June 27th, 2012

Three Ways to Ask Better Questions in the Classroom

By:

I’ve been doing some presentations on classroom interaction and thinking yet again about how we could do better with our questions — the ones we ask in class or online. Good questions make students think, they encourage participation and I think they improve the caliber of the answers students give and the questions they ask. To achieve those worthwhile outcomes more regularly, I’d like to recommend three actions that have the potential to improve our questioning.

1. Prepare Questions – For most of my teaching career, I never planned the questions I would ask. I spent lots of time preparing the content; making sure it was current, getting it organized, finding examples, working through explanations, relating what I shared in class to content in the book, but I never prepared questions. I just asked whatever came to me at the moment. Not surprisingly, I asked a mixed bag of questions—some stimulating and provocative; some mundane and not especially clear. When a question was unclear (I could tell—nobody answered and lots of people looked confused), I rephrased it and in the process I usually ended up asking a different question, which only increased the confusion.

It was an article by Bill Welty (it’s a classic piece on discussion that I still reference regularly) that motivated me to try going to class with some prepared questions and it made a world of difference. When you write out a question, you can make it clearer … not just the wording, but clearer conceptually. Is it the question that needs to be asked? When is the best time to ask it? I can list more reasons why preparing questions is such a good idea, but I think if you try it, you’ll be persuaded.

2. Play with Questions – Sometimes we forget when questions are most powerful, when they best engage students, and when they are at their thought-provoking best. It’s in that space between the question and the answer. As soon as the question is answered, it loses most of its power to engage students. Yes, some students continue to think, especially if the question is intriguing, but given students’ propensity for answers, once they hear one and the teacher says it’s correct, most of them stop thinking about the question.

Playing with the question means leaving it unanswered for a while and using some strategies that encourage students to think about it. The question might appear on a PowerPoint slide or written on the board. Students might be encouraged to write the question in their notes. They might be given a bit of time to write some ideas or discuss potential responses with another student. The teacher could collect several different answers, discussing their various merits and detriments before designating a right one. Maybe the question appears at the beginning of the period but isn’t answered until the session is almost over. Maybe an answered question returns on a subsequent day when more information and greater understanding enables a better answer.

3. Preserve Good Questions – Good questions can be kept. They can be asked in a subsequent class, perhaps revised or refocused so that they accomplish the good question goals even more effectively. Sometimes I jotted a few notes about the answers students offered and discovered that simple act helped me revise the question and content surrounding it.

Occasionally a student asks a really good question and there are reasons to save those as well. When you solicit questions and there aren’t any, but you think there should be, you might be able to start the process this way, “While you are thinking of questions, let me share one a student in a previous class asked about this.” The teacher I first saw doing this also oohed and ahhed a bit about the question and using student questions this way demonstrated how he remembered and valued what students ask.

We should be working on our questioning techniques, but not just because our questions are more effective when skillfully used. We need to ask good questions so that students see the importance of questions—how they make us think and help us learn. Eventually students may start asking better questions themselves, including ones we can’t answer. And those are the best questions of all.

Reference: Welty, W. M. “Discussion Method Teaching: How to Make it Work.” Change, July-August 1989, pp. 40-49.