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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?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Comments (155)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Martin Zimberg's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I often find that even when calling on students who are uninvolved to answer questions, they usually say, "I don't know". So to get them more involved, I will ask them to repeat the question so they need to show me that they are in fact paying attention. More often then not when they repeat the question, they do give some sort of answer which is correct.

Alan Cooper's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In Costa,A.& Kallick, B. (2009)I detail a process for questioning that helps keep all on task and attending. One of the keys to this is to get each student to parpahrase what the previous student gave in his/her answer. When students are called on randomly this drives attention and by paraphrasing the student has to analyse, evaluate what the prvious speaker said and create the parahrase. This is also means that even if they don't know the answer they have soemthing to say.
Alan Cooper Educational Cosultant New Zealand

Julie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In my 7th grade language arts classes, I check for understanding and promote some thought by occasionally requiring a "ticket out" or using a "parking lot." I give students a slip of paper (ticket out) or stickie note (for parking lot) as they enter. Then during the last 2 minutes of class, I ask the students a question, or elicit a comment or question about the class that day. For tickets, I use a large envelope marked with the block. For a parking lot, I use a piece of paper labeled with the block name taped to the wall or board near the exit door. As students leave, they "park" their notes on their block's paper. Later I can check to see what is piquing their interest or confusing them.

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


That is a good strategy for letting the students know that they are still responsible. Many times, the students say, "I don't know!" just to get you to leave them alone.

In developing a classroom learning mentality, you might want to train your students to say something more productive than, "I don't know!"--Here are some examples:

Could you repeat the question?
I did not understand the question, could you rephrase it?
Can I ask someone for help to answer this question?
Are your asking this...(restate what the student heard)..?
Can you give me a minute to find the answer?

I am sure there are more things that you can say instead of "I dunno!"

Hope this helps too.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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


You asked how to get all the students to answer the questions.

Certainly, you can ask them to write their answers down on paper. The draw back with that is that the students nor you will know if their answers are correct.

Here are some simple ways to get all the students responding to questions at the same time.
Total physical response---
1) Using thumbs. If you think this this the right answer, thumbs up. If not thumbs down. If you are not sure yet, thumbs in the middle.

2) Standing and sitting- If you think this is the right answer, stand up, if wrong sit down, if not sure sit on desk.

3) Corners: If you think answer A is correct, go to that corner, if you think b is correct to the other corner, c, d, etc... Now that you are in the corners, discuss why you think it is the right answer.

4) labels on the wall: Touch the definition of a right triangle. Point to the representation of the battle of the bulge. Stand next to the word that best describes this person.

5) mime: Tell a story about chemical bonds but use your hands to describe the process. Indicate the logical operators using hand signs. In the target language, recount what happened using hand signs for the verb sequences.

6) Personal white boards: Write the answer to this question on your WB and raise it in the air when you are done. Point to someone who has the same answer you do.

7) Fingers: hold your fingers to show which number is the correct one.

8) Text book: Put your finger on the selection in the textbook that defines this word. Find an example of the use of simile in the story and put your elbow on it.

9) simon says: Write the formula for perimiter in the air, Show where Somalia is on the map. Tell your partner what the Monroe doctrine was.

There are many more ways to do this if you are creative. The nice thing about this is that if a student gets it wrong, they see everyone else and they self correct.

It makes learning a lot of fun too.

Have fun with this

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Deborah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In addition to wait time, one strategy I've found helpful is to let the last student who spoke call on the next person. For some bizarre reason, students are more willing to put their hands up to answer when another student is calling on them. This also seems to take care of a lot of the "teachers pet" stigma that happens to kids who like to answer questions a lot.


Anna Baralt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I use lots of different strategies to ask questions and check for understanding in my classroom, but one of my favorite ways is to use our eInstruction clickers. As an instructional technologist who integrates a K-4 curriculum, I not only teach technology skills but also lots of content. What is great about the clickers is that they are easy to use and my students love to use them too. While not a perfect system I'm sure (there is always the one kid who chooses the silly answer because they think it is funny), I find that I am able to engage all or almost all of my students at once rather than just one at a time. The students who benefit most are those that need extra processing time or are less outgoing. The clickers allow them to answer questions in a less threatening environment. I know the clickers work because I have students stop be in the halls or on lunch duty asking me it they will be using the clickers in this week's class. They also ask me to teach their classroom teachers how to use them.

Marie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I like to ask question in my class. I sometimes select student or I let anyone answer. If a student answer is "I don't know" I try to rephrase the question and ask someone to help the student. It works

Suzie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is response to Ana. I have taught for 30 years, elementary through high school. With my secondary social studies students, I put them into groups of four early in year (four closest desks and I change desk assignments every quarter). When I call groups of four they quickly move desks to face one another and number themselves 1-4. I ask a question ( they all know to have scrap paper in front in case they want to jot something down). The questions I ask are usually not simple answer questions but they can be. I ask the question and give them a time limit...2 minutes-4 minutes. They each share an answer and talk with one another. What I like about this is that that those who know share with others and those that know but are slower to respond because they think they may be wrong, are reinforced when they talk to their group. I think it's a win-win for all. After I have given everyone a minute or two, I call time and then ask a # (like #2) from each group to share what the group thought the answer was. I have found that many more students have a voice this way. They don't have to worry so much about being wrong since the group shared their answers. It also gives voice to those students who would never raise their hand. My expectation is that whatever # I call, that person will respond. I have never been disappointed. It allows those more timid students to build confidence in speaking in front of the class. As the year progresses, students become quite used to expressing opinions and offering answers. I believe students say, "I don't know." for two reasons...they are afraid of being wrong or they really don't know. This method helps both problems.

Lauren Anderson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I recently attended a conference at Western Illinois University held by their local chapter of NCTE officers. One of the sessions I went to dealt with creating discussion for any classroom. We talked about what worked (teacher is passionate about teaching, provides positive feedback, and the teacher takes on the role of the student). We also talked about what didn't work (yes/no questions, all lower order recall questions, and leading questions that teachers are expecting a particular answer to). What it comes down to is the fact that students need to trust their teacher, their classmates, but mostly they need self confidence. Creating a safe environment for students to safely explore ideas, theories, and concepts is key to asking any question. When students know that they won't be ridiculed or shut down for their interpretations or understanding of the material, they will not hestitate to talk. Currently I am teaching a novel to three sections of English I. My freshmen in these classes are always willing to toss around ideas because they know that even if they did not understand all of the reading, I could spin their comment into another question to ask another student. So if I know that a student is completely off base, I could say "that is one way of looking at it . . . what do you think Sarah?" That way it opens the door for other students to participate and allows the conversation to continue.

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