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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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Tina LoSapio (not verified)

Asking Questions

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I have to say that I was very interested in reading your post. It is so comforting to know that we ask questions that necessarily are not always the best. The most difficult task is when you are being formally observed. I have had personal situations where I would ask "hard" or "thoughtful" question and then think, "Oh no, who is going to be able to answer this?", or "What did I just ask?!" Luckily there has always been one student that I figured would know the correct answer, but calling on them because of that I feel is taking the easy way out.
I have found that putting students names on sticks cuts down on calling on the same student. It also is a good way to show the students they should be paying attention at all times. I also try and support student questioning of one another. I will prompt their questioning and it usually turns into others becoming interested.

Anne Perry (not verified)

Read aloud

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Ben:

Reading your blog was truly eye opening. I had to laugh at my self and the numnber of times I have asked that completely pointless question! Infact, every time I catch my self saying it now, I immediately follow up with a specific question to help clarify. I then go on to ask the students to pair up and explain to each other what they learned during the lesson. For example, after teaching the layers of the rainforest, I asked the partners to explain to one another which layer they thought they were going to like learning about the best, and why they thought that. I then randomly call names to respond. This exercise is making my job easier because it gives me a better form of observable assessment. Additionally, after reading your comment to Tamara about reading aloud, I truly thought you were out of your mind! Everyone reading at once woulld be complete caos. Yet still I tried it. The students loved it. The level of feedback I recieved was far beyond any previous. I also thought that it would be hard to monitor individual progress, but I found that this exercise made me pay closer attention. If this can work with first grade, it can work with any grade! Thanks for the great insights. I defeniatley believe that the knowledge I have obtained from your blogs is heling me to improve my novice teacher status!

Anne Perry
Cassville, New York

Julie (not verified)

Only So Much Luck

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I, like Andrew, have also tried getting students to ask their own "leveled" questions (higher and lower order). Students who already grasp the concepts, who read fluently, and who can detect themes in reading (such as finding patterns in history) do well with this task. In my experience, everyone else struggles. When I taught a unit on World War II last year, I asked students to come up with questions after doing a reading about Hitler. I scaffolded the activity by explaining levels of questions and giving examples. However, many students still struggled to come up with dynamic questions that were interesting to discuss. In fact, after the activity was over, most of my students reported that they liked my questions the best.

Most of my students are almost proficient second-language learners. I have found that my instructional time is more wisely used when I come up with the questions. However, I could see that this strategy would work with native speakers who are already proficient at analysis and evaluation.

Julie Honegger
Social Studies Teacher
Anderson Valley High School
Boonville, CA

Julie (not verified)

Student Accountability

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I. like Camille, also use popsicle sticks in my class when calling on students. It works for most of my students, who feel the accountability to come up with a response. The pair-share strategy also works because it gets everyone speaking. The disadvantages of the pair-share is that it takes up more instructional time. I use that strategy when I have more time available.

The "wait time" before calling on students is also imperative.

Another strategy I've been using for responses has been inspired by Kate Kinsella, professor at San Francisco State College. On my PowerPoint I have created sentence starters for the responses so students have an academic frame for their response. I also try to build in a listening task, so that students who aren't' called on are accountable for listening to what others said.

Julie
Social Studies Teacher
Anderson Valley High School
Boonville, CA

Ben Johnson (author) (not verified)

Human Nature

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Tamara:

You have discovered that even second graders demonstrate common human foibles. Mixing things up a bit helps students to stay on top of things. If you look at one student reading and the rest following along, only one student is in the spotlight, and the rest are off the hook. It is human nature to be less attentive. Thank you for demonstrating that important concept.

If you do not mind, I have a comment on reading aloud. I have a simple question for you. What is the purpose of reading out loud? Are you trying to give the students practice decoding letters into sounds? Or are you trying to have all the other students read silently, or are you trying to have the students read for understanding?

Depending on your purpose for reading, it is easy to customize the activity to match. For example, if you want the students to have practice decoding written letters and words into sounds, then why not have all the students read all at once, for 5 minutes while you circulate and spot check their pronunciation and diction. Instruct the students that if they have trouble with the word that they can raise their hands, or perhaps before even reading, you can spotlight words that you know are going to trip them up. This method is noisy, but every student gets practice. You can modify it and have them read to a partner and then switch, or read in small groups. The key is to increase the number of students in the spotlight, and at the same time reduce the intensity of the beam so it is not so scary.

Any way, have fun with it.

Best Regards,

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Tamara Dixon (not verified)

Reading Out Loud

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I have often had this experience when asking students to read out loud from their class readers. After they have been called on they often stop following because their turn is over or they only begin following when they believe their turn is soon to come. I have started calling on them randomly and this definitely encourages them to pay attention, sometimes I may even call on one person to read twice.

Teaching second grade I rarely have a problem with students not answering questions. Everyone usually wants to give an answer or share and experience even if it is totally unrelated to the subject matter.

Camille Wright (not verified)

Asking Questions

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This blog does make you think abou whether you are asking the questions for your benefit as the teacher or for the benefit of the students. Are we as teachers needing acknowledgement with a response to a question of understanding that the students were listening, or are we truely wanting to gage whether the students understood the information.

I have used the popsicle sticks, I have used the pair-share technique and I have used cooperative learning groups. I think the technique that works for you is dependent on your students and their learning styles.

Ben Johnson (author) (not verified)

Children smart because of you

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Bob:

You are so right, it is highly presumptuous of us to assume that we are smarter than our students/children. As you have demonstrated in your post, you already know that much can be gained from teaching children to inquire and to have inquiring minds. You are wise beyond your years and I do not think you would be one to ignore this fact. Thank you for pointing this out.

As I am sure you are aware, this requires more than simply asking a question and getting out of the way. Three things must be assured to have productive discussions: 1) Full engagement of all students--contrive a method to help all students to participate, not just the uninhibited vocal ones (Socratic circles, inner-outer circles, discussion/support chairs, formal rules and informal debate). 2)Discussion goal--you might not know how exactly the students will get there, but you should know where you want the discussion to end up. 3) Evidence-based -- Students need to know something before it can be discussed, otherwise the conversation can only be superficial analysis about esoteric feelings or opinions...ie you might have to teach them something first.

Don't forget to change the seating arrangement to match the format of the discussion. If you leave the chairs in rows facing the front, you will be the focus of the discussion. You can put them in circles, groups, two halves facing each other, etc...

If you make sure that the topics to be discussed are relevant, knowledge filled, and require the three fundamentals above, students will enjoy it and learn a lot.

Most of all, you might learn somethings too. Dad, Good luck with your lesson and keeping your students from daydreaming!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Tx

Bob (not verified)

Proper questions

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The questions asked clearly depends on the structure of the class being taught. The assumption in this discussion is that the teacher is the all powerful knowing moderator teaching children. What happens if there is a realization on the part of the teacher that those being taught might well be more inteligent, better read, and experienced. In this case I would propose that the teacher might be a discussion leader and the main purpose of being, is to keep the class on track. It can be exciting to ask general probing questions, some thing with a hook in them, enough to stir those who easily answer questions and then ask for opinions of those who don't normally respond. some times the results far exceed what the teacher might be capable of expounding on the particular subject. In other words the individuals in the class are teaching themselves. I have heard it said that if you don't have the attention of the group within the first minute or so of your time with them you have lost most to daydreams, and contemplation of what to eat after the class, or how to disrupt and annoy the teacher. I realize that this approach might be more easily used with older students or adults but it has been my observationthat many times the capabilities of children are sadly under estimated

Andrew Pass (not verified)

Prompting Questions

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Certainly teachers can ask their students questions. However, I have also found that one fantastic way to prompt critical thinking within a classroom is by challenging students to ask their own questions. You can challenge students to ask both lower order and higher order questions.

http://www.lessontech.blogspot.com

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