacher look good rather than like she's trying to punish him after noticing he's not paying attention.

3. When I observe, I draw a picture of the classroom and note which students responded. It's wonderful to share with teachers, especially new teachers. Every time I do this, my teachers say that they didn't realize that they were targeting a single side of the room. If a supervisor is not doing this, ask one of your buddies to do it for you and you can return the favor.

4. You can also get them to mark down how many questions you ask in class during that time. You'll be surprised how many times you ask one question and then follow it with another and then another rather than letting the students think about the original question. Then when the 3-5 questions have been asked and the students seem confused and silent, some teachers give the answer themselves.

5. There are always the eager over-achievers who like to dominate the class. After they've had their chance several times, I tell the class that I'm going to ask a question and I want to hear from those who have not spoken all period. They then know they are on alert and have to answer or they will be called on. When Eager Juanita tries to answer, tell her that she can explain her point in a few minutes.

6. Get the students into groups and ask the questions that will be discussed. It's amazing how much they will talk about the topic when they are with 3-4 other students but will clam up when they're in full class mode. Then when they have shared with their group, more students will be willing to participate in large group than they would if they had not in the small group.

7. The pair-share is always good. Then ask them to share jointly with the class.

8. As the question(s), then give them time to write out the answers. Sometimes students need to write things to help them think things out. Then ask them to READ what they have written. Most of them will start talking about the answer instead of reading it.

I hope some of these help.

Frazer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It seems that we would like to get students involved and actively engaged during the day as much as possible. I agree with Ben that using some wait time after asking a question is helpful. It allows, as he points out, all students a chance, maybe even demands students, to engage at least initially. But don't we want ALL students to remain highly engaged throughout all of the lesson? Why settle for less?

Using interesting problem-oriented work, like the string to the moon, certainly gets all students hooked at the beginning. But then how do you keep them all involved in the solution?

I think Jennifer is on the right track by using think-pair-share. The Think allows all students a chance to do their own reasoning on the problem without interference. Unique and varied solutions emerge from this oppotunity. Sharing initially with one other person gives the learner a chance to safely share what undoubtedly is a fragile ooncept or solution. The learner can check it out with one other person in a less public way. If they get confirmation of their thinking OR by explaining it to one other person it becomes more clear to themselves, they are more likely to share it more publicly with the larger classroom of peers.

When teachers turn interesting ideas back to small groups or pairs to talk about or sometimes to have individuals to quietly reflect on, the discourse that ensues keeps all students engaged and deeper, connected, albeit piggy-backed thinking continues.

Sometimes in the older grades, it does even work in younger grades, sharing protocols can be used to ENSURE that ALL thinking emerges. Each child is given 30-60 seconds to share their thinking in a small group or even in pairs without interruption. Everyone gets to share their thinking that way rather than having one child dominate the pair or small group sharing.

There are many other practices that teachers can use that continually foster discourse, productive dissatisfaction, and engagement in complex thinking in a safe manner.

frazer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think the right questions are always focused on trying to find out what the student is thinking: what they are thinking about a particular idea; what they are thinking about in relationship to a contradiction in their or others thinking; what they think about others thinking; what they are think about the veracity of what they have said.

It seems we want to find out the level of fragility of students thinking. Initial responses are generally always fragile. Let's pose some conflict, challenge, other ideas, disagreement to get them to talk some more and sort things through themselves to make their thinking less fragile, more stable and connected to other ideas. I think that is where and how higher order questions play their richest and most profound role.

Kids talking to each other about important ideas that demand evaluation, analysis and synthesis pressed by insightful, competent, best-practices oriented instruction is where the learning and thinking we strive so hard to have out kids ensconce themselves in.

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