5 questions to improve students’ questions (Part 1)

Questioning is frequently used in classrooms, but rarely as a knowledge-seeking method. Those who ask questions – teachers, texts, tests – are not seeking knowledge; those who would seek knowledge – students – do not ask questions.

-Dillon, 1988

Questioning is an important aspect of everyday educational experience. For increasing our awareness and understanding of this essential teaching and learning component, we introduce a 2-part mini-series discussing how we, as teachers, can address it in the classroom.

It would be difficult to find an educator that would raise an objection about the utility of questions as a teaching and learning tool. And yet, although we may generously pose questions and constantly provoke our students to express their own, we rarely consider the proper use of this valuable tool. The truth is: questioning in the classroom should come with a manual. It’s not hard to use, but it’s possible we are oblivious to many of its benefits that would improve our instruction. Let’s see how we can fully take advantage of this more-than-usual educational practice.

Let me describe a typical in-class snapshot from the teacher’s viewpoint. After delivering a load of new content and required skills to our students, we, more often than not, turn automatically to them and ask our most prominent question: are there any questions? And the response we often get: silence – you can actually hear a fly wondering in the classroom. You know it’s not possible they all got it all at once. You suspect they didn’t pay much attention while you were talking. You wish someone would ask something – anything – to get the discussion going and make your instruction “stick”.

What’s the obstruction in this common situation? The main challenge that rises is to showcase that questioning is a means for demanding and receiving knowledge. Students are sometimes too reluctant to ask because they are under the – sometimes correct – impression that our simple request (are there any questions?) is actually a trap leading to their assessment. This is because we often ask many questions with our minds fixed on the things our students should have learned and should have done. We can set a better example for our students when promoting questioning as a tool for inquiry.

Let’s approach this issue in an open-minded way: we and our students should both master the art of questioning. If we indulge in these good practices ourselves, we can then set the pace for the improvement of our students’ questioning and, even high-cognitive questioning. We should focus more on placing our questions in a form that provokes answers for the sake of teaching and learning; assessment can wait. It can be really encouraging for students to contribute to a discussion as equal partners. This doesn’t threaten our role as experts in the field we teach; our students are aware of our qualifications and they may even look up to us. Why not give them the space to unfold their perspective and reasoning through fearless questions? And, as a necessary second step, show them the road to essential questions?

In this first part of this mini-series about questioning, we discuss the critical role of questioning in the everyday teaching-and-learning educational context and how we, as teachers, can uplift it.

1. What are the factors that prevent students from asking questions?

One major issue that blocks our students from raising their hands to ask a question is not just the fear of our judgment towards their question per se, but also towards them on a very personal level. It breaks my heart whenever a student starts their question with the standard apologetic introduction: this might be a stupid question, but… Two aspects should be considered regarding this reluctance.

The first aspect has already been mentioned: they “fear” us because their question can give us an indication of their knowledge state and a “stupid question” could reflect on their grading. The second aspect relates to the possible, even harsher, judgment each student receives from their classmates. In this case, a sophisticated question could label a student as the “nerd” and “know-it-all”, while an unfruitful question could be the excuse for another kind of name-calling. Our positive attitude towards students’ questions can set the tone for the entire class: we welcome inquiry and we respect the inquirers’ differentiated approaches.  

2. What actions should teachers take to encourage questioning?

It is in our power, as teachers, to positively embrace “the display of ignorance, confusion, and lack of comprehension in the classroom” (Dillon, 1988, p. 205), that comes in the form of a question. There are some straightforward techniques that we can try. When setting questions ourselves, we should carefully select a limited number of them, with just the scope of activating students’ thinking and trigger a discussion.

When receiving questions from students, we should make the request calmly and give students a sufficient amount of time to come up with them. As soon as the questions come, we welcome them: we make students feel that their classroom is a safe environment for the expression of problems and doubts.

According to the content and the form of the question asked, we can answer it or pitch it to another student who would offer to answer it. There is also another way to go, especially when a particular question could be more productive: we can build on it, by making suggestions for improving the question or complement it yourself with an extra dose of inquiry, for promoting further thinking and research. Through this process, students take the message that every question is valuable for getting the lesson going and not a road that leads to grading and mocking.

3. What types of questions do students pose?

Two main types of questions are pitched in the everyday educational context: basic information questions and wonderment questions (Chin & Brown, 2002). These can derive from both teachers and students. When students are introduced to new content and skills, familiarizing themselves with these leads to basic information questions; understanding them reflects on wonderment questions.

Basic information questions can be factual or procedural. They seek simple information that demands mostly recalling of facts or steps for a procedure. This question type can be summarized as the “what-questions”; their answers are easily accessible with the unconditional help of a search engine.

On the other end, wonderment addresses a higher cognitive level that mostly implicates the “why-questions”. Such questions indicate the need for further comprehension, attempt for predictions, detection of anomalies, applications or consideration of strategies. Therefore, “because they require integration of complex and divergent information from various sources, and reflect curiosity, puzzlement, skepticism or speculation, they have a greater potential contribution for advancing conceptual understanding” (Aguiar, Mortimer, & Scott, 2010, p. 175). With every wonderment question posed in the classroom, we get closer to our ultimate goal: students’ meaningful learning.

4. What information can teachers gather from students’ questions?

Receiving students’ questions – and feeling delighted for doing so – can accelerate your understanding of the difficulties and challenges your students face. As a first step, you can differentiate between basic information and wonderment questions and get immediate insight into the learning phase each student is in (familiarizing or understanding). Then, you can adjust your instruction respectively.

Through their questions, you also get fruitful information about the prior knowledge they use as a foundation for the fresh content and skills you provided. Newly introduced elements inevitably pass through students’ filter of previously established representations; they will ultimately stick or be dismissed according to their fit with pre-existing and stable components of knowledge. This attempt to “find the best fit” is, to a great extent, expressed through students’ questioning.

There are a variety of information pieces that you can collect when you are open to students’ questions. You can detect useful connections to other subjects or relevant real-life situations, and “build” upon them. You can also extract personal interests and sources for motivation that will contribute to further inquiry and projects.

5. What guidance can teachers provide to promote high-cognitive questions?

Basic information questions certainly have their place in the classroom, however, every educator desires wonderment to get the lion’s share of questioning. There are two approaches for teaching your students how to go from “basic” to “premium:” by delivering specific instruction for the formulation of high-cognitive questions and/or by setting the example yourself. To benefit from both techniques at once, you can start with the latter and enrich it with some theoretical comments when you see an opportunity.

While students are still familiarizing with the new content and skills, you can set and accept basic information questions, emphasizing their role for that specific phase of instruction. As the lesson deepens, introduce some wonderment questions that go beyond the basics. Invite students to follow your lead when they pose a question: make suggestions for expanding a basic information question to more complex, but relevant, realms. Illustrate the win-win deal of posing wonderment questions: the inquirer promotes their critical thinking and the responder offers more thought-provoking answers.

Specific examples of improving the “nature” of questions are optimally placed within a particular framework of instruction. Approaches to Teaching and Learning (ATLs), proposed by the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO, 2015), suggest a holistic educational structure that involves both teaching strategies and student skills.

In the second part of our mini-series, we will walk you through the questions teachers should ask to improve students’ questions, in reference to the ATLs strands.

 Sources

Aguiar, O. G., Mortimer, E. F., & Scott, P. (2010). Learning from and responding to students’ questions: The authoritative and dialogic tension. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 47(2), 174–193. 

Chin, C., Brown, D. E., & Bruce, B. C. (2002). Student-generated questions: A meaningful aspect of learning in science. International Journal of Science Education, 24(5), 521–549.

Dillon, J. T. (1988). The remedial status of student questioning. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 20(3), 197–210.

IBO. (2015). Approaches to teaching and learning. Retrieved December 2, 2019, from https://xmltwo.ibo.org/publications/DP/Group0/d_0_dpatl_gui_1502_1/static/dpatl/

Pepy is an IB Diploma Programme Physics and Mathematics teacher, with an MA and PhD in Education. She is currently a Post Doctoral Researcher in teachers' education and also teaches at the University of Patras. As the Educational Consultant at 100mentors she empowers educators to turn theory into practice with educational technology solutions.

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