What Questioning is and why it is important

Questioning is one of the most integral characteristics of effective teaching and learning as it:

  • drives learning
  • creates a language rich environment
  • reviews learning
  • encourages engagement and motivation
  • develops critical thinking

The primary purposes of questioning include:

            To test understanding of a new concept

To deepen and develop understanding – The more you question the more you push a discussion forward, the less you leave unchallenged, the better your students will learn.

To ensure that all students are thinking

The way you question and the answers you accept sets your classroom culture.

The most effective teachers ask more questions, asking as many questions of different students as possible.

Common mistakes teachers make when questioning:

            Getting students to guess

            Asking the wrong student at the wrong time

            Asking an open question before teaching the knowledge to answer it

            Attempting to engage a poorly behaved or unfocussed class through discussion

Quote about Questioning

Rosenshine writes in his Principles of Instruction – ‘Ask a large number of questions and check the responses of all students. Questions help students practise new information and connect new material to their prior learning.’

Literature to read

  • Chapter 7 – Classroom Talk and Questioning – ‘What does this look like in the classroom’ – Hendrick and Macpherson
  • Chapter 6 – Questioning – ‘Making every lesson count’ – Allison and Tharby
  • Chapter 7 – Building ratio through questioning – ‘Teach Like a Champion 2.0’ – Lemov
  • Chapter 6 – Questioning: Rediscovering the potential – ‘Slow Teaching’ – Thom
  • Pages 195-208 – The Learning Rainforest – Sherrington
  • Chapter 12 – Confident questioning and feedback – ‘The Confident Teacher’ – Alex Quigley
  • Techniques 11 and 22 ‘No Opt Out and Cold Call – ‘Teach Like a Champion 2.0’ – Doug Lemov

Videos to watch

Blog posts

No hands rule

Three approaches to questioning which you can use in your classrooms:

  1. Random Questions. Draw names out of a hat, lolly sticks or use a random name generator. Here there is no option to disengage, all students must be prepared to answer at any given time. A second benefit is that there is no option to subconsciously exclude any member of the class. You can tailor your question to the ability of the student whose name is drawn.
  2. Directed Questioning. This is when you choose who you are going to ask. You can target the student for a number of reasons, you think that they were listening and understand, the student you don’t think was listening or to boost the confidence of a student. If you put the name of the student who is going to be answering the question at the end of the question, you keep the whole class listening until this point.
  3. Hybrid Option. You can randomly generate, or use direct questioning to begin with, and then when this reaches its conclusion hear from those who have their hands up. This way, students who have questions to ask or can move the discussion forward can be heard from, yet they do not dominate the lesson.

Closed to Open questioning

The two main types of question are open and closed. A closed question will have a short and definite answer. An open question requires a longer answer, which can vary depending on the respondent.

Open questioning encourages students to reflect, think and discuss their responses, not only in terms of knowledge, but also opinions and feelings. Closed questions are just as important. Before students move onto open questions, we need to know if they have got the necessary surface knowledge. Closed questions are important, for checking their knowledge. If they do not, there is no point in moving onto deeper concepts.

Raise the Challenge

Plan your key questions in advance of the lesson. These questions should get progressively more challenging, building from closed to open, each requiring a more complex response than the last. In order to do this successfully, start with the end point. What is the major challenging idea or procedure that you want the students to understand or be able to perform by the end of the questioning sequence? From this, work backwards, devising a series of closed questions that allows you to be secure of the class’s surface knowledge, drawing in any previous knowledge that will be relevant, making links across the curriculum. Include questions that will address misconceptions about the topic. Always keep in mind that your questions should aim to support all to reach the top so that they can all achieve a solid understanding of the original stem question.

Socratic questioning

This challenges the accuracy and completeness of thinking. Six levels of question are important:

  1. Get students to clarify their thinking
    1. Why do you say that?
    1. What do you already know about that?
    1. That’s a really interesting point – could you explain further?
  • Challenge and probe students about their assumptions
    • Is this always the case?
    • Do you agree or disagree with this?
    • What is that response based on?
  • Demand evidence
    • Why do you say that?
    • Can you give me an example of that?
    • Is there reason to doubt this evidence?
    • How do you know this?
    • Can you support that statement with evidence?
  • Look at alternative viewpoints and perspectives
    • What is the counterargument for…?
    • Can/Did anyone see this another way?
    • What are the advantages/disadvantages of this?
    • An alternative view of this is it … What do you think about it?
  • Explore implications and consequences
    • But if … happened, what else would result?
    • How does … affect …?
  • Question the question
    • Why do you think I asked that question?
    • Have you got any questions about my original question?
    • Why was that question important?
    • Which of your questions turned out to be the most useful?

Turn a I don’t know into a I know!

There will always be the student who responds to your question with “I don’t know”, silence, or a shrug of the shoulders. Moving onto another student when this happens gives the message that it is ok to say “I don’t know” meaning that students may choose not to think of an answer.

Strategies to help when faced with “I don’t know”:

  1. Give the student the answer and ask them to explain how you got there.
    1. Give them two options and get them to explain which they agree with the most.
    1. Remind them of the facts.
    1. Rephrase the question.
    1. Think, pair, share.
    1. Respond with “If you did know, what would you say?”

If these approaches are not successful, move on and ask another student, then respond to the original student and ask them to repeat the answer. This shows that there is no opt out option!

Don’t forget, there is often a good reason why a student is unable to answer the question. One of the purposes for asking questions is to find out how much the student knows, when it becomes clear that they don’t know what you hoped they would, maybe you need to return to explanation, especially if a number of students don’t know.

Supporting struggling students

It is vital that superficial or underdeveloped answers are not accepted. The standard of academic excellence should be set and based on academic language and thought. Questioning should support students’ thinking, helping students to answer tough and intellectually demanding questions. By one-on-one questioning you are supporting that student through the struggle, helping to develop resilience in your subject.

Serve and return

Questions should probe student understanding and make them think. In order to achieve this avoid asking isolated questions. You should always aim to ask at least one follow-up question to a student response. This means that students have to get into the habit of making connections between the learning and what they already know. It also stresses the point that superficial responses will not be accepted in your classroom.

Remember to Pause

Give waiting time to students once you have asked them a question. Thinking deeply takes time and effort.

Pause for 3 – 5 seconds after posing a question before asking for an answer. Resist the temptation to break the silence. This can feel unnatural. However, because students have had time to think deeply, if often results in a fuller, richer response. For more challenging questions, allow even longer wait time, even up to 20-30 seconds. Think, Pair, Share is another useful way to introduce wait time.

Also consider pausing for 2-3 seconds after the answer before giving your response. This will give the student time to reflect on their answer, or in some cases to backtrack, modify and further elaborate on their answer.

Devise the Questions Themselves

In order for students to gain independence and to become owners of their own learning, you will need to encourage them to ask their own questions. When we are curious, we ask questions. When students ask questions, they are more likely to discover gaps in their own understanding and work out what they need to do or find out next.

Chaining Questioning

One way of encouraging students to stay engaged is to share the questions across the class. Each question follows on from the previous answer and students have to be listening in order to get the next question right. This approach encourages careful listening and keeps each member of the class attentive as it could be them next. If the answers are factually short and to the point, it is excellent for revision and recapping tasks.

Consider upgrading chained questions. Whoever answers your question must think of another related question to ask somebody else.

Probe the Continuum

Choose a question and then show a continuum from ‘yes’ to ‘no’ on the board. Students have to stick a post-it note along the continuum in answer to the question. You then conduct a discussion based upon the positioning of the post-its ensuring that students justify their choice or challenge the position of others. You can develop this strategy by adding key words that students must include in their explanation.

This is an opportunity to think ideas through before speaking and helps structure written answers.

ABC questioning

Introduce students to Agree, Build on or Challenge (ABC) questioning. After you have heard one idea, ask the next student whether they would like to ABC. Insist that they comment on the previous student’s remark and that they speak formally. Finally, class, group and paired discussion can also be supported using discussion stems. Make these visible in your classroom and insist that students use them until they become habitual. Think carefully about the stems you choose: make sure they are sharply focussed and try and keep the number to five or six, any more will mean that they are not used as effectively.

Hinge Questions

This is a method of checking the understanding of all students at a key point in the lesson before moving the learning on. A good hinge question should:

            Be quick and easy for the teacher to ask

Be quick for the student to respond to – multiple choice questions are a popular option

Be designed so that a student is only likely to get the answer right if they understood the key point.

Be designed so that wrong responses inform the teacher about the misconceptions the student may have

Respond in the Moment

Plan your key questions in advance, but as soon as students start responding, your questions may have to be altered. You need to think on your feet and shape your questions around the answers that you get.