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

Tina Simons's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You all have some great ideas and I really enjoyed reading Ben's discussion- teachers and moms do ask some silly questions sometimes, like, "what did you just hear me say?" Well, obviously, if you're having to repeat it, I didn't hear it the first time! (Or, don't YOU know?!)
The technique of asking the question, waiting 3 seconds, then calling on someone is so simple and effective, yet so, so hard to bite your tongue to accomplish! 3 seconds of quiet in a Kindergarten classroom?! Really?? I very much want to work on building that technique- I'll need some sort of "crutch" to help me remember to be quiet myself~ I'm open to ideas here people!
Here's a strategy that I have used with a good measure of success: (please remember, I teach K,TK and 1st graders- this may not work so well with older students, I don't know.) I have popsicle sticks in a cup- each student's name on one. Before I start the discussion/ reading/ lesson I choose 2 or 3 and either sit on them or put them in my pocket without looking at the names. I give the students a listening focus- something from the reading that I'm after... maybe the "why" or the solution of the problem... that sort of thing- aiming for the higher order thinking. We read the story/discuss the lesson, I restate the question, possibly giving them some "shoulder partner" time, then, slowly and dramatically, show one stick at a time. It has been very well received! Maybe it will work for you, too!
Happy Questioning!
Tina Simons, NBCT

Anisah Ansari's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed reading this article. I was very impressed by your sense of audience awareness. I have to admit, I was a little chagrinned to realize that I am guilty of some bad questioning. This article gave me a lot to think about. What really hit home was thinking about students who know that they don't understand a concept, but don't know how to verbalize what they don't know. Often, a student will raise their hand and reply, "I don't get it". Whether they lack the vocabulary or the metacognition to verbalize what they don't understand is usually unknown by me, so I am left with breaking down the lecture or conversation bit by bit until I get to where we can work with the student's lack of understanding. It can be time consuming and frustrating for both of us.

Alison Driekonski's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also agree with this blog. I am a substitute teacher, but I am certified to teach 7-12 grade science. I have often found myself standing in front of the class asking, "Does everyone understand?" while in my head I am saying to myself, "They're not going to admit it if they don't!" I like the idea of asking the question and giving everyone time to think about the answer before calling on someone. At least this way they all have to think about it for fear of getting called on.

In the blog he also talked about calling on students randomly to answer questions. I have seen teachers write every student's name on a popsicle stick and then draw the sticks out of a container to see who gets called on. The teacher would sometimes put the stick back in the container after the student answered the question just to keep him/her on their toes, knowing they could still be called again.

I also loved your idea with the students writing their questions on paper and you collecting it. This kept it anonymous so the students felt safe to ask anything.

Ben Johnson (Author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Christine:

That is a great idea to have them write the question they want to see again. This a wonderful review strategy.

I found that giving students rewards for taking the risk to answer questions was a good motivator also. I used to make post-its with a rubber stamp of a toucan I would give students who made honest efforts to answer the questions. The students could use these post-its to put on a test or a quiz as extra credit (one point for post-it).

Best regards,
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Nancy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Very thought provoking. I hate that glazed over look the kids get sometimes. I feel like a comedian tapping on the microphone saying, "Is this thing on?"

Getting students moving in some way usually works for me. I like using dry erase boards. Each student writes his/her own answer and then holds up the board so I can see it. The students usually don't pay attention to the answers of others so no one gets embarrassed, but I can still get a good idea of who knows what. The kids usually are excited to use the boards and markers - even in middle school. I haven't taught any grade beyond 7th for any length of time, but at least up to that level, the students are engaged. For younger students or special ed. students, you could give
a or b choices, so all the students have to write is a letter.

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Christina:

Group question answering is a wonderful way to engage more students. Especially if you give the groups time to discuss the answer and then you call on someone to report the consensus of the group.

One thing you might consider is what kind of questions you are asking the groups. If the only questions you ask them are questions with only one right answer, then discussion could be limited. If there are many right answers, then creativity is encouraged in group discussions.

You might also try going up the scale of difficulty- knowledge first then comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, then evaluation. Start with "Knock Knock,Who's there? Boo!... then go to "What is the longest word in the dictionary?", then work up to "Two men were found dead in a cabin, high in the Rocky Mountains. How did they die?"

Have fun with this!
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Jennifer Michael's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too agree with the ideas presented in Ben's blog. I have been working on using more wait time in my classroom. I teach fourth grade in Alabama and even by this age the students have figured out who will answer the questions. As someone previously mentioned, I will continue to wait until the majority of students raise their hands. I also call on students whose hands are not raised occasionally because there are students who never raise their hand yet they know the correct answer. This year we have been encouraged to use the turn and talk method. I find this extremely useful in science and social studies. Students sometimes have trouble comprehending these types of text so when I ask questions I have them turn and discuss with a neighbor. Unlike think, pair, share I do not call on a student to report the answer to the class. Instead, I walk around and then share the thinking I heard with the students. This way, if no one came up with a correct answer, I can share the correct answer with the class and they think someone really said it. This strategy has been wonderful in my class this year. I even use it in a small group setting for reading.

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It was great to read this article. It reminded me about what I had learned in college. It is funny how quickly we forget. I have been calling on the student and then asking him/her the question. I should have remembered this would not engage all of the students. I will change this practice from this point forward.

Cristina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

After reading the blog, I could not help but reflect back on my day, any day for that matter, and realize that I am guilty of those same questions. I find it frustrating when I ask if there are questions, no hand goes up, and then give them a quick check in quiz to see if they are applying what they "know." When I see a poor result from students, I always ask them what it was that they didn't get from my lesson. I tell them that I can't help them any further if I don't know where the problem lies. As you may be able to tell, I am a novice, a substitute teacher if you will. I am fresh out of college and should probably have a better handle on this since I worked for two years towards a degree in the education profession! I am beginning to see some of the more appropriate questions to ask, but what about in math when you are looking for concept applications? This is where I see the most confusion and find myself most frustrated when I can help students who need it. I too get the "I don't get it" or "I'm confused" and find myself trying to probe them on their confusions. I don't know how to make myself more clear if I don't know where the confusion lies in the first place. I find it interesting to hear that students at the fourth grade level, which is where I have been subbing, can't tell what they don't understand. It's a surprise to me to hear that. I want to know more about asking good questions to really see what my students know or don't know.

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Jennifer:

Congratulations. That is exactly what I wanted to hear from teachers. You have a good attitude and I am certain that you will ask better questions from now on.

I was inspired to write this piece because of the many experienced teachers I have observed recently, who would be considered good teachers, yet had forgotten the basic research-based questioning techniques proven to be successful.

I am curious that no one has asked for the answers to any of my sample questions?

Good Luck to you.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

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