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The Right Way to Ask Questions in the Classroom

| Ben Johnson
Image credit: iStock

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?

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Comments (154)

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Taylor Norton (not verified)

the right way to question

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Like TPR, where universal participation is expected, I use a series of hand symbols to check for understanding. 1 for more time, 2 for an answer, or 3 for do not know. I check for patterns from those students who are dependent on others for responses. I also, from time to time will call on an individual 3,4,5 times in a row, to make it clear that producing a response is not grounds for a break. I almost always use whiteboards during math practice, and have worked tirelessly in the past year to develop more assignments for use with the Senteo wireless response system. Unfortunately, it is limited to multiple choice responses.

Laura Randolph (not verified)

Think Pair Share

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Hi,
My name is Laura and I am a third grade teacher in California. I am currently working on my Master's Degree through Walden University and am blogging for the first time. I enjoyed reading the questioning techniques that were shared. Like an earlier blogger, I do a think-pair-share. Rather than having students raise their hands without thinking, I pose a question, give a minute or two to think and then they share their answers with a partner. Many times after sharing I will call on a student and ask, "what did you and _____ discuss." I often use sticks when choosing students. This does require most kids to be thinking because they don't know who will be called on to answer the question. This generally works and and allows for active participation during questioning.
Laura

Barbara Gantwarg (not verified)

Questions

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I believe that the types of questions a teacher asks are based upon what they intend to get as a result.

The teacher can be checking for understanding or using questions to advance a student's learning. In addition, questions can be used to give the teacher information on how a student arrived at a particular answer.

I use the popsicle stick method which ensures that each student is called on, but it allows the students who were already called the assurance that they probably won't be called on again. So, what I do is randomly call on a student to re-state the student's answer in their own words. This way they have to pay attention, and if they didn't know the answer, saying it out loud will help them to learn.

Barb Gantwarg
Walden University
Pittsburgh

Almeda Clark (not verified)

Getting all students to answer

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In our school we use the fair cup method. Each student knows that they could be called on and eventually will. With this method they all pay attention because they never know when it will be their turn. It also makes it so that no one gets left out. The students like this because it's fair.

alexis (not verified)

my right i have in the

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my right i have in the classroom in 7th grade

alexis (not verified)

my right

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my right i have in the classroom in 7th grade

Ben Johnson (author) (not verified)

Candy

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Michael:

You bring up a good point. We as educators need to be the Ultra motivators. We need to use every trick in the book to get students to participate, because that is where the learning takes place. Students don't remember so much what was said in a classroom, but more what they did while they were there. Way to go! I'd give you a piece of candy for sharing your ideas if I could!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Ben Johnson (author) (not verified)

Turn and Talk about Something

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Jessica (and Juli):

Thanks for sharing your experience with getting students to respond to questions. Anytime you can get the whole class doing more than listening is a big plus in learning. I would like to help you clarify a little what you do. Instead of just asking them to respond to a reading prompt you can help them clarify their thinking when you ask a specific turn and talk question. "Please turn and talk with your partner and determine which character was most at fault for the tragic events in the story. You have two minutes...Now, turn and talk with your partner about how things would have been different had this person decided another course of action..." This requires that you come up with the interesting discussion questions before hand, but you will see that the students will begin to start asking their own intriguing questions, they just need a jumpstart.

Have fun with this though.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Tx

Ben Johnson (author) (not verified)

Silver bullet

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Michael:

Great idea to use playing cards--could even use Loteria cards. Part of what you are doing is sending a message that all the students have to listen and to learn. The other part of the message you are sending to the students is that you care that each student progresses and this is one way for you to find out how they are individually doing and adjust your instruction to fit their particular needs.

We would all like a silver bullet to solve all of our issues, but you and I both know that we already have what we need to make it work, it just takes 10 years to make it happen (kinder through 10th grade). We just have to make it happen faster, at all levels--all at the same time. That is the challenge!

I hope you have tried TPR and TPRS (total physical response storytelling). They are great methods to get all students to participate.

Thanks for sharing!

Hasta luego!
Ben Johnson
San Antonio,TX

Juli (not verified)

Hi Jessica! My name is Juli

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Hi Jessica! My name is Juli and I am also a grad student at Walden University and I am replying to your post. I found your idea at the end facinating! I love the idea of having the students turn and talk about what they read. I am an art teacher at an intermediate school in Cincinnati, Ohio and I think I will be able to use your post-reading method of checking for understanding. I do have art text books and sometimes, I have to get them out. I think I will try this in my room because I too tend to call on only the eager, "smart" kids. They are the ones with their hands raised before the question is even finished being asked. Thanks for your ideas!!!

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