What’s the question, who’s asking and why?

Questioning is such a powerful tool, particularly as a formative assessment strategy, that it’s a pity to to overlook its role in the classroom.

Research in this area highlights the value of questioning not just to evaluate, but to interpret. This means not just listening to see if the student has the ‘correct’ answer, but instead  listening in order to identify the level of understanding and the nature of any misconceptions.

Apparently the average teacher asks around 43 questions during each teaching hour.  But how many of these questions are concerned with class management or fail to graduate beyond the level of simple recall questions? Most teachers, when asked, are fairly certain that their questioning is better than satisfactory.  One way to confirm this is by having a trusted colleague observe your lesson or lessons specifically to take note of the way in which you question – the kinds of questions you ask and the purpose of those questions.

Planning the kind of questions that will be asked of students during a lesson (mainly open questions rather than closed) and designing questions that make higher cognitive demands of students (analysis, synthesis and evaluation rather than simple recall) both need careful consideration if questions are going to yield the kinds of student responses that are in fact open to interpretation. (Making note of the kinds of questions you might ask on a given topic can be part of your lesson planning.)

Questioning is also enhanced by the use of Wait Time (sometimes called Thinking Time) and Hands Down.  Both of these techniques allow students time to process their answers.  ‘Think. Pair. Share.’ serves the same purpose and additionally involves peer interaction.  The Hands Down technique, combined with the deliberate distribution of questions around the class, is designed to encourage participation by all students – any of whom might be called on to provide an answer, rather than just those with their hands up – and frees shy or slower students from the discouragement that can stem from the dominance of more confident and extroverted students.

If students provide limited responses to your original question, further prompting questions can provide insights into what they actually know and understand.  Indeed, further prompting questions can be useful even if the answer appears to be correct.  ‘Why do you think that?’ or ‘How did you get that answer?’ are both examples of prompting questions that elicit further information that can be used in a formative way.

Sometimes as teachers we have a tendency during a class to be too aware of time, and therefore fail to engage in this prompting, or to build on inadequate or incomplete answers. We choose instead to pass on to another student who is perhaps more likely to provide the level of response we’re seeking. The resulting missed opportunities to gain information about individual students can also mean that others in the class who share the misunderstanding remain unenlightened.

Finally, who asks most of the questions in your classroom?  You or the students?  Statistics – and experience – tell us that most questions related to learning are asked by teachers and that, in fact, specific time for students to ask questions is not always a scheduled part of the lesson.  And yet the questions asked by students can tell us a great deal about their level of understanding and provide further opportunities to address gaps in their knowledge.

For questioning to be effective, the classroom culture needs to be supportive, to encourage risk-taking and to promote the understanding that learning comes from making mistakes.  Teachers model for the students how to frame worthwhile questions, how to listen attentively to answers and how to respond positively.

If you would like to explore this topic in more detail, you might like to read the relevant chapter in my book: Improving Student Achievement, A Practical Guide to Assessment for Learning by Toni Glasson. Curriculum Corporation, 2009.

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