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Teaching Strategies

Mastering the Pace and Tone of Your Questions to Students

Teaching students effectively means helping them advance through the moments of discomfort they experience when faced with challenging questions.

September 1, 2023

Looking out at a sea of silent, glum faces after asking a probing question can make any teacher second-guess their choice of profession. In the moment, understandably, educators often lose their nerve and begin to do things that author and education researcher Harry Fletcher-Wood argues only hinders student thinking. 

They might call only on raised hands; quickly fill dead air with their own voice; or rush to “round up” partial or incomplete answers—by rephrasing and thus correcting an unsatisfactory answer—in an attempt to swiftly move past any “discomfort and social awkwardness.” 

Writing for Improving Teaching, Fletcher-Wood argues that the “instinct” of many teachers during question-and-response activities “is to avoid children feeling bad.” But effective teaching requires helping students to advance through moments of discomfort to find learning on the other side: “The job of a teacher is to push students beyond what they think they can do,” Fletcher-Wood writes, and that means some discomfort, anxiousness, and uncertainty should be expected—and tolerated.  

Instead of relying on instinctual strategies that can deprive students of think time, short-circuit consensus building, or defer to the “most confident or interested” students in the room, educators can use strategies like cold-calling, extending wait times before jumping in to provide their own answers, or redirecting students who respond incorrectly. These tactics might pull us out of our collective comfort zones, Fletcher-Wood writes, but they’ll also likely lead us to the desired result: That “every student [is] thinking when a question is asked.”  

Here are five strategies teachers can use to accomplish this mindset shift.  

In Defense of Cold-Calling 

Calling on students who haven’t raised their hand can seem harrowing to early-career teachers; they’re especially reluctant to make students feel uncomfortable, and they want to avoid the perception that a student is being targeted. But Fletcher-Wood writes that the alternative—to call on students who raise their hands voluntarily—leads to poor outcomes. Your motivated students learn more, but inevitably “less confident and less motivated students are left out.”  

When done right—and used strategically—research suggests that cold calling can elicit more class participation, create a more equitable learning environment, and result in richer, more productive classroom discussions. Although critics of the strategy fear cold calling induces fear and shame in students, a 2022 study suggests that when teachers employ cold calling in an “encouraging and engaging” manner, they are more likely to create classrooms where students feel “safe to take risks.” 

Using inviting prompts to set up cold calling—phrases like “I’d like to hear some ideas”—can also help reduce feelings of anxiety, research shows, and take the sting out of incorrect answers. It’s also helpful to emphasize “effort over correctness” when calling on students,  employing phrases like: “I don’t expect you to have a perfect answer, I just want to hear your thinking on the topic” or “This is a challenging question and I just want to get a feel for where the class is on this.” 

Indeed, when used as a method of surveilling students or interrogating them, cold calling can be an insidious approach. A 2013 study, for example, found that using an “aggressive or condescending” tone of voice when calling on students, or making grimacing facial expressions or alienating body language can “erode students’ sense of safety and self-worth.”

Extending Your ‘Wait’ Time—By a Lot

In 2018, educator John McCarthy reviewed the research and concluded that teachers, on average, only pause for about 0.9 seconds after asking a question. According to McCarthy, “there is a real need to increase the time granted to students to process what they know and to make sense of what they do not understand.” 

How long should you wait? Research points to a threshold of at least three seconds, an interval that results in a positive impact on learning—as well as greater participation rates, more elaborate student responses, and an increase in the number of follow-up questions posed by students. McCarthy likes to push it a bit further, advocating for wait-times as long as 15 seconds. “I count in my head to 15. Most times, I get responses by 10 to 12 seconds,” McCarthy wrote. “If you don’t get responses within 15 seconds, you can call on students, instead of asking for volunteers.” 

If you want to vary your approach, you can also give students a minute or two to reflect on a topic that you are about to ask them about. This could take place in a journal or during turn-and-talk partner discussion, McCarthy writes. “Giving such chunks of time honors the work being asked of students.” 

Meanwhile, best-selling author and former teacher Doug Lemov writes that extending wait time after a question can also create better conditions for cold calling. More wait time allows all students to do the work of thinking about the question, retrieving stored knowledge, and formulating a response—not just the student who you eventually call on. 

Cultivating Cross-Talk and Turning Half-Answers Into Gold

To create a classroom where all students are sharing their ideas and insights with one another, you’ll need to deploy other strategies, too. 

Shannon McGrath, a K-8 instructional coach, writes that after asking the class a tough question, turn-and-talk or think-pair-share can be used as tools to “encourage cognitive struggle” and “get students doing more while you say less.” It can also reduce the pressure when they’re called on later. Turning to a partner to ask each other “What do you think?” allows them both to generate ideas, identify their best thinking, and then synthesize their thoughts before sharing it with the whole classroom. 

Inevitably, students give partial or inaccurate answers, and having a strategy to turn those responses into gold is crucial. Raquel Linares, an elementary school teacher in the Bronx, New York, says that many learners benefit from creative activities to give them the tools they need to get started in a peer discussion. She suggests using participation cards, a simple ring of index cards with prompts like “I agree with you because…” “I disagree with you because…” or, “I need more information because…” that can provide useful sentence-starters. 

Similar phrases can be deployed to redirect partial or inaccurate answers. For example, Fletcher-Wood suggests phrases such as, “That’s helpful, but can you add to that while mentioning…” or “That’s not quite right, can you try again? I’m sure you can do it.” Tori Filler, an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn, New York, writes that you can also pivot from incomplete answers into a productive classroom discussion by asking things like: “Can anyone build on this?” or “Do we agree? Disagree? Why?” 

Teachers sometimes underestimate how much scaffolding is needed during student-centered activities. A recent study reveals, for example, that student drawings of recently learned material are improved when teachers begin the sketches themselves, and allow students to complete them. Similarly, redirecting students by rephrasing a question or asking them what they already know about a topic—or even providing a hint—can help connect them to their prior knowledge and boost engagement, further research confirms.

Changing Modalities

To engage students who might be more introverted and less likely to participate in verbal discussions, teachers can change up how they collect responses through the use of widely-available technology, suggests education professor Katy Farber.

Google Docs, for example, can be used as a discussion tracker that allows students to post questions and answers to their peers during or after class. Teachers can choose to read some questions and answers aloud, or ask students to do so, and avoid some of the stress introverts might struggle with when they are called to respond on the spot to a question. 

“This technique allows a teacher to see a student’s level of understanding—through both their questions and answers—without waiting for them to speak in class,” Farber writes. Padlet, she adds, can similarly be used as a “digital brainstorming” tool for students to collect their ideas and solutions in a space that can be seen by all students. 

Stephanie Toro, an assistant professor in the School of Science at the Universidad de los Andes, writes that tech tools can also be used to create surveys and polls that allow students to share their thoughts anonymously, something that she argues can be useful to coax out thinking from introverted students. By participating anonymously, Toro writes, students can see their “ideas represented without any anxiety of being recognized.” 

Apps like Socrative, Poll Everywhere, or Survey Monkey can be used to collect anonymous answers. Once you have all of your responses, Toro writes that you can highlight a couple to share with the whole classroom. Even though the responses remain anonymous, Toro writes, the students responsible for them know “they are contributing in a valuable manner.” 

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