The Art of Asking Questions

At one time or another, most of us have been disappointed by the caliber of the questions students ask in class, online, or in the office. Many of them are such mundane questions: “Will material from the book be on the exam?” “How long should the paper be?” “Can we use Google to find references?” “Would you repeat what you just said? I didn’t get it all down in my notes.” Rarely do they ask thoughtful questions that probe the content and stir the interest of the teacher and other students.

So, how do we get them to ask better questions? What if we start by asking them the kinds of questions we hope they will ask us? Here are some suggestions that might help us model what good questions are and demonstrate how instrumental they can be in promoting thinking, understanding, and learning.

Prepare questions — Too often we ask questions as they come to us. Allen and Tanner write in an excellent article on questioning, “Although many teachers carefully plan test questions used as final assessments, … much less time is invested in oral questions that are interwoven in our teaching.” (p. 63) How many questions of the kind that generate discussion and lead to other questions come to us as we are teaching? Would more of those thought-provoking questions come to us if we thought about questions as we prepare and contemplate the content for class?

Play with the questions — Questions promote thinking before they are answered. It is in the interstices between the question and the answer that minds turn. In that time before answers, questions can be emphasized by having them on a PowerPoint or on the board and by encouraging students to write the question in their notes. Maybe it’s a question that opens class and doesn’t get answered until the end of class. Maybe it’s a question that gets asked repeatedly across several class sessions with any number of possible answers entertained before a “good” or “right” answer is designated.

Preserve good questions — If a question does generate interest, thoughtful responses, and good discussion, that’s a question to keep in some more permanent way than simply trying to remember it. Good questions can be preserved along with the course materials for that day. Finding them there next semester enables us a revisit and possibly improve them. Do we need to be reminded that probing questions about the content, not only encourage students to think, they are good grist for the mill of our own thinking?

Ask questions that you don’t know the answer to — Students tend to think that teachers have all the answers. Could that be because we answer all their questions? Marshall makes a point worth remembering. Typically we ask students questions that we already know the answer to and if any of you are like me, while the student is answering, I’m quietly thinking how much better my answer is and how I will quickly deal with the student’s answer so I can then give my answer. Asking a question you don’t know the answer to lets students know that you still have things to learn. Asking students those questions and then thoughtfully attending to their answers also indicates that you just might be able to learn something from a student. Could this be a way to motivate them to ask better questions?

Ask questions you can’t answer — These questions are different from those you don’t know the answer to. It’s possible to find answers to those questions. These are the questions currently being confronted within the field or area of study that haven’t yet been answered. As of this moment, the answers are unknown. A question that can’t be answered is inherently more interesting than one that can be answered. Are there theories or research findings that suggest answers? Are some of those more likely than others? Could the answer be something totally unexpected? What if a student thinks she might have an idea about a possible answer?

Don’t ask open-ended questions when you know the answer you’re looking for — Sometimes students offer answers but they aren’t the ones the teacher wanted to hear. If you aren’t getting the answer you want, don’t play the “try to guess the answer I have in mind” game. It reinforces the idea that the question has one answer that the teacher thinks is the right or best answer. If the teacher has the answer, students are quick to conclude it’s the definitive right answer, and that makes it an answer that they won’t spend any time thinking about.

We ask questions to get students interested, to help them understand, and to see if they do. We’d like for our questions to promote lively discussions during which thoughtful perspectives are exchanged, different views presented and new ideas are born. To accomplish that goal we need to plan and use question in more purposeful ways. If questions start playing a more prominent role in our teaching, the reward may be students asking questions we’d find interesting to answer and they’d find more interesting to discuss.

Shouldn’t an article on questioning end with one? It should, and Allen and Tanner have a great one: “What would you predict would happen in your classroom if you changed the kinds of questions that you ask?” (p. 63)

Allen, D. and Tanner, K. (2002). Approaches to cell biology teaching: Questions about questions. Cell Biology Education, 1, 63-67.

Marshall, G. (2006). From Shakespeare on the page to Shakespeare on the stage: What I learned about teaching in acting class.” Pedagogy, 6 (2), 309-325.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 27.3 (2013): 5. © Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.