Questions are an integral part of classroom life and essential to every teacher’s pedagogical repertoire. Questioning serves many purposes: it engages students in the learning process and provides opportunities for students to ask questions themselves. It challenges levels of thinking and informs whether students are ready to progress with their learning. Questions that probe for deeper meaning foster critical thinking skills, as well as higher-order capabilities such as problem-solving. Paramore (Paramore, 2017) identifies an imbalance of questions often found in teaching, saying there is a dominance of teacher talk and an overreliance on closed questions, providing only limited assessment for learning (AfL) information for a teacher. The issue then is how classroom questioning strategies can become more effective.
What the research says
The value of classroom questioning is well documented. Research tends to focus on the relationship between teachers’ questions and student achievement. Here are some of the important messages:
Types of questions used
Too often, questions from teachers are organisational, such as ‘What do we always put at the top of our page to begin with?’ or instructional in nature, such as ‘Who can tell me what an adjective is?’. Wragg’s early study (Wragg, 1993) found teachers commonly use three types of question:
- Management-related, e.g. ‘Has everyone finished this piece of work now?’
- Information recall-related, e.g. ‘How many sides does a quadrilateral have?’
- Higher-order questions, e.g. ‘What evidence do you have for saying that?’
In Wragg’s study, 57 per cent of questions were management-related, 37 per cent required information recall and only eight per cent challenged higher-order thinking.
Closed or convergent questions have low cognitive involvement and result in limited answers such as ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Open or divergent questions encourage greater expansion in answers and promote better classroom dialogue (Tofade et al., 2013). Closed questions are still important, however, and help assist in knowledge retrieval; but proceed with caution here, as the inevitable one-word student answers limit classroom dialogue. In order to maximise AfL in lessons, use different types of questions but limit the procedural and emphasise questions that centre on learning.
Student wait time (giving a brief period of time for students to think or reflect before answering) has a positive effect on learning. Brooks and Brooks (Brooks and Brooks, 2001) found that a rapid-fire questioning approach fails to provide teachers with accurate information about student understanding. Typically, the time between asking a question and a student’s response is about one second. Cohen et al. (Cohen et al., 2004) recommend wait times of three to five seconds for closed questions and up to 15 seconds for open-ended questions.
Complex questions promote complex thinking, argue researchers Degener and Berne (Degener and Berne, 2016). But is it really that simple? Samson et al. (Samson et al., 1987) found that highercognitive questioning strategies have a positive effect on learning, but this was not as large as has been previously suggested. Low-level questioning aimed at recall and fundamental-level comprehension is vital, but can plateau classroom learning. Higher-level questions can produce deeper learning and thinking, but a balance needs to be struck. Both have a place and a mixture of questions is recommended.
Over the years, classification taxonomies have been developed to guide teacher questioning. Perhaps the most well-known questioning framework is Bloom’s cognitive taxonomy (Bloom, 1956), later revised by Anderson and Krathwohl (Anderson et al., 2001). This framework covers six different types of question, which will all have uses in the classroom at different points and for different purposes:
- Knowledge, ‘Can you remember…?’
- Comprehension, ‘Tell me how this works…’
- Application, ‘Where else have you seen this pattern?’
- Analysis, ‘Explain to me what is happening here.’
- Synthesis, ‘What conclusions can you draw from this?’
- Evaluation, ‘Can you measure how effective this is?’
Trigger words are an effective way to formulate questions, as shown in Table 1.
Ideas to try in the classroom
There are many questioning tactics to
choose from to promote learning:
- No hands up. Anyone can answer, which avoids the same few students answering questions.
- In the hot seat. Students take it in turns to sit in the ‘hot seat’ and answer questions.
- Ask the expert. The teacher puts questions to a student on a given topic, extending this to encourage other students to ask questions.
- Ask the classroom. The teacher displays a number of written questions to stimulate thinking about pictures or objects in the classroom.
- Think-pair-share. This allows time to share ideas with a partner and respond to a posed question.
- Phone a friend. This is a useful strategy in which a student nominates another to answer the teacher’s question. The first student also provides an answer.
- Eavesdropping. When groups are working, the teacher circulates around the classroom and poses questions to groups based on what is heard in their discussions.
- Question box. An actual box has a series of questions in it devised by the teacher. Time is set aside at the end of a week to choose some to discuss as a class.
- Here is the answer, what is the question? This is deliberately back to front to encourage out-of-the-box thinking.
- More than me. The teacher asks a student a question and deliberately cuts short the answer to involve another student to build on this answer.
Shirley Clarke’s website has a wide range of practical resources on proven questioning strategies.
Things to take into account
Using a variety of question types can transform your classroom into a ‘questioning classroom’. A classroom ethos and organisation with enquiry at its heart is an effective one, where purposeful talk dominates and teachers ask fewer questions. Dialogic teaching (Alexander, 2017) uses skilled questions to extend thinking, where answers to teachers’ questions are built on rather than merely received.
Stephen Lockyer’s book Hands Up: Questions to Ignite Thinking in the Classroom is full of practical tips.
Jonathan Doherty works at Leeds Trinity University where he was until recently Head of Primary Education. He teaches on PGCE programmes specialising in professional studies. Jonathan is a Founding Fellow of the Chartered College.