June 27th, 2012

Three Ways to Ask Better Questions in the Classroom


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.

  • Priya Mary Mathew

    A very good input. Questioning within class teaching has always helped to break the monotony of one-way communication from the teacher's end. Also, it helps in gaining a quick insight if intended learning objective has been 'learned' by the students. These three simple strategies will help me to use this 'tool' better. Thank you!

  • Sometimes I ask my students a thought-provoking question and ask them to get the answer by the next lesson. During the next class, I will refresh the question and see if any of them were able to find out the answer. When various responses are volunteered, and I facilitate their not-so-correct responses by throwing more challenges – those are some of the more enjoyable lessons we have in class – as we all work together to arrive at the "light-bulb" moment.

  • Frost

    Having students attempt to answer in writing a thought-provoking question at the outset of class can be useful in both focusing their attention and getting more students to respond in the subsequent discussion, I have found. (Some students need time to formulate their answers and writing gives them this pause.) Also, the question does not have to be directly connected to the text under scrutiny; it can connect the text to world events, individual experience, etc., thus broadening the class's interest in the text.

  • Deirdre Reyes

    The points you make about questioning in the classroom are worth considering. The first point you make about preparing questions is particularly important. I would add that when an instructor asks questions during the lesson, they tend to be at the literal level and do not demand too much from the student. When questions are prepared beforehand, an instructor can ensure that they are hitting higher levels of cognition and urging students to think critically. These questions are more difficult to formulate. That also goes to your other point about preserving good questions. I like the idea of also reusing great questions that students come up with for subsequent classes. I agree with the previous post about allowing students time to think about responses before answering. This can be achieved during class time by allowing time for silent reflection and thinking before answering and having students discuss their thoughts in small groups or with one other student before responding to the entire class. This can lead to a very rich discussion and even more critical thinking.

  • askgoodquestions

    Wise comments on the importance of questions. But, instead of hoping for this: "Eventually students may start asking better questions themselves," what if, from the outset, students learned to ask their own questions? We've been amazed by what teachers around the country and the world are now doing with the Question Formulation Technique (www.rightquestion.org), and students report feeling far more engaged and excited about their learning when they learn how to ask their own questions.

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