Questioning can be very powerful: it can really focus the mind (Kline, 2015). Part of our teaching toolkit will usually include questioning. There has been a lot of emphasis on using questioning effectively in schools over the last two decades and I think we can learn a lot from those efforts in the university sector. Questioning is one of those teaching skills that we can often take for granted, as just something you do.
My use of questioning has been raised as a development point in one form or another in most of my observations, so I decided to dig a bit deeper. In feedback, my tutor observed that sometimes I ask ineffective questions and don’t use wait time as effectively as I could. In shadowing my new colleagues I could directly observe how a lack of wait time and vague questioning can be problematic. Students seemed to struggle to voice what they were thinking or to answer questions. They often ignored direct questions.
My professional target is therefore to improve my questioning to more effectively meet the diverse needs of my students. Having sought the support of my mentor, college tutors and the wider community of practice, I knew it was going to be a challenge to unlearn bad habits!
There is an emotional response to questioning. Many students do not want to appear to get it wrong. They dislike the “cold call” and “fear makes you dumb” (Swartz, 2016, p. 291). As Geoff Petty cautions, nominating people to answer can affect “student comfort” (Petty, 2009, p. 197). This is sometimes justified to a degree if it helps learning but needs to be used carefully and with discretion. Directed questioning is one of those issues where I am ethically torn. I understand the idea that “hands up” or volunteer approaches disadvantage weaker students and prevent some students from participating, because others rush in with the right answer instantly. It also tends to stop students having a guess and thinking about the answers, because they know someone else will volunteer (Black, Harrison, Lee, Marshall & Wiliam, 2007). I’m also acutely aware of the inescapable power relations inherent in the classroom; as Stephen Brookfield argues, teaching can never be “innocent” and “the sincerity of their intentions does not guarantee the purity of their practice”(Brookfield, 1995, p. 1). Putting a student on the spot can feel coercive and an abuse of power as the teacher. This is why teachers must critically reflect on their practice and “probe beneath veneer of a common sense reading of experience” (Brookfield, 1995, p. 7) to make sure we are focused on our students and their learning and we can meet their diverse needs.
For teachers, I think there is also an emotional issue with questioning. The moment of silence in the classroom feels much longer than it really is. If no one answers we feel we’re not engaging enough or we haven’t explained the topic clearly or students will lose interest (Black, Harrison, Lee, Marshall, & Wiliam, 2007). This may be the case but it is more likely to be a problem with the way we are asking questions. Questioning can create a hostile environment and it can sap away any ease you have created in the classroom. We also need to understand why we are asking questions: what is it that we are hoping to achieve? Previously I have always approached questioning as way to maintain engagement and avoid me talking too much. But it should also be about both checking and developing understanding.
Top ten tips for effective questioning:
- Wait time to give students enough time to think about the question, and think about their answer. Lack of wait time disadvantages weaker students (Petty, 2009). Also, if the students know you will jump in after a few seconds, they know they don’t have to participate. A study by Rowe in 1974 found teachers on average wait for just a second before rephrasing, redirecting or answering the question themselves (Rowe, 1974). The Assessment for Learning research recommends a wait time of 12 seconds to elicit more responses, but also longer and more confident ones (Black et al, 2007). My wait time is about four seconds according to my tutor based on my most recent observation, which is an improvement but still feels like forever! Next time you ask a question try counting the seconds that pass in your head, you’ll be surprised how few seconds have actually passed.
- Rather than ask “Is everyone okay” or “do you understand that?” we should be asking questions that make the student demonstrate their understanding, so we can correct any misunderstanding and assess learning. My tutor picked up on this horrible habit of mine to just simply ask if people were okay and then move blithely on when met with stony silence.
- Ask students to explain their answers. Just because a student answers correctly, doesn’t mean they understood. Use your question to start a dialogue on the topic (Black et al, 2007).
- After setting each task, ask a particular student to explain what the task is about and what they have to do. This stops students going off in the wrong direction on a task. My tutor gave me this tip early on and it is very effective at checking students actually understand the task!
- Ask questions that go beyond recall. Instead of asking students to recall a fact, state the fact and ask why. My mentor recommended using Bloom’s taxonomy to scaffold questions. There are also resources to help support this on the Teacher Toolkit blog (Morrison McGill, 2013).
- Plan questions, put them in your lesson plan.
- If you decide directing questions is appropriate make sure you know students’ names and that you have built sufficient rapport. Also think about the dynamics within the classroom between students. You can always use a mix of questions for keen beans and “conscripts” to answer (Ali, 2016). Never ask questions to catch out people not listening! You’ll lose all your rapport and people will be expending their energy worrying you’ll show them up, rather than actually learning.
- Start with an opening round where each student introduces themselves and contributes briefly to a discussion or shares something about themselves. Nancy Kline has said “No one has entered a room until they have spoken” (Mycroft, n.d.). Sometimes we just need to get students to break that initial barrier to speaking for them to feel comfortable answering questions later on.
- You don’t need to feedback immediately to a student’s answer; simply say thank you and ask others if they agree or can they build on the first answer. After all, just because one person answers correctly, doesn’t mean everyone understood. Geoff Petty calls this Assertive Questioning (Petty, 2009).
- Get students to come up with an answer in pairs and feedback using Think-Pair-Share activities (Petty, 2009). This takes the pressure off. You can limit them to a minute to think to save time.
Putting it into practice:
This is an ongoing development point for me, but I have focused so far on wait time, developing better questions and using directed questions. I taught a session yesterday where I was particularly pleased with my use of questioning. After developing rapport with the group early on, I used names to direct questions which meant that everyone participated and I could much more clearly assess learning taking place. My wait time was much improved (I counted the seconds in my head) but I didn’t manage to reach 12 seconds because one of the students would offer an answer before that point. This definitely elicited more responses and students were more willing to venture answers they were uncertain of. I asked many more “why” questions by expressing statements and then asking for the students to explain why to me. Having these in my lesson plan was really useful. I also sought lots of answers from around the room before discussing the correct answer, which was a useful exercise and got the group discussing the key issues, plus ferreted out some misapprehensions!
This blog post has drawn on advice from my tutors at Northern College, my mentor and the wider community of practice, including blogs and other sources. The title of this post is taken from Sam’s Town by the Killers on their album of the same name.
Ali, A. (2016, February 6). What I do… questioning. Retrieved from https://newtothepost.wordpress.com/2016/02/06/what-i-do-questioning/
Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & Wiliam, D. (2007). Assessment for learning. Maidenhead: Maidenhead : McGraw-Hill International UK Ltd.
Brookfield, S. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Kline, N. (2015). More time to think : The power of independent thinking. London: Cassell Illustrated.
Mycroft, L. (n.d.). The applications of a thinking environment. Retrieved from https://teachnorthern.wordpress.com/about-us/about-the-thinking-environment/about-the-applications-of-a-thinking-environment/
Petty, G. (2009). Evidence-based teaching : A practical approach (2nd ed. ed.). Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes.
Rowe, M. B. (1974). Wait-time and rewards as instructional variables, their influence on language, logic, and fate control: Part one-wait-time. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 11(2), 81-94. doi:10.1002/tea.3660110202
Swartz, A. (2016). The boy who could change the world : The writings of aaron swartz. London: Verso.
Morrison McGill, R. (2013, January 4). Pose, Pause, Pounce, Bounce. Retrieved from https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/targeted-questioning-by-teachertoolkit-6303256