George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

5 Powerful Questions Teachers Can Ask Students

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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.

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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.


Garreth Heidt's picture
Garreth Heidt
High School Liberal Studies teacher, Design-minded educator, Forensics Coach

Grant, Laura,

How true--we are impatient inquisitors. I've been itching to dig through the rest of Make Just One Change, by the people at the Right Question Institute. I started it last year but things just piled up. If you're not familiar with their work, I highly recommend it.

Another thing I've employed in my classroom for over 20 years is something called the Touchstones Discussion project ( Based upon the methods used at St. Johns College in Annapolis and Santa Fe, the project uses excerpts from texts of the great books of the world to help students learn not just what's going on in the texts (in fact, the texts are secondary to student experience at first) but more so to learn how difficult it is to develop the skills that allow us to have deeper, more meaningful discussions without the interaction of a teacher leader.

One dynamic that always rears its head with each new group of students is that the males are far less patient with silence than the females are. We've had several meta discussions this year to focus on the issue of silence and what to do when silence occurs. Of course, one thing to do is to ask their own questions about the text, but getting them to that stage isn't easy, for it's not easy to ask good questions. So most students just wait for the teacher. Learning not only how to develop good questions but also how to recognize that the chaos that often comes from heated discussions is actually less productive and generative than the chaos that's born of silence.

The dynamics of each group are different, but their progress through this stage is always downright difficult but so worth their struggle.

Laura...weren't you at Educon this year?

Ibrahim Ibrahim Ibrahim's picture

I have tried this strategy a few weeks ago ,when my students felt bored and asked for a break during an hour and a half period.I refused then ,but when I went home home ,I thought of their request and found out that they may have a right . The following day ,I told them that I agree to give them a five minute break ,but not for chit chat or gossip . It will be for "An Unusual fact".When the five minute break started ,I asked them : can anybody of you tell us an unusual fact ? I was really surprised when I found one student raising his hand saying a very unusual fact I have ever heard of .at that time I, I found my self asking the other four questions of Rebecca's "Why do you think so ,How do you know,Can you tell us more about it ,What else do you want to know about it? It was a marvellous experience.

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; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I was! Were we in a session together? I so get your point about folks having different levels of comfort with silence. I've experimented with mandatory wait time (no one can talk for 5 seconds) as well as talk tickets (you get three turns so use them well).

Garreth Heidt's picture
Garreth Heidt
High School Liberal Studies teacher, Design-minded educator, Forensics Coach

I'm pretty sure we were in the one on language and how word choices are important. It was run by a girl from a school in...I want to say New Hampshire/Vermont.

Joselocalseo's picture
Jose of Local SEO Shop

These questions really look very simple but the simpler they become, the more it invites the student to think. Questions like, what is life? or what is love? has so much drama that it can invite people to really pause for a while and think beyond what they know of life and love.

"Professor" Paul GTO Briones's picture
"Professor" Paul GTO Briones
Host and Co-Creator of Virtual Science University & Pre-AP Science Instructor

Jose, I agree with you that we as teachers need to keep questions simple. After a few years of teaching, I learned that it was more productive to ask simple questions to allow students to go beyond what the question is asking. For this reason, I've created Reggae, Pop, Hip-Hop Original Songs in a strategy called "Lesson In The Lyric." Here is a sample of a "Lesson In The Lyric" an original song called "Recycle, Reduce, Reuse" where 80% of the song is composed of simple questions. This song has become so popular and so efficient in getting students to beyond the 3R's mentioned in this song. Here is a link to this song so you can understand the power of the "Lesson In The Lyric."

Joselocalseo's picture
Jose of Local SEO Shop

Thanks for sharing. Indeed, having the students think will bring them to the next level of learning. Once they ask questions, they are now participating in the learning process.

Christopher Mcknight's picture

This article definitely was spot on. I try my best to ask questions that sparks engagement with the students each class. I have found that asking those types of questions help students learn more as well as allow them to get into learning the objective more.

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