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5 Powerful Questions Teachers Can Ask Students

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

My first year teaching a literacy coach came to observe my classroom. After the students left, she commented on how I asked the whole class a question, would wait just a few seconds, and then answer it myself. "It's cute," she added. Um, I don't think she thought it was so cute. I think she was treading lightly on the ever-so shaky ego of a brand-new teacher while still giving me some very necessary feedback.

So that day, I learned about wait/think time. And also, over the years, I learned to ask better and better questions.

Many would agree that for inquiry to be alive and well in a classroom that, amongst other things, the teacher needs to be expert at asking strategic questions, and not only asking well-designed ones, but ones that will also lead students to questions of their own.

Keeping It Simple

I also learned over the years that asking straightforward, simply-worded questions can be just as effective as those intricate ones. With that in mind, if you are a new teacher or perhaps not so new but know that question-asking is an area where you'd like to grow, start tomorrow with these five:

#1. What do you think?

This question interrupts us from telling too much. There is a place for direct instruction where we give students information yet we need to always strive to balance this with plenty of opportunities for students to make sense of and apply that new information using their schemata and understanding.

#2. Why do you think that?

After students share what they think, this follow-up question pushes them to provide reasoning for their thinking.

#3. How do you know this?

When this question is asked, students can make connections to their ideas and thoughts with things they've experienced, read, and have seen.

#4. Can you tell me more?

This question can inspire students to extend their thinking and share further evidence for their ideas.

#5. What questions do you still have?

This allows students to offer up questions they have about the information, ideas or the evidence.

In addition to routinely and relentlessly asking your students questions, be sure to provide time for them to think. What's best here, three seconds, five, or seven? Depending on their age, the depth of the material, and their comfort level, this think time will vary. Just push yourself to stay silent and wait for those hands to go up.

Also be sure to vary your tone so it genuinely sounds like a question and not a statement. When we say something in a declarative way, it is often with one tone and flat sounding. On the other hand, there is a lilt in our voice when we are inquiring and questioning.

To help student feel more comfortable and confident with answering questions and asking ones of their own, you can use this scaffold: Ask a question, pause, and then invite students to "turn and talk" with a neighbor first before sharing out with the whole group. This allows all to have their voices heard and also gives them a chance to practice their responses before sharing in front of the whole class.

How do you ask questions in your classroom? What works well with your students? Please share with us in the comment section below.


Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

Comments (65)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

These are the kinds of questions I ask my students to answer when responding to the books we read. It's so much more interesting to read those answers than answers to the typical who/what/where/when questions! And it prepares them for text-based writing. I'll go out on a limb here, too, and say that the students are more engaged when we ask these questions. Much more interesting to answer!

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program

These remind me of the Habits of Mind that Debbie Meier and her faculty worked with at Mission Hill School and Central Park East

-The question of evidence, or "How do we know what we know?"
-The question of viewpoint in all its multiplicity, or "Who's speaking?"
-The search for connection and patterns, or "What causes what?"
-Supposition, or "How might things have been different?"
-Why any of it matters, or "Who cares?"

C Keller's picture

Thank you for posting this article. I agree that those are five great questions that are asked on a daily basis and need to be asked more often in many cases. What do you suggest for students who regularly respond with "I don't know" or lack the confidence to state their opinion on a topic. Many times I find that students get so used to avoiding having to answer questions by saying "I don't know or I'm not sure," that even when they do know or do want to share, that they lack the confidence do so...any suggestions?

Thank you.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

Hi C Keller! I have found that students need this broken down into steps. First they might read in preparation for a discussion, but then they need time (and directions) for writing down their thoughts in response to the reading. That way, when I ask them a question, they can look down at their written responses before they speak. I teach them to annotate what they read by writing in the margins (comments, questions, connections, etc.). We practice this a lot, which helps them build those skills of thinking about and responding to what they read. Over time they get better at answering that question (What do you think?) because they have been writing those thoughts prior to being asked to voice them. Also, because I have them write their thoughts in the margins, they learn to refer to the text when I ask them "why" -- and that helps prepare them to cite from the text when they write.

Med2's picture

I pulled names out of a can after wait time so eveyone knew to do the "thinking" work. We also had students write on a chalkboard and hold up their answers, or you could have them journal and respond to each......with so many using laptops or iPads now, they could respond on those, as well!

Dr. Tom Mawhinney's picture
Dr. Tom Mawhinney
Touro College professor teaching graduate education courses

I am not a fan of whole-group questioning where one student talks and the rest passively listen. Even if you use random confirmation-type questioning (Jim can you summarize what Laura just said and tell me if you agree), students will still zone out. I prefer a think-pair-share rather than turn and talk, because it is timed and structured; each student gets a chance to respond. Maximize participation is my motto!!

Michael Cady's picture
Michael Cady
Teacher of history and critical thinking with over forty years of experience.

Asking good questions is a fundamental requirement for the class to really connect to the subject matter. Simple recall questions are not interesting, to us or to the student. Find questions that you would also find interesting. Questions that require reflection can get the ball rolling. Wait time is critical. If students realize that by sitting quiet you are going to do the work for them you will not get a good discussion. Instead ask a question that they can answer one that is curriculum related but not specifically on the curriculum. For example: "Does power corrupt?" "But, does it always corrupt?" "Have you seen examples in your own life?" From this you can get into a discussion about the need for "checks and balances" in democracy. Another point - instead of asking "what do you think?" you can ask, "how do you know?" That can be a much more fruitful discussion. Take an event from history, or something they "know" today and examine "how they know it is true, how could it be tested, does everyone agree with the facts - if not, why?" This is a fundamental of the Theory of Knowledge Program in the International Baccalaureate Program.

Ravs's picture

Similarly to Swms "Is that reasonable" is the question "Does that make sense?".
Working out a textbook problem on the board in Year 11 Physics during my final Prac placement last year, I stepped back after finding the 'answer' and looked at it. I then asked the class "does that make sense?".
The maths was 'solvable' but the solution did not work when put back in a real world context.
Asking this question made the students think about the meaning of the activity, and took them back into the use of what they were learning.

"Professor" Paul O. Briones's picture
"Professor" Paul O. Briones
Host and Co-Creator of Virtual Science University

I always use these five type of questions in my actual Biology and Anatomy & Physiology Classes. I even ask these type of questions in my Bio-Edutainment Songs. I've found these five questions make young people especially freshmen high school students to think at a much higher level. When I do my Environmental Stewardship Lecture and use my song "Recycle, Reduce, Reuse" http://www.reverbnation.com/professorpaul247/song/13392209-recycle-reduc... to start the lecture and get student interaction, the what do you think questions force students to get active in their thinking.

One of the most powerful outcomes I've had using these questions, is one of my students a few years back, decided to start a HOPE environmental stewardship club at the high school where I was teaching. The club in turn set up recycling bins all over the school.

These questions are a must for a new teacher and for that matter those of us with many years of teaching experience.

Bj Herrick's picture

In Social Studies, I ask: what?; so what?; what now?. how?; how else?;. why?; why not?; why now?; why then?;. who?; who else?;. when?; when at that time?;. who?; who cares?; who doesn't care?; who benefits?; who loses?; who made the decision?. By broaden the question base, the students expand their understanding of the situation or event or the person.

Bradley Foust's picture
Bradley Foust
Title I Facilitator/PLC Coach- Bartlett Elementary School; Adjunct Music Instructor, Troy University eCampus

I love the straightforward and simple nature of the questioning protocol used in Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS):

- What going on (or what's happening) in this picture?
- What do you see that makes you say that?
- What more can we find?

These questions can be modified to fit many situations. For instance, I have taught music teachers to use the first question when engaging students in listening to and analyzing recorded music. The second question can be used as a follow-up in class discussions when Simply ask, "What makes you say that?" It's a simple, powerful question that requires the commenter to reason and provide evidence. I've begun using this question in conversations with adults, and I'm often surprised by their responses. Finally, "What more can we find?" is similar in application to "Can you tell me more?" It requires students to think deeply and look for more information.

While VTS is a worthwhile teaching tool in its own right, the questioning protocol used therein can extend beyond the viewing of art images, illustrations, and photos.



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