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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

Jewel Meikle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am Jewel Meikle and I am a teacher of English and Science at a private secondary school in the Cayman Islands. I presently teach grades 7-12, thus the skill of asking the right question to get the desired answer is crucial in my practice. As I read the post I saw in motion picture style the exact experience with my students in some of my present classes. I have experienced expressions of "thank God, it is not me" or"whew, that was close" to an outright declaration of "I don't know!"
I strive to ask questions that demand a bit of self reflection to be a part of the answer. I would start with a "what is the....." and then build to a kind of question that will begin with "In what way can you relate to the....." I sometimes wait a few moments after the question is asked, but most times I wait longer than the 3 seconds suggested by Robert Stahl's article.
In my classes, I have my "usual" set of students who will answer and sometimes I get caught in the trap of just responding to them, but what I have made conscious effort to do is to ensure that each child is asked a question and as suggested in the article, I do this randomly. Sometimes I strive to make the string of questions follow a pattern, hoping that the students will "see" the relationships between the answers that were given. At times I will start a statement and invite a student to complete it and then add a question to it and ask another student to respond.
I believe the skill of asking questions properly takes time to develop and conscious planning must be done in order to ask the question in the way that will get most of the students responding.

Christine's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree with your blog! The worst part is that sometimes you are standing in front of a class and you know that you're asking irrelevant questions! I teach 8th grade math and it is common sense that middle school kids are completely self conscious. It is terrifying for some of them to raise their hands and answer/ask questions.

As often as I can, I seat my students in groups of 2 or 3 (no more than that because everyone knows that in a large group a few people do the work for everyone else). When going over homework or class work, I have the review their answers with their partners and I walk around to look at what they are doing, ask follow up questions and a lot of "Why" questions. This also gives me an opportunity to answer their questions privately without embarrassment.

Sometimes I find myself standing in front of the class begging to answer questions and no one will raise their hand. A strategy I recently tried to get some feedback was after we reviewed the answers to a Review sheet for a test. Usually, I would stand there and say "Do you have any questions?" However, this time, I gave out little pieces of paper and asked the students to write down which questions they didn't really understand or wanted to see again. I walked around and collected the papers in a container and pulled them out randomly. It gave me great feedback about which topics the kids have difficulty with, without putting them on the spot. I was amazed and the number of questions they had, considering none of them would raise their hands.

Bill Best's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed this article. When I first started teaching, I had no concept of asking the "right" or the "wrong" question. I would just ask questions because that's what I had seen throughout my life. As a result, I would get the same 2 or 3 kids answering the questions and the rest of the students just sitting there, barely looking alive. Once I started to get a grasp on how to ask the questions, class discussions and their own questions (and learning) grew much more rapidly. Great article, nice job Ben!

Barb's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Christine, like you, I completely agree with this blog! I think it is ironic I found this particular one today because a friend of mine and I were just discussing questioning today. I teach 7th grade math and know how self-conscious this age group can be. I have also tried to have my students review in groups and it has not worked out as well for me as it has for you. I am fortunate in the fact that many of my classes are co-taught with one or two additional teachers in the room at the same time. We are often able to split the class so that each of us is responsible for answering the specific questions of a certain group of students.

I really enjoy your strategy when you ask "Do you have any questions?" I would like to borrow that from you. I have a unit review planned in the near future and I am excited to see the review change as a result of your strategy.

What other strategies have you found to encourage your students to participate more in class, especially the shy and less outgoing students? Thank you.

Dorcas's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I liked the read Ben. I too, have often wondered what students were and weren't thinking when I asked a question. I've noticed when I've asked questions and waited for students to raise their hands, it is the same 1/3 of the class that participates. I never thought that students would be wondering if there answer was wrong or right. I teach third grade, but have taught 4th and 5th as well. In my experience I've learned the "3" second rule and then call out a students name. Giving all students the opportunity to actually pay attention to the question being asked.

Heather Rosecrans's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found this article very interesting. I have noticed that when I ask questions in my classes there are certain students that always raise their hands, and there are some that don't. Occasionally I will call on students that have not raised their hand. The first response is always, "I didn't raise my hand!" At this point I explain to them that I know they didn't raise their hands, but I am still interested in what you think. It takes a minute or two, but they will give you an answer. I like doing this because it keeps my students on their toes, and I hear from students that I wouldn't otherwise speak up.
I have also used the think, pair, share method and tickets out the door.

Christina  Martin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This blog was beneficial. I agree that we need to ask questions that make us effective as teachers. The easy close ended questions are not giving the students the challenge of higher level thinking. I teach at Adena Elementary as an intervention teacher. I like to group the students, ask a questions and then give them time as a group to discuss a possible answer. Of course, there is the chance one of the students will expect the rest of the group to discuss and someone else to report. I am not sure if this is the best practice but, I randomly call on one person from the group to report. It took the students a while to get use to the procedure but now they utilize the groups well.

Sharon Munroe's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Chiquita, I do agree with your idea on how to ask questions. Asking questions is an art or technique that we as teachers must learn over a period of time.We also have to be familiar with our content in a very thorough way. I also find that I have to ask questions in a tiered way.This I am able to do using the Bloom's Taxonomy. What do you think about this idea? please let me know.

Sharon Munroe's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Chiquita, I do agree with your idea on how to ask questions. Asking questions is an art or technique that we as teachers must learn over a period of time.We also have to be familiar with our content in a very thorough way. I also find that I have to ask questions in a tiered way.This I am able to do using the Bloom's Taxonomy. What do you think about this idea? please let me know.

LaToni Haley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ben this was a real eye opener. I was guilty of questioning my students, as if I was conducting an interrogation session. I expected them to know the answer immediately, without giving them the opportunity to process what we had discussed. Therefore, I would be the one asking and answering the questions too. An instructor once stated, whoever was doing the most talking in the class was the one learning the most. So now I have learned to create a situation to draw my students into a conversation that gives me an indication whether or not they understand a concept.

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