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5 Powerful Questions Teachers Can Ask Students

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
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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 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

Hi Garreth, I don't teach in that program but we're part of the same department. It's a very close-knit department, and the Waldorf folks are dear colleagues and friends. I think Torin Finser, our chair and head of the Waldorf program, was just in Montgomery County, but I'm not sure. You should come visit!

It's good to be scared sometimes, right? Even though it's...you know...scary. :-)

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer

Great question to add from Twitter:

This High School Math Teacher (@marknoldy) added:

"I would add "How can I help?" Pondering this simple question force most kids to realize they control their destiny."

I thought it was such a great point about student ownership, as it relates to questioning.

I also loved this addition:

"In the spirit of Visual Thinking Strategies and evidence-based reasoning we'd add What do you see that makes you say that?"

Daniel Tan's picture

I like this guide.

However, but what should happen more is students asking questions. I see the situation, that due to easy access of content by students for content (on the WWW) from their fingertips (on their devices), they will know MORE than the teacher.

a. While their Google search will give them this morning's updates, the teacher will have content prepared 3, 6, 12 months ago.

b. while the teacher is confined in his/her teaching to a curriculum syllabus, in a search, students are not. Imagine a Grade 5 student asking the teacher a question on content on the Internet written for high school?

It would be wonderful if there was a follow up article on how to handle "tough" questions by students :)

R. Wilder's picture

I think we tend to ask questions in the classroom and do not allow enough wait time. Thanks for posting this. It is a great reminder to stop and allow them time to think and respond. I also like the idea of letting them discuss the question in groups at times to form a response.

Tierney Kennedy's picture

I like these questions in maths:
- What if we make a change? What changes and what stays the same?
- What patterns can you see?
- How come? (A good alternative to "Why?" as it is less threatening)
- How are these kind of the same?
- What do you think it might look like?
- Can you see a problem? Which bit looks funny? How come? What do you want to do about it?
- What did you change your mind about? How come?
- Which question today made you think the hardest? Which part of your work do you feel proudest of?

Charlotte Mizener's picture
Charlotte Mizener
Professor of Music Education from Lamar University, Beaumont, TX

I add one more step to the question-answer routine. I ask students to write down a few thoughts in their class notes, even if what they write is "Haven't got a clue." Many students seem much more willing to read what they have written than to volunteer a response extemporaneously.

Growing Thinkers's picture

What is in a question?
Every thing.
It is a gap made in the brain which in turn works hard to fill it.
Answering back by a new question is even more teasing to the brain which practically helps the kids to think critically.
Day after day their thinking becomes deeper and this can be measured by the type of questions they start asking. These questions become more and more challenging and full of innovative ideas.

Swms's picture

I find myself asking my students the same question over and over as they ask questions that they don't need me to answer. "Is that reasonable?" This is my way of getting them to think through whatever they are asking about from content to procedural concerns they might have.


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