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A question to ponder - Why do teachers ask questions

 A question to ponder: Why do teachers ask questions?

By Mike Womochil

Local Program Success Specialist

National FFA Organization


Why do we ask questions?

Is it because we don’t know the information we are requesting, or is questioning used in our classrooms to accomplish other things, such as assessing student knowledge, stimulating classroom discussion, helping students clarify their ideas and thought processes or leading them to consider new ideas and make use of ideas already learned? Regardless of the underlying purpose of the question, we can all agree that the art of asking questions is a wonderful tool to turn a student from a passive observer in the classroom into an active learner.

What kind of questions do you ask?

Are they closed-answer questions that require a simple regurgitation of facts or, even worse, a “yes” or “no?” Or, are they open-ended, eliciting an extended and well thought-out response? If you were to categorize your questions on Bloom’s Taxonomy, would they be found in a heap at the bottom, or would they be scattered throughout the levels of knowledge? Do your questions have only one or two answers (convergent), or are there multiple correct and even unknown answers that can be given (divergent)?

Is there an educational value to the question? Does answering the question allow the student to learn even more beyond providing the answer?

How do you get students to answer questions?

Do you call the student’s name before you pose the question? What do the other students in the class do as soon as you call someone else’s name? Do they continue to listen to the question and formulate the answer themselves? Sure, a few will, but do all? Would it be more effective to pose the question, allow all students time to formulate an answer, and then call a name?

Are you targeting your questions to student abilities?

If we pose the hard questions to the smart kids and only toss softballs at the ones we think aren’t as intelligent, what message are we sending the class? That doesn’t mean we ask our C students to “define the universe; give three examples,” but can’t we, at times, pose challenging questions to the average students and help them develop their answers? Will you ever build muscle if you don’t add weights to the bar?

How long do you wait for an answer before re-wording the question, providing assistance to the student or passing the question to another student? How long is long enough?

If research shows a 20-30 second silent wait period for responses usually provides adequate time for students to think, why do most teachers allow only two to three seconds of time before they redirect the question? Would allowing more time to think provide a higher-level answer? If answering speed is so important, what are we attempting to do? Train Jeopardy players?

How do you respond to student answers?

What do you do when a student just doesn’t know the answer? Do you dump him or her and run to the next student who has the right answer? Is the answer the most important thing in the process?  Would it be better to ask the next student to help the first student answer the question? What if the student gives an incorrect answer? Is it okay to say, “No, you’re wrong,” and ask someone else? Would it be best to work with the student to formulate a better answer?

If engaged learners are what we are striving for, can the embarrassment caused by giving a wrong answer, or being “zinged” by the teacher for a poor answer, cause a student to disengage for the rest of the class period? How would you feel if you were that student? Along those same lines, is it important to praise a good answer? Isn’t there time in the class period to stop and say, “That was a magnificent answer; thank you for providing it?” Again, how would that make you feel if you were that student?

What if an answer is incomplete or lacks depth?

How do you gain more information without leaving the first student as classroom road kill? Can you help students enhance their answers by asking the “Could you clarify that further?” “I don’t understand what you mean by…?” “Why do you think that…?” “What do you mean by…?” Don’t these techniques tell the student that you value their answer and help them work to provide more? After all, is the answer the only reason for asking the question in the first place?

When you get a partial answer, could you follow up with, “That’s a good start; anyone want to add to that with more information?” Wouldn’t this reinforce the effort made by the first student and keep them engaged in the discussion, while, at the same time, pulling the rest of the class into the discussion to add more?

What would happen if you asked other students to comment on a student response? Would this continue the thought process and student engagement longer than commenting yourself?

Is there more information being provided by students beyond just the verbal response?

Are there messages in body language? Are there students in the room who want to answer but lack the confidence to raise their hands? Are there signals being sent about who is engaged in the learning environment and who is not? How could a well-placed question to a student who is not engaged impact the situation?

Is it possible to teach an entire lesson just by asking questions? Didn’t you just read an entire article that only asked questions? (Yes, you did – all 56 of them!)

What do you think about that?

Source:  Inspiration and some content for this article provided by the Centre for Learning and Teaching at Dalhouse University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.