Asking Questions

Need a simple way to keep your class paying attention? How about asking some questions?

Questioning has long been a method to illicit student involvement in the classroom. It can make students more attentive and help them better absorb the material, especially in large classes, where other forms of active learning are less feasible.

However, questioning can be ineffective if you don’t get the students to really think. But, that’s easy enough to do. Here are a few pointers on how to structure and deliver your questions to the class.

  • Try to keep your questions open ended. Questions with one word answers don’t cause students to think critically. Open-ended, multilayered questions invite students to carefully consider material from multiple sides.i
  • It is important to try and get the questions going into a discussion. This can get a number of students involved in the idea, and forces them to consider the implications of the subject matter in greater depth. Also consider taking the questions and discussions online if in-class time is limited.ii
  • Try and ask one question at a time. If you raise too many issues at once in your question, it may confuse the listeners.iii
  • Encourage the students to ask questions to themselves and to you.iv
  • Try to prompt students to explain their ideas in detail, and give supporting arguments for them.v
  • Keep in mind that all questions and answers have a point. Even if you don’t agree with the student’s idea, or they simply have a wrong answer, remember to always be respectful. Ask them for evidence of their argument, or provide a satisfactory counter argument. Don’t just shoot them down without explanation.vi
  • Avoid singling out one or two students. Try to involve as many students as you reasonably can. vii Consider using technology like iclickers or TodaysMeet to involve all students in answering questions.
  • iclickers can be used to encourage students to answer controversial or opinion questions, as well as to gauge mastery of content.
  • When planning you class outline, remember that questions are a great way to segway into a related topic, or introduce an entirely new topic.viii
  • By starting a class with a question, and giving the students a few minutes to discuss it amongst themselves(think-pair-share), you can engage them early on and it will keep them more attentive during the rest of the lecture. It also gives them an idea of the complexity of the concepts that you will be discussing, and can spark their interest.ix
  • Think ahead: How many questions am I going to ask in a lecture?; How much time to give to answer a question?; What do I want to accomplish with a question - opinion, factual, conceptual?; What am I going to do with the collective response?

If you wish to learn more about how to use questions in your classes, contact the Centre for Teaching and Learning at ctl@ualberta.ca

Sources

  1. Carlson, W. S. (1991) Questioning in Classrooms: A Sociological Perspective. Review of Educational Research, 61(2), 157-178.
  2. Myhill, D. And Duncan, F. (2005) Questioning Learning. Learning and Education, 19(5), 415-427
  3. Renner, P. (1993)Asking Beautiful Questions. In The Art of Teaching Adults: How to Become an Exceptional Instructor and Facilitator. 40-47. Vancouver: Training Associates.
  4. Roth, W. M. (1996) Teacher Questioning in an Open-Inquiry Learning Environment: Interactions of Context, Content, and Student Responses. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 33(7), 709-736.
______________________________________
iMyhill & Duncan, 2005, pg 417.
iiCarlson, 1991, pg 157.
iii Renner, 1993, pg 46.
ivMyhill & Duncan, 2005, pg 417.
vMyhill & Duncan, 2005, pg 425.
viRoth, 1996, pg 711.
viiRoth, 1996, pg 710.
viiiRoth, 1996, pg 724.
ixMyhill & Duncan, 2005, pg 426.

Questioning: Q and A

Questions can be a very helpful tactic to encourage thought and introspection among your students. However, it can be difficult to figure out what questions to ask, and how to get students to bring them into a discussion format. These are some of the more common questions asked by teachers.

Q: Is it better to call on the participants by name or ask the questions and hope for volunteers?

A: The short answer is that both options work. Calling students by name may encourage them to speak, but it is important to go around the class at random and select students, rather than reading a list. If you have an order which you call people, some students may lose interest until it is their turn. Alternatively, you can assign the questions beforehand so that everyone has a chance to think through them, and then let volunteers speak up in class times, so that the shyer students will have a chance to think through the topics, but not be put in the spotlight.

Q: How do you get students involved who never volunteer an answer?

A:  There are a number of ways to encourage participation:

i. Try to encourage all the students to participate within the first two weeks. The longer a student goes without speaking, the harder it will be for them to start participating.
ii.    Try to get the students comfortable with each other early on by planning some kind of icebreaker, or group event where students can learn about each other .
iii.    Divide students into small groups every once in a while. Students will be more comfortable discussing ideas with their friends, and will come back to the class discussion more confident about their ideas.
iv.    Before the discussion, hand out three cards to each student. Each time a student speaks, they must turn over a card. Each student must use all their cards in each class, and cannot speak if they’ve used all of their cards. This will not only encourage shy students to speak, but limit the domination of the discussion by the more extroverted students.
v.    Try assigning a small task to a quiet student for the next class, such as looking up a fact or definition. This way you can start the next discussion by asking about it.
vi.    Stand or sit next to a student who has not contributed. They will feel more pressure to speak.

Q:  Is it really a good idea to repeat participants’ questions to make sure that everyone heard?

A: Not always. If a student was quiet, and you don’t think the people at the back heard, then by all means repeat the question. Also, if a student has a long, rambling question, paraphrasing it may help the students focus their thoughts better. However, if you repeat too many questions you run the risk of boring the students, or encouraging them to answer you instead of their fellow students. Repetition should only be done on an as needed basis.

Q: How should I deal with someone who has just given me the wrong answer?

A:  Don’t tell the student that they are wrong – tell them the answer is wrong. Don’t name them or assign blame. Have another student in the class correct the answer or explain the concept better. Try and figure out what thought process would have led them to that answer and go through the process step by step. If one student had the wrong answer, chances are there are other students who need help with that concept too, so it is best to re-explain the material relating to the answer.  

Q: Sometimes I just don’t understand an answer enough to know whether the response was right.

A: Ask for clarification. Request that they rephrase, or restate their answer in different words. If you still don’t understand, ask the rest of the class if they can clarify what point the student is trying to make, and help him/her explain it.

Q: What if someone takes forever to answer is repetitive, rambling or has trouble organizing his/her own thoughts?

A: Try and redirect the conversation to another student. Mention that they’ve raised interesting points, and ask another student to comment on them. Suggest if they want to continue discussing this that they come by and see you later.

Q:  What if no one answers my question?

A: Just wait for a little bit. Give students a moment to formulate their answers. Usually someone will raise their hand when the silence lengthens, if only to express that they don’t understand. If still no one answers, comment that it’s not easy to be the first one to speak, or note that there has been a long silence and ask the students why.  

Q:  How should I deal with a learner who asks irrelevant questions that interfere with the flow of instruction?

A: Thank the student for their interest, and tell the student that either: the question or comment is outside the scope of the class, or class time is running short and you need to finish covering the material. Mention that you would be happy to talk with the student in more detail after class if they want to.

Q: What if a learner asks a question that is irrelevant but of great interest to the group, or questions that will be addressed later in the course but is premature at this point?

A: When a student asks a question that will be covered later, delay the question. Tell them it will be covered, and after you have finished that part of the lecture, ask the student if their question has been answered.  
If the answer to the tangent question is short, then by all means answer it, but if it is longer, suggest that you will explain it after class, if anyone would care to stay and listen.

Q: If no one else answers, is there anything wrong with me answering my own questions?

A: Do not answer your own questions. This will discourage students from responding to any other questions you may pose, because they will think that you will provide the answer for them anyways. When your question goes unanswered, be patient and try and encourage students to answer. Call on them by name and ask what they think.

Q: What if I don’t know the answer to a question? Doesn’t that cause a loss of credibility?

A: Be honest when you don’t know. Students will respect you more for honesty than for faking knowledge. Yes, they can tell when you’re avoiding answering a question, and they don’t like it. Admit that you don’t know the answer. Ask if anyone in the class does know. If not, suggest resources that may answer the question, and promise to find out the answer for the next class.

Q: How should I deal with someone who asks a question that is really a statement of opinion?

A: Try and turn the statement back on them in the form of a question. For example, if a student says “World war two was all Hitler’s fault, right?” then you could respond by asking why s/he believes that, or about what influences acted on Hitler to create the situation, or even just say something like, “Is it? Does anyone want to comment on that?” and let the rest of the class answer.

Q: What if someone asks a question about something I covered ten minutes earlier? Should I take the time to answer?

A: Yes. Try and be patient with these students. Explain the material using different words or examples. You can also suggest that another student in the class answer the question, as they may be better able to get through to their peers.

~ University of Nottingham's video on "Questions and Activities in Lectures"
~ University of Nottingham's video on "Asking Questions of Students in Lectures"

Sources

  1. Davis, B. G. (1993) Tools for Teaching. SF: Jossey-Bass
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iDavis, 1993, pg 83.
iiDavis, 1993, pg 76.
iiiDavis, 1993, pg 76.
ivDavis, 1993, pg 77.
vDavis, 1993, pg 77.
viDavis, 1993, pg 79.
viiDavis, 1993, pg 79.
viiiDavis, 1993, pg 92.
ixDavis, 1993, pg 89.
xDavis, 1993, pg 92.
xiDavis, 1993, pg 94.
xiiDavis, 1993, pg 86.
xiiiDavis, 1993, pg 93.
xivDavis, 1993, pg 93.
xvDavis, 1993, pg 93.
xviDavis, 1993, pg 86.
xviiDavis, 1993, pg 93-94.
xviiiDavis, 1993, pg 92.
xixDavis, 1993, pg 94.


-Rebecca Schaeffer, June 2011