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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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Courtney DeRosa (not verified)

Melissa, I like your idea

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Melissa,

I like your idea about writing to an absent classmate. I teach 4th grade and have studnets do various jobs, but have never thought of this one. I am looking forward to including it in my classroom in the fall. After think-pair-shares I often tell students that I am free to choose whomever, because they all know have an idea, etiher their own or their partners.

Thanks for the new idea,
Courtney
Walden University Student
New Jersey

Vicky Jackson (not verified)

questions

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I am a first grade teacher in an inclusion classroom. I have only been teaching 3 years. This year I really felt more comfortable with myself in my classroom. In school,I was the child in the back of the room praying for the teacher not to call on me. Iknew the answer but was terribly shy. As a teacher, I racked my brain for a way to make answering questions in my classroom like a game for my students and one that everyone had to pay attention. I also use popsicle sticks to ask my questions now. IT is great to see that my "trick" has been used elsewhere. Here is another trick that I came upon by accident. One of my inclusion students was having a terrible time with sight words. I noticed one day that he was reading the names from the popsicle stick effortlessly. I had sent home go fish games, flash cards, list. etc. for sight words. That day I sent the sight words home on popsicle sticks. Guess what! Fridays check came and he knew the sight words. I asked him what was different and he said duh Mrs. Vicky It was just like reading the names from them when you let me draw the sticks from the cup and read the name.

Erus Cribbs (not verified)

I tend to get stuck asking

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I tend to get stuck asking students if they understand or not, and I tend to ask a lot of general questions. I have noticed that I get the same students (with a few surprises every now and then) answering the same questions. I think the "turn and talk" method will be a lot of help in that department. Do you ever have a problem with students just agreeing with the person they think is the smartest in the group? I usually pair a strong student with a weaker student, so one can help the other in case I am busy with another pair of students. I worry that the weaker student would just follow along with his/her partner.

Melissa (not verified)

asking the right questions

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In just reflecting on my lesson from today, I realize that I am not always asking the right questions. I know that asking my students “does anybody have any questions” is not an effective question. But after explaining today’s activity, I did ask that question. Not five minutes later, I had students with questions. Because I am only in my second year teaching, I am still making adjustments. This article is exceptionally helpful to my questioning skills. I know I was one of those students who would sit in a classroom clueless, particularly in my younger years, and not ask the questions I needed answered. I like Ashley’s posting about Popsicle sticks. I too use them for selecting student groups, task assignments etc. I think that next year, I will use that for questioning as well. I do utilize the Think-Pair-Share method occasionally. I have also been known to have student s write a “note to an absent student” explaining what they learned that day. It only takes about 2-3 minutes and they then can demonstrate their knowledge of the concept taught. I find that that is when my more reserved, quiet students will raise their hand and ask me a question.

Melissa
Walden University Graduate Student
Massachusetts.

Melissa (not verified)

smartboard technology

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Alberta,

I noticed you wrote about the spinner and smartboard technology for questioning. I recently received a Smart Board in my classroom. Is this a separate program or does it come with the boards? If so, can you tell me where to find it?

Melissa
Walden Student

Ashley (not verified)

Questioning

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After reading the blog, I realized how many times I've asked a question and only 2 or 3 hands went up. I always thought that asking a question to the whole group instead of just one student would protect students' feelings and self esteem. When I was younger and my teacher would ask a question that I didn't know the answer to, I would pray that she didn't call on me! Unfortuantely, when my name was called I would sink down in my chair and my face would turn as red as an apple. I was so embarassed. I remember how that felt and I would never want to make any of my students feel this way. However, I do see how my students can completely zone-out if I continue to only ask "whole group" questions. I like the idea of asking a question, waiting 3 seconds and calling on a specific student. I have used popsicle sticks in my classroom, but not for calling on studnets to answer questions. I've always used the popsicle sticks to select students for classroom jobs or our "star reader" for the day. I'll definitely use the popsicle method for questiong next school year! My students absolutely loved the "talk to your partner" method. It gave everyone an opportunity to share their ideas and I was able to circulate around the room and hear more than one student response.

Kathryn (not verified)

I love to use the "turn and

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I love to use the "turn and talk" strategy. It sounds a lot like think, pair share. "Turn and talk" gives the students time to turn to the other students at their table and discuss the possible answers to a question. Usually, everyone at the table will end up raising their hand to give the answer. One obstacle in my room is that my ESOL students may not have the vocabulary to answer a question. "Turn and talk" gives them the practice to discuss the answer in a small group instead of the entire class.

Shannon Childress (not verified)

Asking Questions the Right Way

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I really enjoyed reading this article because it made me realize that I need to modify the way I ask questions in my classroom. Some commenters have replied that one strategy they use is popsicle sticks. I do this too, so I was happy to see that this method has worked well for others. It really helps me out when the same students answer the questions all the time. Like you said in the article, that means others students are either sighing with relief or aren't paying attention since they weren't called on. When my students know that I am going to be pulling sticks, they are more engaged because they never know when they are going to be called. I also liked that others have mentioned the think-pair-share strategy. I have not used this very often, but I would like to implement it for next year. I did use cooperative learning more this year, especially with reviewing for our standardized test. I find that with fifth grade, competition works very well and they work together in the groups to come up with the correct answer. I kept a tally of their points on the board and this really kept them interested because they knew that the group who won would receive some kind of small reward. One thing I do need to make sure I do next year is increase my "wait time" for responses. This will give kids times to really think about their answers and try to make sure they are right before answering.

Sheryl B. (not verified)

Questioning Challenges

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During class discussions there is such a fine line between making students accountable and focused and the humilitation of not knowing the right answer. I also use popsicle sticks and also integrate technology using "The Hat" and "Class Spinner" from smartboard technology. The smartboard selectors allow the students to see the randomness and they are always thrilled by it. I base my selections on the type of questions being asked and the class. Some of my students need more think time and so for these students I may give the questions ahead of time or allow a think pair share before a formal answer is given. I think it is important not to underestimate students based on their response times. It's always a challenge to make sure everyone is participating and at the same time providing a safe, positive environment.

Walden University Graduate Student
Alberta, Canada

Doug Gunter (not verified)

I never thought their was a technique

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I always thought that questioning was good regardless of who was answering. Until reading this post, It hadn't occured to me that not all students were pondering the answer. I am a second year teacher and information like this truly helps me become a better educator. I had not even thought about pausing and giving kids time to think before randomly selecting a student. I figured that simply stating a question and having one student answer allowed shy kids the opportunity understand without being put in nerve wracking situation. In the future I hope to percect this technique of questioning so that it becomes a more efficient tool for student success.

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