May 28th, 2014

The Art of Asking Questions


hands raised in class

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.

  • Mike

    Maybe it is we who should look at the Art of Setting Exam Questions.
    Shortly before retiring, I was asked on several occasions to invigilate single students taking an exam. Almost all of the time the student did not need me and certainly did not need 'controlling'.
    Examination regulations specify that only things related to the exam can be worked on: no reading as of old. In the quiet and calm of an exam room it's difficult not to feel ones eyes closing.
    In an attempt to abide by the regulations and stay awake, I grabbed a sheet of (examination) paper and started sribbling down my idea of a modern, life reflecting exam.
    After a couple more sessions I had come towards suggesting:
    -that students could bring their course notes
    -they could bring one course text book
    -they coukld bring in a mobile phone to send and receive messages (must be on silent)
    -students would have a computer terminal connected to the internet at their disposal.
    The students would be informed of this well before the exam. They would also be informed that they would have A LOT of questions and that it would be quite difficult to complete all of them
    Think: the 'A' students would complete and do well without recourse for additional help; the intelligent students, not knowing some answers would know where to look for them and…
    Isn't this what happens in the working world? We cannot know everything but the more experience we get the sooner we can solve a problem. Even if it means asking someone.

    With the Internet so readilly useable, it gets rather difficult to accurately assess course work. Most teachers/tuters who know their students could probably fairly accurately grade them. But we still need something that challenges all and reduces the individual assessment discrepancies.
    Just an idea.

  • Prof. D Gopinath

    In a very general subject like Principles of Management etc, the students may be thinking of many other things than exactly what the faculty is thinking. Also in the case of an averageclass at least 15% of students are thinking differently than what the faculty is thinking so his question will be the one he is thinking and we should not think that the student is not thinking in our line. In specxific subjects like accounts or cost accounts or tax there is always one answer normally here the chancesof thinking diferently does not arise. The faculty be better prepared to answer out of the box questions.

  • L.J. Black

    Ask students to write questions. They have great questions, and they always start where their knowledge ends and their interest begins. Be sure to use their questions on exams, in classes, between groups, or begin with their questions and build on them. Give credit to the student(s) whose questions you have offered up, if you are choosing among them. And see if YOU can answer those questions yourself!

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