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Three Steps for Improving Teacher Questions

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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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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Mindy Keller- Kyriakides's picture
Mindy Keller- Kyriakides
High school english teacher and blogger.

I'm so glad Marzano addresses the use of questions. My former students and I discuss the use of questions in our book, "Transparent Teaching of Adolescents", but at the core of it is the building of an environment that supports questioning. Many myths about questions need to be dispelled, first, followed by instruction in how to ask questions. Students won't open up until they know it's okay to question. : )

Deanna Krueger's picture
Deanna Krueger
second grade teacher

I appreciate the step-by-step format in which to compose higher order questions.

Melaine's picture
Second grade teacher from Minneapolis, MN

Thank you for providing applicable steps to take to lead my students into student-led discussions. I completely agree with your observation that in order to effectively teach, we must improve our questions. Rather than ask questions that produce only one correct answer, our questions must ask students to think critically and provide their own insight. I've often struggled with class discussions because I felt that I was drilling my students, and they were providing simple one-word responses. My students need to learn that it's ok to challenge and state their own opinions. I loved how you mentioned that teachers should prepare questions in advance, and they should scaffold their questions. I believe these preparations will allow all students to actively participate in class discussions.

Helen's picture
6th grade math teacher from Clearwater, Florida

Ben, thank you for providing these three steps for improving teacher questions. I just recently completed my third year of teaching and I am working hard to provide better questions and "true discussion". When you mentioned that teachers are typically looking for the "right answer", I pictured myself. Fortunately, I think I am getting better with time, but I will definitely be using some of your suggestions to improve.

Kristin Catt's picture
Kristin Catt
Title 1 Reading Teacher from Idaho

Thank you for the great suggestions. I think the idea of using a spreadsheet to plan the questions will be especially helpful to me. I teach small group reading intervention, and I want to challenge my students to answer higher level questions. I think it is especially important for these students because they tend to be quiet in their regular classrooms. I have been searching for ideas to help me as we implement the Common Core State Standards.

Jennifer Fry's picture
Jennifer Fry
High School Intervention Specialist

You provided a lot of great ideas that I can implement when co-teaching with other teachers at my school. The idea of scaffolding the questions is great because you are not going to always have students that can get to the highest level right off the bat and need time to work up to them. I like the idea of small groups and then asking the questions that are going to lead to more thought out answers. Students will learn better when they are challenged but also given the opportunity to talk amongst their peers and discuss ideas and ask additional questions to clarify information that was previously presented for a lesson.

Rachel's picture

Student questioning is an important part of inquiry based teaching. I am always working to ask better questions that will promote deeper thinking from my students. These tips will be very helpful to me as I plan these interactions.

M. Mazzillo's picture

I appreciate the new ideas. With the new Common Core Curriculum, questioning and higher level thinking skills are essential. I arrange my students seating in a small groups for collaborative discussion. I really like the idea of developing questions that incorporate evidence of knowledge, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Technology is also a vital part of my classroom. So, I think adding discussion questions for my students in a PowerPoint presentation.
One strategy I like to use in questioning and discussion is to have the "think, pair, share" method. I want my students to be able to discuss information and gain various perspectives, but I also like being aware of their initial thoughts about a topic. I will often have the students jot down ideas independently in a journal, scratch paper or sticky note before sharing with others. That way I can monitor individual thoughts and the students have a list of ideas they can present to others during discussion. This helps me to see the level of understanding for each student, it helps the students to see the differences of their ideas when comparing ideas with others and it helps the students remain organized by giving them an "agenda" of thoughts as they begin the discussion.

Eric Rodriguez's picture

Ben, very much appreciated distinguishing between leading a class discussion versus facilitation of a discussion! I have never read this aspect of questioning articulated so well. Thank you and I look forward to reading more!


MickCollins's picture

Thanks Ben for writing this. Just about to my action research for my PGCE course and found your piece.

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