Questioning is powerful yet hard to get right. It takes knowledge, practice and experience to use questioning as a tool to consistently improve learning. When teachers first start out, their questioning is not very good. This indicates that it is a technique that needs practice. Furthermore, it’s not unusual to see more experienced teachers use poor questioning too. That they’ve had years of experience yet still fall into the poor habit of bad questioning shows that we need to think carefully about this part of our practice. Like any skill, some teachers will be able to draw on their natural talent, but for most of us mere mortals, asking good questions is not a natural part of our practice. Its something we need to work on.
Why question at all? We want to use our questions intentionally to fulfil two broad purposes: to cause students to think and to check for understanding. How students think about new content has an impact on how well they learn it. Good questions can cause students to elaborate on new content and make connections with things they already know. This strengthens their understanding and helps them remember what they’ve learnt. Naturally, the message is not always received the way we intend, so we also want to use questioning to check for understanding so that we can make good judgments about how students are going as they build-up new knowledge.
Of course, there are many reasons questions don’t have the impact we want them to have, but I catch myself and other teachers making four common mistakes. Firstly, we direct our questions to too few kids, often the smart ones, which causes sampling problems. Secondly, we ask students to self-report on their understanding despite this being a poor way of gathering data on whether they truly understand; thirdly, we ask students questions that are pointless because they lack purpose; and lastly, even when we ask good questions, we allow students to give a poor answer, which requires very little thinking. These four errors – poor sampling, self-report, asking purposeless questions, and allowing poor answers – thankfully have practical solutions. Let’s look at the errors more closely and discuss how they can be fixed.
Error 1: Poor Sampling
A common habit that is hard to break is directing too many questions to too few students, usually only the clever ones. This occurs because, after asking a question, the teacher only nominates responses from students who have raised their hand to answer. The problem is only a few students raise their hand frequently, and some never at all.
Even teachers that know this is not good practice fall back on taking too many hands. This is because it is easy. We know students who raise their hands will provide a good, clear answer, so we have a bias towards picking them to respond.
If the aim of questioning is to figure out what students know then it makes little sense to pick a response from a volunteer because students only raise their hand when they are confident they have the correct answer. Of course, it sometimes appropriate to choose a hand, but if the teacher keeps choosing hands, they will end up with a poor sample of data to work from. It is fairly common for a teacher to ask three questions, pick three confident volunteers to answer, and then decide to move on due to the correct responses. This despite 90% of the class not having a clue what’s going on.
There are two ways we can address poor sampling. The first is to cold-call students. The teacher should ask a question, give students a good 10 seconds to think carefully about the question (or to talk to a partner), and then pick a student at random to answer the question. Picking a student at random is called cold-call. If the teacher cold-calls a series of questions, perhaps 4 or 5, then they will have a much more reliable sample to work from. They can use this sample to make a decision about whether to further teach a particular point or to move on.
The second way to address poor sampling is to implement whole-class response systems. At the primary level, this is often achieved using mini-whiteboards. The teacher asks a question, gives time for students to respond to the question on the mini-whiteboard, and asks the students to show their responses to the question by holding their whiteboard up facing the teacher. Because all students have responded, the teacher has fantastic data to work with. The main idea with cold-call and using a whole-class response system is to increase the number or students responding to questions so that the teacher can make a more informed decision on how students are going.
Error 2: Self-Report
Teachers tend to ask students to self-report when it is, at least at the primary level, a complete waste of time. To demonstrate what self-report means, imagine a teacher has just finished an explanation on cellular structure and wants to know if they can move on to the next topic:
Teacher: Okay, those are the basics of cellular structure. Everyone clear on the difference between human and animal cells?
Students: ahh, yeah
Teacher: Good, let’s push on to the role of chloroplasts.
(From Teach Like A Champion)
The teacher has asked the students to self-report whether they understand the material. This is a problem because students rarely have the self-regulation skills to realise when they don’t understand something. When you are a novice, it’s hard to know what you don’t know. You simply don’t have the knowledge to figure out what you don’t understand. Furthermore, the classroom is a social environment, so even though a student might realise they don’t get it, they may not self-report that for fear of looking ‘dumb’ (I think all teachers intuitively know this is true). By asking students to self-report their understanding, the teacher is getting false data. In the example, the kids report they understand the cellular structure, when in fact they do not.
Luckily, this is one of the easiest problems to fix. If a teacher has just taught the basics of cellular structure and wants the students to know the differences between human and animal cells, then instead of seeking self-report, the teacher should test the students on the content. Now I have not taught cellular structure before (I believe it is a high school topic here in Australia), so you must take my suggestion with a grain of salt, but the teacher could perhaps organise a 1-page mini-assessment which requires students to draw a plant and animal cell diagram and label it with a brief explanation for each label. The assessment could also ask questions on why plant cells have different organelles. By testing the students, the teacher will gain a much better understanding of how thoroughly students understand the topic. This can help inform the teacher if students are ready to move on or if more time needs to be spent teaching the topic. The main idea is to replace self-report with a more objective assessment of how students are getting on.
Error 3: Asking Purposeless Questions
Even when self-report is avoided, questioning often lacks intentionality. We sometimes ask questions that don’t really have a purpose, which causes students to think about irrelevant ideas. For example, imagine a teacher has just finished teaching kids about how to classify animals into the five vertebrate groups – fish, mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles. They then ask, which is your favourite vertebrate group? This question lacks purpose. Asking a question about how students feel about a particular vertebrate group does not help them learn how to classify animals into their respective groups. It causes them to think about things that are irrelevant. Students might say, I like birds the best because they can fly or I like fish because I like going fishing with Dad on the weekends. I see this type of question – one that asks for an affective opinion – all the time at primary level. It is a common mistake because it does not address the learning intention.
Teachers likely fall into this trap because they’re thinking on their feet while teaching a topic they haven’t covered before. I know I am more likely to ask irrelevant questions when I am underprepared on a topic I am less familiar with. The way to fix this is to plan questions before the lesson. Naturally, it becomes easier to think of relevant questions in-the-moment the more you teach as you’ll gain pedagogical content knowledge from the experience, but often, and especially early on, you need to be less spontaneous and more intentional with your questioning.
While preparing in the morning before school, I like to go over the lesson materials and jot down the problems students might have as they grapple with the learning intention. By identifying the sticking points, I can formulate questions intentionally designed to support their understanding. Using conjunctions to create compound and complex sentences is a big focus in Year 2 and I know from experience that students find it hard to distinguish between using the word so as an adverb and as a conjunction. Therefore, when we look at this conjunction specifically, I prepare some examples and non-examples with questions to direct student thinking to focus on how the word can be used differently. By preparing the questions in advance, they become much more intentional. I am less likely to ask questions that lack purpose because I’ve already thought hard about what I want them to think about.
Error 4: Allowing Poor Answers
Lastly, even when good questions are asked, sometimes teachers allow students to opt-out of answering properly. This is a problem because the point of questioning students is to make them think. If they opt-out or answer poorly, they aren’t thinking hard enough. For example, a teacher may ask a question to hone-down on what separates mammals from the other vertebrate groups: Bob, many people think a dolphin is a fish. What would you teach them? If a student simply opts-out by saying “I don’t know” or says “they don’t lay eggs” without elaborating on that point, then the student isn’t thinking hard enough. They’re unlikely to gain anything from answering the question you have posed.
Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion gives fantastic advice on how to deal with students opting-out. He recommends that teachers turn “I don’t know” into success by ensuring students who won’t answer or can’t answer practice getting it right. He calls this No Opt-Out.
Imagine you ask a student what 3 x 4 is and they say “I dunno” without really thinking about the answer. Most teachers will simply ask another student and leave it there. The problem is two-fold: 1) the student does absolutely no thinking, and 2) the teacher implicitly signals that not knowing is fine. So instead of just moving on and asking a different student, the teacher should come back to ask the question again. This time, they can’t opt-out because their classmate has just said the answer. The teacher can then follow up with another related question. Perhaps they could get the student to draw a representation of 3 x 4 on their board. The idea is that not engaging with the question simply is not an option. If a student does not know or does not want to think about the question, then they should be compelled to work harder so that they do know.
As for providing poor answers, Lemov recommends teachers not settle for poor answers, but to hold-out for answers that are “all-the-way-right”. He writes that “teachers are, in the end, the arbiters of quality.” The standard we set matters. When students give a poor, half-right answer, teachers should push for elaboration instead of settling. Coming back to our vertebrate example, where our students responded with they don’t lay eggs, the teacher could say:
- “True, they don’t lay eggs. Can you discuss why that is important?”
- “Good start, can you develop your answer?”
- “Okay Bob, can you talk about why you’ve mentioned eggs?”
- “Great, when you say they don’t lay eggs, is that all that matters?”
In holding out for all-the-way-right, you set the standard that fully elaborated answers are expected. An answer, in your classroom, requires thought. Naturally, to keep clarity for what you are looking for, it is also a good idea to script appropriate answers to your pre-planned questions. This will help you make decisions in-the-moment on whether you are happy with your students’ responses.
To recap, we identified four common errors teachers make when questioning their students. Thankfully, there are practical solutions that can be implemented to fix these problems.
For further reading, I highly recommend Teach Like A Champion. The book goes into detail on questioning and other techniques. I am constantly referring back to it. I urge you to pick it up.
I hope this blog has helped you improve your understanding of good questioning. If you haven’t already, connect with me on Twitter @johnkenny03.