June 5th, 2013

Questions about All Those Questions Teachers Ask


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.

  • perryshaw

    Personally I think the research is flawed because it does not adequately distinguish between types of question. My experience is that convergent questions are largely a waste of time – better simply to give the students the answers. However, carefully designed divergent questions drive students to wrestle with issues at a deep and profound level. I have adapted Bloom and Krathwohl (http://thetheologicaleducator.net/2011/01/31/question-design-for-holistic-theological-education/) to try to come up with a gamut of question approaches that have been tried and tested successfully in the classroom with positive results. The problem is not the use of questions, but what kind of questions.

  • W Patterson

    I agree with the comment by perryshaw. The link below is to a review that provides a wider and deeper perspective than the cited article

    See: http://www.education.com/reference/article/questi

  • abel longoria

    Responses should be based on the readings or assignments for that chapter or class being taught. Sometimes we tend to answer questions based on our experience and most of the time we believe we are correct. Unless proven otherwise, a proper response should be based on what was being taught for that particular class at that particular time.

  • KarenTK

    Asking questions is risky, but it is an important skill that needs regular coaching, isn't it? I agree with perryshaw that the type of question is important, too. Parents can also make a significant difference, as discussed in this article: http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2013/05/to-get-st

  • Laura S

    I have always felt that questions are more important than answers. If we do not ask questions – especially the hard questions – we do not begin to seek answers and thus do not learn something new. I ask questions for students as prompts for their journaling – questions that ask them to reflect on what they have learned and form a personal opinion or perspective on the topic or issue. I also have my online students ask these sort of questions of each other as well as questions of curiosity seeking factual information beyond what they already know. Here's my assignment directive for this: http://www.nvcc.edu/home/lshulman/q&adiscussi… I also provide examples of question stems to guide them in asking good questions (those that get us all thinking): http://www.nvcc.edu/home/lshulman/learning/deepth… Sometimes I get students who ask questions that I have never thought to ask, that get me thinking! (I may borrow these for use as future journal prompts). But sometimes I still get students who ask simple questions that they already know the answer to (or should). These seem simply to be testing their classmates' knowledge (test type questions). I do not give credit for asking those sort of simplistic, unproductive questions.

  • Does the medium of the questions make a difference?

    For instance, do a different set of considerations apply if a teacher writes questions as opposed to speaking them, i.e., using written discussion, homework questions, questions that need to be answered through a major written project? Or are those kinds of questions part of a different discussion?

    I've long been interested in questions in teaching. But this post has made the topic fascinating in a new way for me. I'll have to look at the studies referenced in the post and other comments and give it some more thought.

    The fact that I'm motivated by Maryellen's questions sort of "proves" her point rather than Larry's, unless I am really motivated by Larry's own "provocative declarative statements," thus "proving" his.

    Paul T. Corrigan
    Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

  • askgoodquestions

    Thanks so much for this interesting discussion and thanks to Larry for his argument to "devote energy to developing student questioning skills." More than a decade ago, The New York Times asked college presidents what should a student know after four years of college. Leon Botstein talking about the need to know how to ask "strategic questions" and Nancy Cantor talked about the need to know how to "ask the right questions." Students should actually be learning to ask questions much earlier in their educational journey. Colleges should be continuing that process, but it does require making that commitment to "developing student questioning skills" rather than even the Socratic Sage at the front on the classroom. See the work of The Right Question Institute (www.rightquestion.org) and the book Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions published by Harvard Education Press http://hepg.org/hep/book/144/MakeJustOneChange.
    The book presents a process for students to produce their own questions, improve them and strategize on how to use them that is now being used in a range of higher education environments (from community colleges through four year colleges and research universities).

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  • Ramesh Menon

    it is a very interesting discussion…If we position ourselves as a learner amongst other learners, it becomes easier to interact with the course/ class content either by forming questions or by answering other's questions! I find that asking questions sometimes gets you answers which are provocative and insightful!!! it generates meaningful discussion and understanding. the course content must be exposed / discussed / deliberated upon in necessary minimum and then we ask q / generate q!
    the most profound question is "silence" of the teacher and so is the most profound answer!!! Let the student decide on the q or a.
    it is like the zero in the number line …don't know if its a question or answer….there is discussion before and discussion after , but in the moment of realisation /learning or understanding there is silence…to lead to that goal, the teacher may adopt whichever path he / she is used to travel and the learner may follow…..once mature in a path of enquiry (say of questions and leading questions and closed / open ended enquiry…) it may be adventurous / exciting to look / experience an alternative path (of answering / answers …)