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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

Denise Elson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The questioning in classrooms subject really interests me. I have a class with many children who are above grade level and yet I am trying to find different ways all childen get the think time they need. I use two strategies. One, I make little books called "Think Pads" the children who are on top of the questions faster get to write down their answers and explain how they would help others to understand where to find the answer (page number or reasoning) Then the children who are needing more time are not fed the answer but given a chance to think. Children are very attached to their "Think Pads" and love to take them home to share with parents once a week. Second, I write down a question for some of my children and give them time to think of the anwser and get the courage to talk. Sometime, if they are really shy I send the question home so they are prepared and can practice with their family. This for my really shy students.

Denise Elson
Walden Graduate Student

Michael B's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too have come across students who always want to defer answering a question to someone they feel can better answer it. I have also had to deal with students with special needs during questioning times. In order to facilitate ALL students into a question-answer setting, I make a game of it. I begin by dividing the class up into two teams with equal(as much as I can do so) GPAs and/or students with special needs. Each member of each team MUST make an attempt to answer his or her question (I do give hints to the answers when necessary). This gets almost every student involved, and with the candy prize...it gets them all. Works for me.

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

Vicky:

Thanks for sharing this discovery; yours and the student's. It illustrates the importance of providing a reason to know or be able to do something. This is referred to often as relevance. The student had the desire to read the popsicle sticks because of an intrinsic motivation- to find out whose turn it was. Interestingly enough that same motivation transferred to the sight words because of the good experiences with the student names on popsicle sticks.

Keep up the good work!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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

Melissa:

Thank you for sharing the "write a letter to an absent student" idea. It is a great way to get students to reflect, much as you did, on what they have learned. I am supposing that you give the letters to the student that was absent when they show up the next day?

Reflection can give students time to find the gaps in their understanding, especially when they have to explain it to other students, in written or oral form. When more timid students ask questions you should feel that progress is being made. You are creating a learning environment where they feel comfortable in taking risks. That is a huge step forward. Great job!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio,TX

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

Kathryn:

It is amazing how such a simple thing can make such a big difference. When a teacher asks a question, then allows students in pairs to discuss the answer, that means that every student in the classroom is engaged in learning, rather than just one student at a time. Especially if you do that and then ask if any pair had a different answer. The importance here is to model what the students should talk about: restating what the question is asking, clarifying what is known versus assumed, and then talking about possible answers.

Thanks!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Amy Ahlenius's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I appreciate all the good insights and strategies from reading these posts. I will be going in to my third year of teaching and love getting new ideas! I use the think pair share and popsicle sticks for questioning. Questioning for understanding is an interesting concept. I agree with Ben that teachers do sound silly when questioning students at times.

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

Amy:

The idea of questioning well is to get as many students as possible involved and engaged. Too many times we teachers are oblivious to this and think we are teaching if words are coming out of our mouths. It is ok to be silly if it has a purpose and if it is deliberate. I think it is important to be silly and have fun with the kids sometimes. I love trying to trip them up and say off-the-wall things sometimes just to see if they are paying attention. But there are many silly things that educators do, out of habit, or ignorance that serve no useful purpose (are there any questions?). Good luck in your 4th year-- as demonstrated in your posting here, you are doing the right things to become a better teacher.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Michael Carnegie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Every once in a while I'll come across a question or topic that really hits home. This was certainly one of them. I don't know how many times I've asked the same question only to get the same response: silence. I've tinkered with different ways to approach asking students questions, but Mr. Johnson's posting was dead-on...the same students pay attention and the same students are daydreaming. Towards the end of last year, I started something that was met with some success. My students have to know that I could call on them at anytime. So I put all of their names down on a playing card and would randomly pull their name every time I asked a question. Their card would go back in the deck no matter what, so all students knew that their name would be pulled at anytime. I found that this strategy worked fairly well, especially when I was reviewing for a quiz and asking tons of questions. I'm still looking for that silver bullet, but isn't great to be able to come to places like this and hear that everybody else is having the same problems?!

Jessica Hansen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello, my name is Jessica and I am about to start my second year of teaching kindergarten. I am also a student at Walden University and this is my first experience blogging. As I was reading this article, I immediately related to having only the "smart kids" answering the questions. I really agree that the kids who are insecure or do not want to participate rarely want to take part in classroom discussions. What I do instead of questioning my students after a story is have them "turn and talk". They are told to turn to a partner or small group and discuss anything about the story (first I model what it looks like and sounds like). I have found this is much more beneficial to the students because then they are responsible for their own discussions and learning. Often they come up with ideas that I would never even think of on my own. Also, they love sharing with their peer and it really promotes our classroom community. When I think it's time to move on I just count down from 3 then ask if anyone would like to share to the whole lass what they discussed. It has worked great so far!

Juli 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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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