Student Engagement

Three Steps for Improving Teacher Questions

Authentic discussion in the classroom

June 26, 2012

According to Robert Marzano's book, Classroom Instruction that Works, 80 percent of what is considered instruction involves asking questions. It makes sense then, that if we want to improve our effectiveness at teaching, of course we would start by improving our questions. I have thought a lot about this topic and I would like to share three specific actions that we can take to improve our questions. To begin with, we need to get students talking rather than the teacher talking. Second, prepare the questions when you plan the lesson. And third, scaffold the questions.

Step One

The first action for improvement in reality is not an action, but a shift in thinking about our own concept of teaching. We have to stop thinking that when we get in front of students, we will be able to get into the groove of a "discussion" by simply asking a few poignant questions. Let me explain. Some teachers may be tempted to believe that they are "teaching" when they are engaging students in a "class" discussion by asking a series of questions to lead students to a certain way of thinking. This type of teacher-student interaction really is not a "discussion." Students are not providing their opinions or evidence, nor does the teacher really want conjecture. The teacher typically is fishing for the "right answer" and is trying to draw it out of the students by asking leading questions. True discussion occurs where there is no "leader." There is give-and-take from everyone that involves conjecture, deduction, argument, proofs, and logical conclusions. Most importantly, in a true discussion, the outcome of the discussion is not known beforehand but is discovered through the discussion process.

After understanding this definition of a true discussion, trying to "lead" a class discussion is a waste of effort and time, primarily because "leading" destroys the exploratory purpose of the "discussion", but also because the number of students that are able to participate in a whole-class discussion is limited to just a few. I think you know where I am going with this: Instead of "leading" a discussion, why not teach your students how to discuss and break your class up into groups of four or five students, so they can then discuss the issues. This is much more productive than having 30 or more students listening to just a few talk with the teacher.

Step Two

The next move is to prepare the questions you want to ask as an integral part of the lesson. If questions are not prepared in advance, most the questions you ask or provide for the students will be knowledge and comprehension questions because it is extremely difficult to create higher order thinking questions "on-the-fly." The purpose for these questions is to "check for understanding" and to engage thinking skills, but remember that "whole-class" questions, as discussed above, have limited utility. If you provide the questions to the students in a PowerPoint, once again, you can divide the class into groups of four or five students and you have them all answer the questions at the same time orally.

Certainly students cannot answer questions or discuss something of which they know nothing. Savvy teacher will design learning activities in preparation for student-led discussions that will give students background knowledge, evidence, and ammunition to argue a point. The ELA strand of the Common Core State Standards encourages teachers to help students identify opinion and utilize evidence to support their argument -- the point of argument being to convince rather than to simply expound both sides of an issue.

Step Three

The final way to improve our use of questions is to design the questions so that they scaffold from cognitive difficulty levels of easy to hard. An effective way to do this is to create a spreadsheet with a column for containing a row for each concept and three additional columns (Knowledge/Comprehension, Application/Analysis, Synthesis/Evaluation) where you write several questions for each column for each concept. If you do this as you plan your lesson, you will have questions for building a vocabulary foundation of the concepts, questions for helping students relate the new knowledge to what they know already, and questions to help students establish the value of this knowledge (this also creates a handy question bank for assessing student knowledge).

An interesting thing about scaffolding questions is that it allows repetition without being repetitive. Each time you lead the students to a different level of question on a topic, students have the opportunity to revisit what they know, and use it in a different way. This helps students to remember and at the same time it keeps them engaged because you are not simply repeating the same question. Even though it is the same topic, it is new. Again, whole-class questioning value is limited, and students in small groups, answering all the questions from easy to hard, is a much more effective way to engage all students.

If teachers spend so much time asking students questions, then an easy way to improve student learning is to improve the way we ask the questions. What interesting ways have you found to engage more students and ask more effective questions?

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  • Student Engagement
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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