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The Questions Teachers Ask Students: Our Readers Respond

Editor's Pick Participation and Discussion Teaching Strategies and Techniques

The Questions Teachers Ask Students: Our Readers Respond

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A couple of months ago we posted a series of questions about teacher questions—the ones they ask students—and asked for your answers. Here’s a compilation of those responses with a few of my comments sprinkled throughout.

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A couple of months ago we posted a series of questions about teacher questions—the ones they ask students—and asked for your answers. Here’s a compilation of those responses with a few of my comments sprinkled throughout.

Teachers ask students, “Do you have any questions?” and while some students have questions that they should ask, they reply with radio silence. Are there better ways to get students asking about what they don’t understand?

“Let students post questions online,” Laura Schisler (Missouri Southern State University) recommends. She identifies several reasons why. First, doing so “allows students an opportunity to understand what they do not understand,” and that enables them to ask better questions. Second, it “offers a means for students to answer each other’s questions.” She elaborates that students can indicate that they have the same question, want to ask the same question but in a different way, or have a related question. Finally, online is a safer, less pressured environment for asking questions.

“Polls or online quizzing outside class can be used to canvass the entire class with minimal or zero class time expended,” writes Michael Gray (Bob Jones University). He starts class by sharing poll results of an “essential” question—one he and the class try to answer from their reading and class discussion.

Neil Haave (Augustana Campus of the University of Alberta)writes, “I count to 10 when confronted with radio silence. If the silence persists, then I ask students to break out into their team.” (Neil uses team-based learning.) “Instantly the room become noisy as students discuss my question. Turns out they have questions which they feel comfortable asking their teammates. Sometimes they don’t realize they have a question until they hear what their teammates are wondering. When they report back, they have answers and questions!”

Minna Ng (Duke University) points out that the teacher query “Any questions?” usually “comes after a lecture demonstration, or when students look confused.” She too has found that the question is regularly followed with silence. “More likely, students do know what questions they have. To help them figure out what they need to know, I ask students to make choices together in class. I use multiple-choice questions. Yes, M/C questions often get a bad rap because they are poorly constructed. If done well, a M/C question can be very effective in spurring debate and discussion. It can reveal misunderstanding and fuzzy thinking.”

If someone were to observe you on a typical day, how would they describe your use of questions?

“I want my students to think like microbiologists,” Michael Gray explains. “I show them how I think, not in the answers I give, but in the questions I ask. Their answers then lead students down a path of inquiry similar to the one an expert in the field might take. Students learn that answering a question always leads to another logically connected question. That way students leverage information and concepts in the service of answering questions.”

We always talk about “good” questions. What about “bad” ones? What are the features of bad questions—ones that don’t do much for learning or actually obstruct it?

Dana Leeman (Tufts University) doesn’t like “performative” questions. She wants her students to live in a place of curiosity. She shares a case vignette or concept or has assigned a reading that she asks students to discuss in small groups. “Their conversation is framed with ‘I am wondering’ or ‘I am curious’ without any pressure to answer a particular question.” In the class discussion that follows (or in a chat that subsequently becomes a resource), students share their ideas and emerging understandings. “When students have gone as far as they can, I will step in and fill any gaps or important takeaways they have missed. I’ve found that this approach really helps to minimize anxiety for students—that sense that they have to perform for me.”

“Fact questions are bad because students either know the fact or they don’t, so these questions don’t lead anywhere,” writes Michael Gray. He also objects to “treating a question as though it has one right answer when there are actually multiple defensible answers (probably some are better than others). Finally, he points out “questions (even good ones) lose much of their value when they are deployed rapid-fire without giving students a chance to answer before a second or third question lands on the table. Students don’t know which question to answer, and so they don’t answer any of them.”

Neil Haave agrees: “Bad question are the ones for which there is only one correct answer. I used to do this all the time when I first started teaching. Then it came to me: ‘Who’s going to attempt an answer?’ The stakes are too high—the chance to be wrong in front of everyone in the room risks looking foolish in front of their peers. I still catch myself asking one of those questions—especially when I have not prepared questions for that class meeting.”

With great honesty Lisa Warshaw (University of Pennsylvania) writes, “I taught for 30 years and thought I asked great questions. I was wrong; my questions worked for a narrow slice of teaching. Behind my questions was my course rubric. I loved my rubric! I had developed it over several years to address possible inequities caused by English language ability and the lack of confidence to talk in class. I thought my questions were good ones for students to ask each other: that’s where I was wrong. Working now on peer learning, I see that traditional teacher-centric question don’t work when students are working together and learning from each other.”

I would add leading questions to this list of bad questions—those whose answer is implied in the question. “Don’t you believe in celebrating birthdays?” When teachers ask leading questions, students know how they’re supposed to answer, which makes it much harder for them to answer honestly.

Let’s say a student wonders why questions are important to learning. How would you respond?

Michael Gray’s answer applies to many fields. “Questions are the engines that drive thinking. Learning is not merely the acquisition of a body of information. Learning in the truest and most durable sense comes from being immersed in a ‘way of thinking’ which is really how the discipline answers the questions it was invented to address. Real learning lasts because the process of justifying those answers requires engagement and ‘mental sweat.’”

Should teachers ask students questions the teachers can’t answer?

Absolutely, writes Valencia Moses (Cincinnati State Technical & Community College). She shares three questions she asks students during the first two weeks of a course:

  1. “When do you have time to study?” Students know their lives best. I don’t, but I want them to be intentional about their study times. I provide a weekly schedule template and have students color in the range of different activities that fill their lives. I want my students to see that they can plan for their success in college. They submit their schedules, which gives them practice with the online learning management system, and it opens professional communication with me.
  2. “What helps you learn?” I want student to reflect on their past successes and start thinking about what it will take to do well in their current courses. Notecards work for some people, watching videos for others, talking concepts over with a study buddy, whatever else helps students master the content. I want students doing what helps them learn in that time they’re setting aside for study.
  3. I bravely ask, “Who was your worst teacher and why? Who was your best teacher and why?” because I want to know how my students like to be taught. It is incredible how many years have passed and yet students can still recount in rich detail a moment that helped or hindered their learning.

Neil Haave often asks questions he can’t answer because there is still so much not known in biochemistry and molecular biology (and one suspects in lots of other fields as well). “I tell my students about things in the field that I don’t understand, and then I say, ‘When you get your PhD by figuring this out, please email me the answer.’ Students really enjoy that answer.”

If a new teacher asked for advice on effective questioning practices, what would you recommend? Are there any good resources on questioning you could direct them to?

Elizabeth Cox (Southern Utah University) would start by asking new teachers “to share a bit about their interest in effective questioning practices. I’d ask this because questioning plays so many different roles in the classroom and the strategies and protocols that might work best for one purpose (checking student understanding) might not be best for another (generating interest).”

These three books are Cox’s favorite questioning resources:

Rothstein, D., & Santana, L. (2001). Make just one change: Teach students to ask their own questions. Harvard University Press. https://rightquestion.org

In my experience, the QFT protocol introduced in this book is the ultimate way to shift the balance of power in the classroom. It allows learners’ questions to drive collective inquiry into any new topic and pushes learners to practice the lifelong skills of generating, improving, and prioritizing questions.

Ritchhart, R., Church, M., & Morrison, K. (2011). Making thinking visible: how to promote engagement, understanding, and independence for all learners. Jossey-Bass. https://pz.harvard.edu/thinking-routines and http://www.pz.harvard.edu/projects/visible-thinking

The thinking routines introduced in this book are fun to model, easy to learn, and highly transferable. They empower learners to slow down and develop strong metacognitive habits. 

Ryan, J. E. (2017). Wait, what?: And life’s other essential questions. HarperOne.

I love holding up the cover of this tiny book in class to emphasize that uncertainty about how to precisely phrase a question should not be an obstacle to posing it—something as simple as “Wait, what?” is perfectly acceptable and can be incredibly powerful in managing one’s learning. 

What questioning mistakes do new teachers frequently make? Did you make any of those mistakes? What have you learned about questioning that you wish you’d known when you first started teaching?

“Answering their own questions. Not allowing sufficient time for a response. Being unwilling to question their question and reformulate it when students don’t give the answer they anticipated. Not purposefully using a series of questions. Not listening to students or using their answers in follow-up discussion and questions.”

That’s Michael Gray’s list, and he continues: “In my 45 years teaching I’ve made all these mistakes (and more). It took many years to realize that students need a strong, supportive environment before they will put their thinking on display. They need a teacher who will give them the time they need to formulate an answer and then help them clarify their thinking. A few students are rapid-fire (microwave) thinkers, but many are slower (Crock-Pot) thinkers.”

What’s the one question you have about questions that you’d most like to have answered?

Michael Gray: “Why are we so comfortable labeling questions rhetorical instead as an invitation for thoughtful engagement?”

Neil Haave: “How do we handle questions with sensitivity when the answer is culturally dependent?”

If either of these questions or any of the replies contained in this collection motivates you to respond, be welcome to share your thinking. We’d be happy to add more commentary to the piece.

Questions are such an endemic part of teaching that it’s easy to take them for granted—to ask what we always ask, to ask expecting poor answers, to ask automatically and without intention. Hopefully, our questions and these responses will reawaken us to the power and possibility inherent in good questions.