June 5th, 2013

Questions about All Those Questions Teachers Ask

By:

For some time now my good friend and colleague Larry Spence and I have been discussing the role of questions in the college classroom. The conversation started with concerns over the quantity and quality of questions students ask—those earnest questions about what’s going to be on the exam and gently demanding queries about what the teacher “wants” in almost any kind of written assignment. Those questions are important to students, but they certainly are not the questions of curious learners nor are they the type of questions that motivate learning and intellectual development.

It didn’t take us long to decide that the questions teachers ask students are part (we think a large part) of the problem. Teachers don’t usually prepare questions—we ask whatever comes to mind when it comes to mind. We ask questions we know the answers to and we almost always follow the answers students give with our own bigger and better explanations. In some cases, the way we use questions diminishes their value in students’ eyes. We ask questions to keep students paying attention and direct queries to those who aren’t. We ask questions to see who has and hasn’t done the reading. We ask questions to see how well they understand. Those questions do benefit students because if they don’t understand a concept, we give a fuller, possibly clearer, explanation. But even that doesn’t benefit them as much as it would if we helped them make their own answers better.

But it is at this point Larry and I disagree. I believe that if we improved our use of questions, the questions students ask us would improve. Larry writes (our face-to-face conversations frequently continue online), “There is no role for teachers asking students questions. No studies that I know of show that instructor questions work as well as alternatives like letting students respond to provocative declarative statements and encouraging their questions with silence and nonverbal affirmations.” And I have to agree that the research is pretty much on Larry’s side—a synthesis that summarizes and references this research appears below.

But here’s my quandary: given students’ previous educational experiences, if we stopped asking, would they start asking and would their questions be those good intellectual queries that lead to learning? Larry acknowledges that previous classroom experiences have taught students negative things about questions. “Children learn early on that their role is to answer questions and not to ask them. As students advance through school they ask fewer and fewer questions. Questions become a signal that you don’t understand and that can mean you are stupid.”

Despite these educational experiences, Larry points out that learners still ask good questions. “Outside of classrooms children have no problem asking interesting questions that lead to learning. Indeed the older they get, the more and better questions they ask. Student questions are powerful in learning precisely because they belong to the student, are created by the student, and are driven by the student’s curiosity.”

Larry admits that teachers find student questions troubling. They aren’t the type of questions “an expert would like to hear. However, as students learn, their questions become more sophisticated. Learning a subject, moving from novice to expert-like, produces better questions. So we can’t just teach students to ask better questions, they have to learn the subject to do that. Their novice questions are openings for teachers to intervene by supplying demonstrations, information, knowledge, and guiding principles. If students’ questions remain naïve and simple-minded that indicates that they are not learning.”

Larry makes one final point: students learn to ask better questions when they practice asking questions. When I respond that thoughtful practice might do the same for teacher questions, Larry calls that a “work-around”—trying to work around the habit of too much teacher questioning when the better solution is to break that habit and devote energy to developing student questioning skills.

So what do you think? Is there a role for teacher questions in college courses? Before this discussion I would have said absolutely. Now I have questions and I’m motivated to find answers. Larry thinks that proves his point.

Reference: Gall, M. D. (1984), Synthesis of research on teachers’ questioning. Educational Leadership, 42 (3), 40-47.