Published Online: June 1, 2011

Updated: March 24, 2012

Teaching Secrets: Asking the Right Questions

The science lesson was in full swing when I walked into my inclusion class. The students seemed attentive, following along in their books as my co-teacher read the science text aloud. Every so often, my co-teacher paused to ask a question: "What are renewable resources?" "What are two examples of non-renewable resources?" Students revisited relevant sections of the text and eagerly raised their hands to answer. Afterward, the students were directed to re-read the text, take notes, and respond to the questions at the end of the chapter.

The students seemed to be on task—but how much were they learning?

I walked around the room, checking in with individual students. I asked one student (let’s call him Jake) to explain a section of the text in his own words. He smiled, looked at me, and said, "Oh, I don’t know, I’m not reading this—I’m just looking for the answers to these questions." With a heavy heart, I read over his shoulder. Jake had produced all the correct answers (and perhaps sharpened his ability to locate facts in a text), but there was little evidence that he understood what the information meant or had built connections to his background knowledge.

I was not surprised—just completely frustrated. Sometimes the pressure of "teaching the content" can interfere with our ability to assess whether learning is actually occurring. My co-teacher was not alone in falling into this pattern. Research has demonstrated the value of effective questioning, but the stats are depressing: About 60 percent of all teachers’ questions fall under the category of "recall," the kinds of questions that require students to regurgitate facts.

So how can we break our patterns of asking recall-type questions? By weaving effective questioning techniques into our daily practice, we can create classroom environments that engage students in inquiry and problem-solving. I have some suggestions that have proven helpful for my co-teacher and me.

First, a few tips for setting the stage:

Cooperative learning is a must. Shake things up a bit sometimes. Break free from traditional row seating to allow students to collaborate. Setting aside time for socialization around your topic will increase active learning, and generally works best when students are free to engage in dialogue. Divide the class into two groups, small groups, or pairs.

Encourage students to ask their own meaningful questions. Prepare lessons that make your job as facilitator painless. Remember the idea is to have your students in charge of their learning. You want them to ask meaningful questions, seek relevant answers, and explore the thinking of peers with an open mind. You can guide their ability to investigate and vary their thinking around topics by providing a visual scaffold (such as Bloom’s taxonomy) that guides them to think critically. Plan to "listen-in" during each group’s discussion. Jump in as necessary—adding questions, giving compliments, or making comments that will help students dig deeper.

Observing can be part of learning. Think about how much you learn as you observe students. Students can also learn by observing one another. Give those quiet ones a purpose for listening and new ways to share their thinking through oral or written expression. Encourage students to take turns being active listeners and speakers. You’ll be surprised by how much it will help the quiet students assume a more active role in learning. It can also work wonders in strengthening the listening skills of those students who tend to "steal the show."

Give yourself time to roam. Take advantage of opportunities for assessment, which are plentiful during student discussions and inquiry. To make the most of this time, prepare a grid or have a notebook handy with a list of all students’ names. During class, you can jot down your observations and snippets of what you hear them say. This provides valuable insights about students’ learning in the moment and can help inform future lessons.

Some effective question types to deepen learning and keep discussions going:

Open-ended questions leave room for students to say what's on their minds without worrying that there is only one right answer. These questions also give students a chance to justify their thinking by explaining their responses. What’s your opinion of…?

Diagnostic questions require students to explain information and formulate some kind of understanding of what could be going on behind the scenes. What would happen if…?

Challenge questions ask students to analyze, apply, and evaluate. Do you agree or disagree…why?

Elaboration questions nurture students' listening and speaking skills as well as comprehension skills. Can you add your thinking to…?

Extension questions inspire students to think beyond the text. Can you think of an original way to…? How would you adapt this to make it different?

It’s All About the Questions

When effective questioning is commonplace in the classroom, students grow more confident in evaluating how new information connects with what they already know. They learn to respect the varied thinking of others—and are energized by hearing others’ questions and answers. When a teacher regularly asks students to analyze, apply, evaluate, and adapt what they have learned, they are more likely to generate their own meaningful questions. And this kicks up the level of learning—both in the moment and in the future.

By the way, my co-teacher and I did go back to build upon that science lesson. Our students worked in groups to recap the main points, as we roamed around to provide individualized support. We modeled questions that required students to go beyond just repeating the text: What did you notice about…? How would you compare…/contrast…? How would you paraphrase…? How does this connect to what you already know about…? (And my all-time favorite, who can add his or her thinking to…?). By the end of the class, students were directing questions to one another, and engaging in animated conversations about what they read. This strategic session pushed each student further, while sweeping peers along for the ride.

Now, that's what learning looks like.

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