Over the past decades, observational research studies have highlighted some common approaches used by teachers when asking questions in the classroom.
These studies have investigated how to ask better questions in lessons.
Based on these research findings, there are a number of areas which teachers should reflect on to improve their use of questioning.
Of these, five of the most commonly cited topics will be considered for discussion.
To improve how teachers use questions in the classroom they should consider:
A good place to start when considering how to ask better questions in lessons is to explore the types of questions teachers ask in lessons.
In 2017, Paramore, identified an imbalance in how teachers used questions.
He found that there was an over reliance on closed questions and that teachers asked too many poor-quality questions.
The questions that teachers ask in lessons can be broadly categorised into three types:
However, the question is, ‘which type of question is used the most?’
Percentage usage of each question type varies between each study but general reported patterns identify that ~50% of questions as asked to manage the learning environment; ~40% of questions are asked to check learning; and ~10% of questions are asked to promote new learning. These percentages are presented in this pie chart.
It is therefore clearly apparent that teachers need to ask questions that promote opportunities for new learning and new thinking.
Teachers need to reduce their excessive focus on ‘reproductive’ thinking (recalling prior knowledge) and enhance their focus on ‘productive’ thinking (new thinking and ideas).
By asking better questions which increase opportunities for students to engage in new thinking, teachers will enable their students to progress their knowledge and think more critically using more higher order thinking skills.
If you are interested in finding out what my favourite questioning techniques are you should check our the article above.
When a teacher asks a question they will need to wait for student(s) to respond with an answer.
‘Wait time’ is essentially the amount of time the teacher waits before expecting a response from the students.
The term wait time was coined by Mary Budd Rowe in her 1972 article, ‘Wait-time and rewards as instructional variables, their influence in language, logic and fate control.’
Rowe observed many teachers in the classroom and concluded that the average wait time provided by teachers was one-and-a-half seconds.
She even found wait times as low as one tenth of a second.
Wait time can really be thought of as ‘thinking time’, and by only allowing such short periods of time for students to think and respond the teachers in this study were denying students time to think and generate new learning opportunities.
When Rowe asked teachers to increase their wait time to 3 seconds, she was able to demonstrate positive enhancements in both student and teacher behaviour and attitudes.
It was proposed that the additional wait time not only allowed more time to think but also provided students with a chance to take risks.
Although Rowe’s study was conducted in the 1970s, multiple observational studies have been conducted since and all have reported broadly similar results.
It is therefore worrying that teachers are still typically exhibiting the same low wait times from the 1970s until the present day.
For example, Brooks and Brooks (2001) found that short wait time did not provide teachers with accurate information about their students’ knowledge and understanding and Cohen et al. (2004) recommend wait times of 3-5 seconds for closed questions and up to 15 seconds for open questions.
These findings suggest that teachers need to slow down the pace of their lessons when asking questions and allow students more time to think and take risks.
Short wait times may be a result of a fear of ‘losing the class’ if silence creeps in, or the common direction given the teachers that their lessons should progress at a suitable pace and students need to be active and engaged at all times.
The silence that occurs when students are allowed time to think is fine and students will be engaged.
Teachers and students should not be fearful of short period of silence and should place more value of thinking time for students when asking questions.
It is very common for teachers to ask a question and then request an answer from a student who has their hand up.
Why this is so common makes no sense when you think about it carefully.
Generally speaking, why has that student raised their hand? Probably because they know the answer. Therefore, the question is not challenging this student. It does allow the teacher to check the knowledge of the student but only this single student.
Similarly, why haven’t the other students raised their hands? Probably because they don’t know the answer. This allows these students to be passive and disengaged from the learning.
Even with these two simple points highlighted this strategy is clearly not effective for most situations when questioning in being used.
Instead, teachers should adopt a ‘no hands up’ policy in their lessons.
This way, teachers have a few options for how they can use questions in their lessons to engage all students and enhance the level of stretch and challenge they achieve.
Teachers can use a mix of direct and undirected questions to ensure they have control over which students answer.
Instead of asking single students single questions, a better way to manage this scenario would be to put students in pairs or groups and ask all students to think about the question being posed. Students can then feedback their responses and meaningful discussions can emerge.
Teachers can ask better questions by varying the type of question they ask and also the combination of question types they ask.
Teachers can also vary the way they use direct and indirect questions.
An example of how this may work is as follows…
The teacher asks a series of closed questions to check student prior learning. Building in this knowledge, the teacher follows this by asking open, divergent questions which promotes new thinking. If students respond positively to this open question the teacher can proceed with further such questions to progress thinking further. Alternatively, if students are unable to fully respond to this open question as the teacher had expected, the teacher can ask another closed question to draw upon student prior knowledge which may assist them in responding positively to the open question.
Another example might be the use of a specific questioning technique such as ABC Questioning. The teacher can use specific questions to enable students to ‘agree’, ‘build’ and ‘challenge’ ideas and perspectives, other students and the teacher themselves.