November 6th, 2013

Better Questions are the Answer


Good answers depend on good questions. That’s why we work so hard on the content of our questions and why we should work with students on how they ask their questions. What also helps to make questions good is asking the right type of question. It goes to intent—what we want in the way of an answer. The type of question we ask conveys this intent to the listener.

Question typologies begin pretty simply—most of us know that closed-ended questions are answered in one or two words and have correct and incorrect answers, as compared to open-ended questions that invite longer, less definitive responses. Most of us regularly use mirror and probing prompts that ask the respondent to talk more about an answer or to probe more deeply into part of the response.

A lot of us also ask leading questions without being aware that we are doing so. These are questions where the answer is implied in the question and they’re usually phrased in the negative: “Wouldn’t you really rather have a Buick?” (an example that dates me, I know). “Don’t you think it’s important to differentiate between the cause and effect?” These questions are especially pernicious in relationships where one party has a certain amount of power (like grades) over the other. Whether this power takes away students’ ability to speak freely, they generally perceive that it does.

But leading questions are not always inappropriate in educational contexts. If you’re using an inquiry-based teaching approach where you don’t want to answer questions that students should be answering on their own, you can help them figure out what they need to know by asking them a leading question. In this case, the question doesn’t contain hints about the answer you want to hear, rather, it guides students to the information they need in order to discover the answer for themselves. You don’t ask this type of leading question without skill and practice.

Several studies of online exchanges have used a five question typology first proposed by Andrews in 1980.

  • Direct link questions – Here we are asking for interpretation or analysis of something specific, like an aspect of an article, a quotation, some text content, or online resources. “What do you think of the author’s suggestion that whole discussions be graded rather than individual contributions to them?”
  • Course link questions – As the name suggests, these questions ask students to take information from the course and link it to the text. Students might be asked to use a course concept to explain something in an assigned reading. “The text says that people are often motivated to participate in discussions of controversial topics. How might cognitive dissonance explain this motivation?”
  • Brainstorm questions – These questions want respondents to share a collection of ideas and information. “How might teachers encourage students to offer better answers?”
  • Limited focal questions – These questions present the respondent with options for comment, often involving comparison and contrast. “What should teachers do: praise student answers more often, or give them more time to prepare answers?”
  • Open focal questions – Here the questions present an issue, offer no alternatives, but solicit the respondent’s opinion. “How should teachers respond when students give a wrong or not very good answer?”

Some researchers have added an application question to this typology, which supplies students with a scenario and then asks for responses that incorporated course content.

The Andrews typology has been used in several recent research analyses of student questions in online discussions—asking, for example, which of these types of questions students asked most often and which questions stimulated critical thinking. The results so far are inconsistent.

Most teachers use the Andrews question types, but not always consciously or thoughtfully. Knowing what type of question is being asked can result in a more purposeful use of questions. If shared with students, a typology like this just might help them better ask the question they’d like to have answered.

Reference: Andrews, J. D. W. (1980). The verbal structure of teacher questions: Its impact on class discussion. POD Quarterly, 2, 129-163.