November 10th, 2009

Student Questions: Quantity and Quality Issues


In their review of literature section, the researchers listed below summarize findings from a number of studies regarding student questions. “It is well documented that student questions in the classroom are very infrequent and unsophisticated.” Averages reported in six different studies range from 1.3 questions per hour to 4.0. According to this research, teachers ask many more questions than students do—perhaps that’s to be expected, but should 96 percent of the questions asked in the classroom be teacher questions?

As for the kind of questions, students ask, “they are normally shallow, short-answer questions that address the content and interpretation of explicit material; they are rarely high-level questions that involve inferences, multistep reasoning, the application of an idea to a new domain of knowledge, the synthesis of a new idea from multiple information sources, or the critical evaluation of a claim.”

Some of you will note that I’m referencing a study published in 1994. Maybe students are asking more questions now than they were then. They could be—it does depend on the class, as well as the teacher. The research has current value if it prompts you to consider how many student questions are being asked in your class and what kind of questions are they.

I know that in my classes most of the student questions were ones that fit the description given above: “Do you want us to staple our papers?” “How many multiple-choice questions will be on the exam?” “How well do we need to know the material in the book?” “Can we form our own groups?”

After politely responding to several of these questions one day, I told the class that although they may consider these important questions, they were not what I would call “good” questions. A good question wonders about an idea, it might ask about a connection between two concepts, it might ask for evidence, or it might even challenge a conclusion given in the text or by the teacher.

To encourage these types of questions, I said, “Next time I hear one of those questions, I’m giving that person three bonus points.”

I came up with this more or less on the spot and afterward I chastised myself for once again using points to motivate students. Of course it worked—you can get some students to do almost anything for a point. But once I got two or three “good” questions and explicitly compared them with the other kinds of questions (which I assured students I would continue to answer), I think students saw the difference and the value of the second kind of questions. I know for sure that at least one student saw the light: “I have a question and I don’t want any points for asking it.” For a moment there I thought I’d I died and gone to instructional heaven.

Reference: Graesser, A. C. and Person, N. K. “Questions Asking during Tutoring.” American Education Research Journal, 1994, 31 (1), 104-137.

  • Hi, I've been following your blog on and off for a year now and am currently trying to catch up on the last 40 posts, haha. Very insightful posts. :o)

    I teach a high school physics class and I felt what you described highly reflects my classroom. This year I also started offering a bonus point for student questions and end up sometimes with rather "lame" questions. :oP :o) I know I need to clarify what a "good" question is so they know the direction to go in, so I appreciate your description of a good question. Is there any way you would change or elaborate on it for younger students who don't grasp the idea as easily as college students do? (Given, I'd say it's very high level thinking many people may not be accustomed to regardless of age.)

    One thing I'm still working on, and you touch on it a little bit in your post, is that the motivation is bonus points. What I've noticed is I still get the same students asking good questions, with or without the bonus point, indicating my motivation isn't really making a difference. Perhaps the other students who want the point just don't "know how", which I guess brings up back to my first question.

    Also, I guess this may be a good problem I have that I'm not sure how to deal with yet, but sometimes the students ask good questions that would be excellent opportunities to open it up to a class discussion, but there simply isn't time because there's "material to be covered". I end up giving a cursory explanation, having a cursory class discussion, or telling the student I'll follow up with them individually about it (and sometimes following through). Whereas, I would ideally like to capture the moment and really delve into the question as a class and have them ask and address each other's questions with my guidance. On one hand, addressing the question as a class could open up a conversation that addresses the "material to be covered", yet sometimes the answer is too complicated or not "related to the standards". I supposed that starts a bigger philosophical conversation about why I'm (and other teachers) choosing (and somewhat required) to teach things on a schedule as opposed to have students learn what they're actually curious and interested about… haha…