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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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Marsha Shafer (not verified)

Asking Questions

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I teach middle school math, but think that this technique would apply in any subject. After asking a question (usually planned), students respond on their "thinking paper", which is just a sheet of notebook paper passed out at the beginning of class. While they are responding, I walk around to see that students are answering and clarifying the question if needed. After a short wait time, I draw a name to answer. Students are always allowed to "pass" or even ask a question instead of giving an answer. At times, it takes several students or additional questions to fully answer what was asked. If desired, I can collect the thinking paper at the end of class as an "exit card". When I do this, there is a chance for me to evaluate the thinking of each student in order to better plan the next lesson. This has worked well for me.

Ginger Lewman (GingerTPLC) (not verified)

Use of IM/Chat

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One innovative way we q/a in the classroom is when I give spot-check quizzes via iChat (any IM client could be used). We do this several times during a PBL unit during their projects to be sure they're on-base with what they need to be learning.

How it works: I post a question, give the kids time to think and type in the answer. Then I say "Go" and the answers FLOOD in. I can automatically see who has the concept and who doesn't.

It allows us to talk about our answers (and questions) they may have if they need to go more in-depth. The technique also allows kids who don't know the answers to see the right answers and hear the explanation. I also look for the most thorough answers too...not just the concrete/right there responses. Finally, if all, or most of them miss the answer, we pause and I have them look it up right then and there!

It's a lot of fun for the kids and I can save the chat to review it deeper if I need to, or to take grades, which I don't usually do. Additionally, the kids can save the chat to review it if they find they're totally lost! When the kids are having fun, they are far more at ease to ask for more clarification.

We're a 1:1 laptop school and can do this.

Ginger Lewman
Turning Point Learning Center
Emporia, KS

Teresa Johnson (not verified)

Questions in a small class

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I'm surprised no one has yet mentioned Ben Stein's portrayal of the teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off with the "Anyone?... Anyone?..." and going on to answer his own question.
This article and the blog responses have really helped me to analyze the errors in my methods. I have home schooled my children for 16 years and for the past 5 years have taught co-op classes to other home school students. I've found that one of the greatest difficulties for me has been to keep from answering my own questions or inadvertently tromping on a student's answer. Sometimes I fall into this because of being so excited about the subject myself. I appreciate the reminders from this discussion about the waiting rule and keying off a student's answer with another question to probe further.
May I share one little something that could be useful to early elementary level teachers especially? Having the luxury of one-on-one or small class teaching and being able to choose my own books and curriculum, one method I use is reading aloud in portions and having the students retell in their own words what we've read. One thing I've done when I've gotten blank stares is to "answer" the question in some absurd way, such as "so this book is about a pink elephant riding a bike down a hill..." Their responses vary from just laughing to keying off my joke with another one to emphatically contradicting me and then proceeding to tell me the right answer. This worked best with my children when they were small, but I've used it with older students as well.
In my co-op classes, I've also seen the drawing back and waiting for the "smart kids" to answer even with small classes where the students know and are fairly comfortable with one another (as much as teenagers can be!). The other day, however, when one of my history students noticed she and one other were the only ones answering, she piped up to the others and said "YOU guys answer!"... and they did.

Amanda (not verified)

Effective questioning is so

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Effective questioning is so important in a classroom and can be a difficult skill for new teachers to learn. A challenge is to also get students to see the importance of asking good questions and how those questions and answers can impact their learning. Also, many of my students struggle with listening and processing information that is gained through the questions of others.

John W. (not verified)

Volunteers or non-volunteers

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I loved reading your blog and agree wholeheartedly with your observations. All too often teachers ask questions with no real purposeful method and with little regard for how they select students, the rigor of the question, or wait time. In my opinion, questioning strategies serve as the cornerstone of student engagement and classroom management. I am glad to see more and more efforts to improve in-class questioning.

You stated in one part of your blog the following:

"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."

You could also mention that the rest of the students are now freed to misbehave.

For anyone interested, I have my own blog on this same subject at http://blogs.standardsco.com/wpmu/jwalkup/.

Lezlie Gravens (not verified)

white boards

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That's a great idea! I have a classroom set of white boards that our woods dept. cut for our 6th graders but we only use them for math practice work. I will start using them for more subjects. Thanks!

Heather Tillman (not verified)

Silent Discussion

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At my high school we have started using silent discussions as a way to get my students to "talk" with a peer on paper about what they know before a discussion or questions. This builds confidence and comfort and over time leads to deeper responses and conversations.

Jill Sharitt (not verified)

Ben, Your post has truly

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Ben,

Your post has truly caused me to question my questioning practice in my classroom. Your comment that teachers as the general yes or no understanding quetsion to absolve themselves from any lack of understanding on the part of the students sent chills down my spine because I see this happen so often and I know that I have done this as well and moved on to the next topic. Sitting in a calculus class my junior year of high school I remember feeling that I was in so far above my head that when I wanted to reach out for help I did not have a clue how to ask about what I didn't know.

As I explored the Center for Teaching Excellence website you posted as a resource I realized that in my questioning I often resort to general questioning because I have not really planned what I would be asking so more often than not I am only asking students to confirm their understanding. I will definitely be using this spring break week to consider the questions I use in my classroom and to practice wait time. Three seconds seems so fast outside of a classroom but its strange that short pause feels like eternity with 60 eyes watching - but how worth it is the wait! I have already designated students to take the tally of my general questions during a class period. I can't wait to see the results from my mended ways!

Alvin Moses (not verified)

Student Randomizer...Selector

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Every class I have has a plastic party cup, number on the outside with their period.

In that cup is one popsicle stick for every student. Legal name on one side and name they prefer to be called on other.

I can select students at random, and if I return stick to cup, they could be selected again. I have heard of teachers who put a smaller cup inside and they can separate who they want to draw again and who did fine, but make it appear all have chance of being drawn again.

Student also enjoy the privilege of being the one to draw the sticks.

You'll find other uses for the sticks too, I am sure.

Examples:

Quick attendance before you've learned all your kids. When class starts have another cup next to their cup, they come in and move their stick to the "other cup". Tardy bell rings and you pick up the original cup and that is your absent/tardy students.

If you do group activities, if you have colored sticks, you can say:

"yellows at this table, blues at table 2..."

"reds find a green partner, blues find a yellow partner"

"everyone find a table, but no one at your table can have your stick color"

Discipline:

"When you come in take your stick to your desk, if you do anything inappropriate, I take your stick and put in on my desk, and if you have more undesirable behavior, I move it to my RED CUP!"

If you cant find colored sticks, natural colored ones can be enhanced with markers!

Tom Barner (not verified)

giving time after asking a question

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The idea of using "Wait Time" was first suggested by Mary Budd Rowe in her research in 1972. She said that using wait time after having asked a question will allow girls to process their answers. She also said that boys will raise their hands first even though they may not have the correct answer. I don't think this was something that started at Smallville. Read her research to find out more about the value of waiting a bit after asking questions.

Tom Barner
F.A. Day Middle School
Newton, MA

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