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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

Clary's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading this blog that I have found myself in many of the situations described in the blog and by other posts. I especially liked the Ferris Bueller reference, and have been there as well.

I read that someone does something similar to this with paper, but since I work with elementary, I use a lot of verbal talk (everyone talking) before calling on one student to answer. Students have partners at their seat to have a quick think-pair-share before calling on one student to answer. This way, everyone in the class has given an answer, and it also gives more confidence to students when they are being accepted by one of their peers before sharing their answer with the whole class. While students are answering, I listen in to a few conversations so I get a feel of the their thinking and this lets me know how they are understanding the concepts.

I use a number of Kagan strategies (http://www.kaganonline.com/) when teaching, but this is probably the quickest when I'm trying to move through a lesson quickly. I hope that this form of teaching reduces the amount of daydreaming and sighing when I didn't call on one of the students.

Paul Schenker's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Asking questions switches the students mind from a passive information consuming mode into a creative mode - which facilitates more efficient learning.

Building on this insight, we are currently producing a computerized math "textbook" based on questions only (Title: Math Quiz); the idea is to present a question and multiple choice answers which any average student can answer, and, depending on the answer, present the next question. E.g. the computer asks: What is the result if you divide a number X by 2? Possible answers: a) one half of X, b) two halfs of X; (correct is a). Following answer a), the next question would then be: What is the result if you divide a pizza into two? Possible answers: a) one half pizza b) two half pizzas. The following series of questions would then lead the student, step by small step, to understand - in depth - the differences and similarities of mathematically dividing a number and physically dividing a pizza and finally establish a clear and profound knowledge about mathematical division. Answer b) would take a detour to arrive at the same result. The proud aim of the program is to develop the students knowledge and intuition about math - by letting him find out "all there is to know" about math by himself (the advantages of implementing this math textbook in computerized form are manifold, e.g. it is self-gauging and self-clocking: the student advances at his own speed; he can only advance when he understands the previous material; the questions can be very carefully formulated and improved over time, etc.).

A teacher can emulate such a program verbally in the classroom but to ask the right question at the right time is really an art form which few possess; I observed at our school that the average teachers questions are frequently not the right ones at the right time, and to demand more would be to demand too much. But since asking questions is such an efficient way to teach, teachers should be offered systematic training in this. It would be an important step away from frontal teaching to coaching.

D Otap's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have tried a variety of techniques in my classroom and have found that different methods work better in each situation. When I am trying to find out if each student knows the basic ideas I use a student reponse system that lets me see each students performance and get an overview of the class instantly. The system I have is only multiple choice so it can be difficult to get very in depth. I also use te three second rule and have tried different methods to ensure each student is called on. I do not always use random methods as I have some students that are less self confident. I try to give them questions I am fairly confident they know. I have found that some of these students increase voluntary participation as their confidence grows.

Jasmine's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed this blog for various reasons. One is that it applied to me in so many ways. When I begin teaching six years ago, I never heard of anything close to "questioning techniques". I had no idea that I was doing it all wrong. I would even ask questions and expect the class to answer in unison. If the majority of the answers were correct, I usually moved on. Bad, bad teacher! I eventually got that corrected with the help of my principal during an informational observation. But then I begin calling on students who raised their hand and quickly realized that this didn't work either. I have since adopted a technique where I pull popsicle sticks from a cup to call on students. Finding a technique that is effective is important to me because I believe in asking lots of questions and letting my students do the explaining. After all, whomever does the most explaining does the most learning!

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

Paul:

The computer is one of the long neglected thinking tools. If you can use the computer to get students to ask questions, then it's true power will be made known. I wrote a piece a while back about the coming out of HYPERSTUDIO. This would be an ideal medium for your students ask and and answer questions. Certainly you can do the text, but the visuals, graphics, movies etc can also be included as well as the test/quiz taking capacity and scoring. You can check it out at http://www.mackiev.com/hyperstudio/index.html

Have fun with this!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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

Jasmine:

It is clear that you have a learning attitude that has allowed you to find the answers you needed. I am encouraged that you have a supportive administrator that took the time to help you gain skills in asking questions. As you have discovered, teaching is not so much what you can put into a student, but what you can pull out of them. Questions are a great way to do that.

Popsicle sticks work for all ages. Students can use them too. You can also do a variety of take-offs from the popsicle sticks. Who gets to ask a question, who gets to answer it, who gets to judge if it is a good question, who gets to judge if it is a good answer, who gets to change the question... and so on.

Have fun with asking questions and you are right, who ever is doing the most asking and answering is doing the most learning.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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

D Otap;

If by student response system, you mean electronic clicker/pager gadgets, then I understand your limitations. The power behind those systems is not for the teacher really, it is for the students to gather classroom data instantly, get graphs of the data and start discussions about the data. Other questions can be asked about the data, "Why did some students answer a certain way, while others did not?" "What tricked them about this question?" "Because so many got it wrong, was it a good question?"

Sadly, if the electronic clicker system is used just to answer a series of multiple choice questions, the advantages of the system barely rise above paper and pencil.

You mentioned confidence. A student may feel more able to take risks with the clicker that they might not with a raise of their hands. A lot of the issue is what kind of classroom culture is created, not what technology is used. Group work can reduce the anxiety and build confidence in risk taking too. Do not underestimate the power of teacher confidence in the students through encouraging comments and deliberate success building activities.

Remember ask lots of questions.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio,TX

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

Teresa:

I find myself wanting to answer my own ingenious questions, especially when students are not answering what I think is the right answer. Then I go about fishing for what the right answer should be-- at that point, students simply start guessing what they think I think is the right answer.

The hardest thing for a teacher some times is to not give hints and not reveal the answer. For example, no one has asked what the answer to "How many balls of string does it take to reach the moon?" I have not given any hints or clues to how many balls it would take to reach the moon, 252,000 miles away. Nor have I commented on what kind of string it would take, nor how this could be achieved with today's technology. I have not even given you any clues as to how to break this question down to the essential elements and find out what I am really asking. I have had a hard time keeping quiet, that is true, but I know that if you can figure it out, then the prize will be much more satisfying and rewarding.

So, You Guys Answer!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio,TX

lindy whetzel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Love this. I wonder how many schools have that 1:1 laptop though. After subbing for the last 5 years, I have totally noticed something. In kindergarten, you ask a question, all hands go up and they are all so eager to be called upon. 1st grade, still have lots of enthusiasm, 2nd grade, starts to trail off a bit, 3rd grade, yikes, should I really try to answer that question, 4th and 5th, I wonder if anyone will laugh at me if I answer that question, and 6th grade, are you kidding, I'm not holding up my hand. Teaching questioning needs to be taught to prospective teachers, but also teaching kids how to react to others' answers is also important, I think.

Andrew Pass's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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.

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