Teachers use hundreds of questions every day so it's important to use them with purpose and know which questioning techniques have the biggest effect in which situation.
From a pedagogical point of view, questions serve two crucial roles:
- To check for understanding i.e. to identify misconceptions and provide corrective feedback.
- To invite dialogue, that is, to help students develop a better understanding of themselves and their progress, share their deeper thinking and to make deeper connections within the content.
Some teachers consider these two purposes to be at odds with one another; they are not. The trick is to strike the right balance between the two and to use them strategically and at the right time within the learning process. The outcome of a good question, whatever its purpose, is that it encourages thinking.
Why questioning in the classroom is important
Besides checking for understanding and enabling deeper connections with the content, improving your questioning technique can also help develop a positive learning culture in your teaching by encouraging more in-depth exploratory dialogue. Whilst giving your learners the opportunity to provide knowledge-based answers is important, developing a positive learning culture increases understanding and learning.
Most questions we ask are procedural “have you written two sentences?”, “have you been to the toilet?”, however those associated with learning may be about assessing knowledge or understanding, or they may be prompting the learner to reflect and explain their thinking. They could also help prompt a discussion when analysing a topic.
Questions come in many forms and can be categorised into those which are lower order, often closed questions which require the learner to remember a single answer. For example 'how many sides does this shape have?'. Higher order are more open-ended questions and encourage learners to think. They can also have a range of responses such as 'describe this shape.' It is important that you use both of these types of questions for learning and assessment, however research has shown that we often use lower order questions more regularly.
Improving and extending the range of questions you use, benefits both you and the learner. Your learners are supported to develop their thinking and understanding of the subject. Effective questioning prompts discussion which can lead to greater understanding. It can also help you to uncover misconceptions. This then gives you better formative assessment data to improve future teaching and learning.
Effective questioning and discussion techniques in the classroom
To help create a ‘culture of inquiry’ that opens the minds of your students and provokes truly independent thought, explore these ten effective questioning strategies below. See complete explanations of all these techniques, in Alex Quigley’s original post on questioning in the classroom.
1. ‘Questioning Monitor’
Involve students in the evaluation and reflection of the classroom questioning process by choosing a monitor to be responsible for tracking how many questions are: teacher or student, open or closed, factual or conceptual.
This shows students that you want to improve the quality of your questioning and that of theirs too.
2. ‘Hinge Point Questions’
These (often closed) questions can be really useful for formative assessment as they mean the lesson can move in a different direction, depending on how well the students’ understand what has been taught so far.
3. ‘Socratic Questioning & Socratic Circles’
These six types of questioning, inspired by Greek philosopher Socrates, will create a critical atmosphere in your classroom that probes thinking and gets students to answer their own questions in a structured way:
- Conceptual clarification questions
- Probing assumptions
- Probing rationale, reasons and evidence
- Questioning viewpoints and perspectives
- Probe implications and consequences
- Questions about the question
Initiate deeper thinking by asking seemingly simple questions that open up a complex array of higher order thinking.
Alex’s examples of a thunk include: “If I ask if I can steal your pen and you say yes, is that stealing?” and “can I ever step on the same beach twice?”
5. ‘Key Questions as Learning Objectives’
Initiate thinking and group discussion that engages students in their prospective learning by starting the lesson with one question that gets them thinking about what they’re going to learn.
6. ‘If this is the Answer... What is the Question?’
Spark the inquisitiveness of your students by reversing the standard question and answer dichotomy.
7. ‘Just One More Question...’
Encourage your students to work collaboratively in groups to create an array of quality questions then give them a series of challenging question stems to broaden their range of questions. Stems include: ‘What if...?’, ‘Suppose we knew...?’ and ‘What would change if...?’
First pose a question to the class, pause, pounce on one student for an answer and then bounce that student’s response to another student.
Ensure you give sufficient time at the ‘pause’ point, as research has shown that the quality of responses and the confidence levels of students increase with even a short amount of thinking time.
9. ‘Question Continuum’
In pairs or groups, students devise questions on a given topic. Next, a visible continuum is created, either on the whiteboard or a display board.
A horizontal axis indicates the ‘Interest Level’ generated by each question, showing how likely the question is to inspire new thinking and possibilities. The vertical axis can perhaps represent ‘Complexity’ e.g. how far the question deepens understanding and general complex thinking.
Students stick their questions at the relevant points of the axis. Together, the class then feedback their opinions to identify the best questions which could then be chosen for further exploration.
10. ‘The Question Wall’
Similar to the ‘Question Continuum’; give students post-it notes to write their questions on and display them visibly. Asking students to commit questions to writing typically eliminates any that reflect a sense of ‘learnt helplessness’ e.g. ‘how do you spell...?’ when there is a dictionary on the table.
How to improve your questioning skills
Understanding the forms questioning can take and how you can use them is important. However, developing your use of questioning is not just about how you word questions, but thinking about how you are going to build the underlying ethos. Instead of questions just requiring knowledge recall, they should encourage a learning dialogue so pupils are more actively engaged, for example you could ask 'what would you add to that?'. This then supports the wider ethos of assessment for learning.
To effectively improve your questioning skills, follow these three steps:
1. Reflect on your current practice
The first step is reflecting on your current practice. Think honestly about your ratio of higher and lower order questions and the amount of wait time you offer. Using the Forms tool with IRIS Connect is the perfect way to measure this objectively.
Are you leaving sufficient wait time so that learners have a moment to think about their responses? This gives the opportunity for learners to reply rather than just the more able ones jumping in which can limit the overall learning experience. Using response methods such as talk partners or basketball questioning can encourage discussion. What tools do you give your learners to respond? Could you introduce new methods like mini whiteboards, lolly-sticks, or the pose, pause, pounce, bounce method?
Reflect upon what you are learning about each pupil from their responses to your questions. Could your questions be rephrased to give you deeper insight into their underlying thinking and possible misconceptions?
2. Gain a deeper understanding of questions and how to use them
Understanding types of questions and how you can use them is also important. Maybe look at concepts such as BLOOMS or solo taxonomies - these encourage a wider use of language such as ‘summarise’ and ‘explain’. Learners will need support to extend their answers to their questions as well. For example you could ask, 'please explain how you got that answer' or simply prompt further explanation by saying ‘that’s interesting, tell me more’.
3. Develop a classroom culture that welcomes mistakes
To stop them worrying about how their answers will be received, develop a classroom culture where mistakes are welcome and learners appreciate that mistakes present us with opportunities to further our learning.
Effective questioning in practice
The following clip is taken from a 12th grade English lesson in America, focusing on the development of higher-level understanding through effective questioning. The students here are 17 to 18 years old but many of the techniques could be developed with younger learners. Check it out to see effective questioning in practice
Ready to take this to the next level?
If you enjoyed the above and are keen to further improve your questioning skills, try recording your classroom practice on video and then watch it back for effective reflection. You may even want to share this video with a peer or mentor to gain valuable feedback.