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The Right Way to Ask Questions in the Classroom

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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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?

Was this useful? (2)

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Comments (160) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Charles:

Thanks for taking the time to read this article and make a comment. I have enjoyed the training too.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]I enjoyed the article. It's a great summary of what we discussed in the training.

Charles[/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Joseph:

When you can get students to ask the questions, then you have some real learning going on. Well done! Your modification of socratic circles seems to make that happen. Thanks for sharing.

Thanks for posting a comment.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]I use basically the same technique you mentioned in our training except the inner and outer circles are teams and they are competing with one another with questions at different levels of Blooms. I give them extra points on a test to the winners. What ends up happening is that they begin asking each other questions at a higher level because they don't want the other circle to answer the question correctly. So in reality they are becoming responsible for their own learning and they work together to come up with challenging high order thinking questions for the other team. However, they must also be able to answer to their own question or be able to do whatever the question is asking them to do, whether it is to illustrate, demonstrate or model....The kids like this and have fun with it.[/quote]

Jen Rice's picture
Jen Rice
Curriculum Integration Teacher at WoodwardMagnet School, Kalamazoo, MI

Think Pair Share is obviously an effective technique, as so many people have stated that they use it. We have been working on student engagement in my building. We also use think pair share or "turn and talk" I use white boards to have students all respond at the same time. I also use a form of hand signals for yes/no or agreement questions. I teach my students the sign language signs for yes and no and have them answer silently with those. A simple thumbs up or thumbs down also works.
When working with a small group, I make sure all the students in group are focused by asking for agreement. For example, one student is sounding out an unfamiliar word. I tell the whole group, "Listen while Jen is sounding out this word. If she can't get it, she is going to ask one of you for help. You never know who it might be-be ready! Also, if she does get the word. I am going to ask all of you to give me a hand signal to tell me if you agree with her answer." I am careful not to ask for the "right" answer.
I also include wait time as a way to keep kids engaged. After I ask a question, I require students to give me the thumbs up when they have an answer in their heads. I wait until everyone gives the thumbs up and then I ask one person for the answer. Students who process more slowly stop trying to come up with the answer when someone else shouts it out or answers before they are ready. This technique helps eliminate this problem. I use all these techniques with kids from K to grade 5.

I am charged with task of helping novice teachers in my building improve their strategies for engagement of students. As a veteran teacher, I do many things almost unconsciously to engage students. What are some ways I could help the newer teachers in my school become more automated in their use of engagement strategies. I would love to hear what some novice teachers wish they could know about this topic.

jen
Jen

Jasmine's picture
Jasmine
K-5 Reading Specialist

I enjoyed your blog. In the classroom I tend to call on students who do not have their hands up. In my classroom, these are usually the students who do not yet grasp the concept and would prefer to sit quietly than to state they do not get it. If I call on one of these students I make sure to give them plenty of time to answer. Some students have come to realize that if they stare at you, you will move on to someone else. After I have given ample time I will call on another student. After the question has been answered correctly I go back to the student who did not know the answer and I ask them to restate the answer that was just given. That way I can ensure that he or she now understands.

M's picture

By asking the right kinds of questions in the right way, student learning can be improved. I like the idea you stated about asking a question, then waiting several seconds until calling on a student. This way, each student is given wait time, along with the student being questioned. I also like using tools to allow each student to respond at once, such as whiteboards or electronic tools. In my classroom, I put each student's name on a popsicle stick and place them all in a jar. I randomly pull a popsicle stick, and that student is expected to answer. If I find that several students are unable to give an answer, I may ask them to Think Pair Share, as Jen Rice mentioned above. I plan to do more research on how to best implement questioning into primary grades and how to use the questioning to not only check for understanding, but improve student understanding as well.

Lauren Thigpen's picture

This is a great post! I feel like effective questioning techniques are a huge part of the battle of teaching. When questioning is done well and right, all students are forced to stay on task and stay engaged because they never know when it may become their turn. In the same way, when questioning isn't done well. low-achieving students are perfectly content to let the "smart kids" do all the work and zone out for the majority of the lesson.

I too have done the whiteboards so that all students can show answers at once. If you're interested in going high-tech, many iPad apps allow students to input answers into a class set of iPads so that the teacher may see at a glance how many children are right and wrong or even who hasn't answered. This is both easy and effective. Another great technique is have students turn and talk to share answers with one another after a question is asked, then return to the group. This can also be taken a step further by calling on students to share what their partner said. This also keeps everybody involved and participating and forces the issue of students listening to one another a little bit more.

Jeff Cagle's picture

I taught an ethics course for a couple of years and discovered that the following worked well to get Discussion Day (Thursday) moving.

At the beginning of class, all students would get out a blank piece of paper.

I would ask 3 - 6 questions, and students would write down their responses. Then, I would re-ask the questions and randomly call on the students to get their responses, according to the following ground rules:

* Be polite
* Everybody answers a question by the end of the day.

It turned out that student response rates were way up compared to my other classes, in part because students knew that they wanted to answer the question they liked best (instead of waiting for the last question...), and in part because the students had some time for reflection while writing their answers.

Many students freeze when the spotlight is on, and this causes them to fail to respond verbally to questions they can actually answer in a more relaxed format.

Edward Refuerzo's picture

Aim for direct, clear, specific questions. During class discussions, rather than beginning with a single question that is multilayered and complex, use a sequence of questions to build depth and complexity.

Cindy Landers's picture

I have been substitute teaching. I find it's fun to hand out half a deck of cards (all the hearts and clubs for example). I keep the other half (the diamonds and the spades). You hand out exactly how many students are there. When I call out a "red 3" the student with the diamond 3 gets to answer. I ask the question first so everyone thinks about it. I also do this with reading, taking turns. I found kids of all ages actually get excited about answering. The kids who always answer don't control the class for a change.

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