don't know a single teacher who doesn't try to use questions to encourage student interaction. The problem is that most of us don't spend a whole of time thinking about the kinds of questions we're asking students, how or why we're doing it, and whether there might be some things that we could do that would encourage more student interaction.
Since this is a piece about questions, I'm hoping you'd expect me to pose some. Let’s start with this one: What kinds of questions are students asking in your classrooms or online?
Are they provocative and stimulating queries driven by intellectual curiosity? Or are their questions more pedantic than provocative—how many words you want on a reaction paper, or how many of the homework problems they need to do, or whether there’ll be multiple-choice questions on the test?
Yes, those kinds questions are important to students, but they aren't the kind of questions that we'd like to have students asking us. We need to ask ourselves why students ask these not very inspired questions. Lately I’ve been wondering if it’s related to the kinds of questions we’re asking them. How often do we ask them provocative, stimulating questions?
The Reasons We Ask Questions
Let’s take a step way back and consider why we ask students questions. What reasons motivate your questioning strategy? Here’s a rundown of some of the most common reasons teachers ask students questions.
Perhaps the first, if not the most common reason, we ask questions is that we need feedback from students. We want to know whether they're understanding the content and, if they are, how deep that understanding is.
We also ask questions as a way to keep students engaged and attentive. It's hard for students to maintain high levels of attentiveness when the content chunks are large, complicated and delivered at length by the teacher. If there's an interlude where teachers and students are talking, there are some different voices heard, and that break makes it a bit easier for students to re-engage with the content.
We also ask questions because we want to stimulate intellectual curiosity. We want to get students to understand the role of questions in learning. They are actually what drives the whole learning enterprise. But there’s an important point that needs to be made here. Which questions more effectively stimulate curiosity and motivate learning: Are they the questions teachers ask students, or are they the questions that students ask themselves?
I believe we also ask students questions for some reasons that I would call punitive. We start class sessions by asking questions to see whether students have done the reading or the homework problems. We ask questions when see that students aren’t listening all that intently. We call on a student whose eyes are on his phone. Our goal is to keep students on their toes, just a tiny bit nervous. Maybe she's going to call on me, and I'm going to have to come up with an answer, I’d better pay attention.
Is asking questions for punitive reasons are always bad? I don’t think so. The question is how often are we using questions for those reasons? And how do we balance those reasons against the goal of using questions to stimulate intellectual curiosity?
We want to get students asking questions. We want them to understand that questions are a really driving force behind learning. There's a kind of a key idea that's runs through all of the reasons why we ask students questions. It’s the idea that there’s a difference between questions that promote discussion and questions that generate answers.
What’s a Good Question?
We want to be using the kinds of questions that encourage student interaction. And here the question for us is a simple one. What's a good question?
Do you know a good question when you hear it? How would you define it? Lately I’ve been paying attention to radio and television interviewers asking questions. And every so often, the respondent will say, “Gee, that's a really good question.” Now I wonder if they're just being polite or if it is a good question because it's one they haven't heard before. Or, maybe it’s a question that they don't have a ready answer for and so it's a question that's making them think.
In his book on questioning, Warren Berger writes about “beautiful questions.” They are questions that “challenge assumptions, consider new possibilities, and have the potential to serve as a catalyst for action and change.” The question for us is whether that description fits most of the questions we ask in class.
Questions that encourage interaction have a variety of characteristics. I’d like to focus on three of them. First, questions that encourage interaction are carefully prepared questions
. How often do you prepare yours? Bill Welty recommends
preparing a question outline that accompanies the material that you're presenting in class. And he doesn't mean that you just write a note in the margin that says ask a question here. His suggestion is that that you write out the question and incorporate it in your notes.
When I first read that article many years ago, I had to be honest with myself and admit that I never prepared questions before I went to class. I simply asked whatever came to mind. I also discovered that when I did prepare questions beforehand, the caliber of the questions I was asking improved considerably, and, no big surprise, so was the caliber of the answers that students gave to those questions.
The second characteristic of good questions
is that they are open questions
as opposed to closed ones. The difference between the two is simple. Closed questions usually have a one- or two-word, right answer. Open questions solicit opinions, can be answered in a variety of different ways and frequently lead to more questions.
It’s not that open questions are good and closed ones are bad. There is a place for both. Oftentimes, you can use closed questions at the beginning of a period to warm students up, to get some other voices going in the room, and to help students reconnect with previously covered content.
Typically, open questions require some thought. They can be approached in different ways. Open questions are of value in the classroom because they allow students to connect with the content in ways that are meaningful to them. Open questions push the conversation in different directions and that leads to more interaction.
The third characteristic of good questions involves whether or not we know the answer to the question
. I'm a big fan of Marshall Gregory's work, and he has an excellent article
in which he writes about experiences he had when he took an acting class along with students. He writes “We think we are inviting students to be active learners by asking them questions, but we can easily deceive ourselves on this point because usually, we ask few questions to which we do not already know four different answers that we are eager to explain.” (p. 313)
Once again, I remember reading that and feeling guilty. That’s exactly what I do. In fact, along with having good answers, I find myself critiquing the answers students are giving. When I ask a question and someone is giving an answer, I do listen, but as I'm listening, I start this other track playing in my mind about how it's really not a very good answer. Oh, my gosh, they haven't even mentioned X and Y. And that's what they think is a good example?
And while this track is playing, I begin formulating a better answer to the question than the one I’m hearing. So, when the student is done speaking, I'm usually gracious and thank him or her for their contribution, but then I promptly proceed to offer my (better and usually longer) answer. This does not encourage student interaction. It sends the message that the right and best answers always come from thee teacher. It’s one of the reasons why students so often pay little or no attention to the answers offered by their peers.
I wonder if there shouldn’t be a place in our classrooms for questions that the teacher can't answer or questions where the teacher knows several answers but is unable to identify one as the correct or the best answer. How might classroom interaction be affected if we started asking those kind of questions?
Tips for Improving Questions
Finally, let’s not conclude without considering some straightforward ways we might be able to improve our use of questions. Most of these are easily understood and endorsed, but not always readily implemented in the classroom. They take practice, but most of us have lots of classes in which we can practice.
First and very fundamentally , there’s wait time
. That’s the amount of time between asking a question and the next teacher action. I'm sure you know that it's short, very short—between 2-3 seconds, according to most research. But it feels a whole lot longer to teachers. Faculty consistently report they wait 10-12 seconds.
So how do you handle that time between the question and the answer? How does it feel? Many of us would describe it as awkward and uncomfortable. Students break eye-contact. They hunker down with body language that clearly communicates they don’t want to answer. If we let the discomfort get to us, then we tend to respond by calling on the first hand that pops up in the air. That relieves teachers of the awkward silence problem, but it's a strategy that often encourages over-participation. The student who usually gets his or her hand up first is a student who likes to participate, who is verbally confident, and who many times is not a particularly good judge of often they should be talking in the class.
Here’s a simple strategy that discourages over participation and encourages more student to volunteer. It’s called the Three-Hand Rule
. When you ask a question, wait until there are at least three hands up in the air before calling on someone. It takes some students just a bit longer to formulate an answer and to find the courage to speak.
One other suggestion for dealing comfortably and constructively with the silence
. When are questions most powerful? When are questions doing their work? When are they jumpstarting mental motors? When are they making students think? It’s that time between the question and the answer when students are trying to retrieve information and formulate a response. In this blog post
, I suggest a variety of strategies that faculty can do to lengthen the time between the question and the answer so that the question can do its work even better.
One final strategy: When do we most often ask for student questions? It’s often near the end of a class period or right after we have covered a chunk of content. And how do we phrase the question? Do you have any questions?
We hang the question out there. And while we're waiting for a response, what do we do? Rather than listening attentively and looking around for answers, a lot of us are taking stock. We're looking down at our notes, checking the time, and thinking Oh, my goodness, I've got three more content chunks to cover and only 15 minutes left. What am I going to do? Well, I am going to have to hurry along here
. So, we look back up. No questions? Good. Let's move on.
Phrasing the question in that way doesn’t do a very good job of communicating that we're serious about getting questions from students. Here’s a simple rephrase that makes a big difference. After you're done with the content chunk, look out, pause, and then say with a smile, What questions do you have?
If you want to convey the importance of questions to students, their value, and the central role they play in learning, prepare powerful questions, ask questions often, honor them with silence, and expect to hear better answers and more student questions.
Berger, W. A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas
. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014.
Gregory, M. “From Shakespeare on the Page to Shakespeare on the Stage: What I Learned about Teaching in Acting Class.” Pedagogy
, 2006, 6 (2), 309-325.
Welty, W. “Discussion Method Teaching: How to Make It Work.” Change
, 1989, July/August, 41-49.
Adapted from the 20-Minute Mentor program What Kinds of Questions Encourage Student Interaction? ©2014 Magna Publications.