the Dragonfly journal

What is a good question?

By Alan Jervis @Alan_Jervis

A recent survey suggests that 60% of the questions teachers ask require students to simply remember a fact. 20% of the questions are procedural and that leaves 20% that demand students to think.

The average teacher asks 400 questions a day. So 240 of those questions are factual recall. Why? Questions for recall are easy for the teacher to frame ‘off the cuff’, whereas questions requiring thinking often require the teacher preparation time.

Teaching is a peculiar activity. We stand in front of our pupils explaining all the new leaning for today. We then start asking the pupils questions about what we have just told them. We ask pupils questions as if we want to know. Would it make more sense to drip feed in questions as you explain the new learning? This would allow students to predict the direction of your explanation rather than simply summarising and recalling at the end.

We ask questions to see if our pupils understand our explanations. The most pointless question we can ask is ‘do you understand class?’  What the students hear is ‘Class I have just explained something, is there any individual here who is so stupid and ‘thick’ that they do not understand then raise your hand and I will ridicule you and all your fellow pupils will also ridicule you’.

If we assign a question to a pupil before we ask it then that pupil and about 30% of the rest of the class that will think about the answer. The rest of the class will be thinking about how grateful they are that the question was not assigned to them. So ask a question without a pupil’s name attached. After waiting 20 seconds assign a student’s name. This will ensure that more students will think about the answer as they do not know if it will be their turn to be assigned. Alternatively use a ‘show-me-boards’ so that all students can answer a question simultaneously.

Good questioning can be used to engage students in the learning process rather than just an element of assessment. Black and William identified improving the quality of oral questioning as one of the keys to raising academic standards in their book ‘Inside the Black Box’. Leading questions can save time but short-cut the thinking process. Mark ‘do you think the jumper should be red or blue?’

Why do teachers ask questions? Questions can be a time efficient method to gauge the success of the learning, but if only one student answers then the teacher has only a glimpse of the success of the learning. Student responses to questions can be used to plan the next step in learning. Questions can be used to help students clarify their ideas and order their understanding.  Pupils can become comfortable in using technical language appropriately. Questions can be used to stimulate the imagination into creative thinking and investigation and can foster curiosity and generate enquiry.

Probing questions can be used as a follow up to a student answer and may reveal student’s thought processes. Probing questions can be used to require students to amplify their original answer. Jeffery ‘please expand on that answer’ or Sarah ‘why do you think that will happen?’ They can be used to bring a second student into the fray. Paul’ do you agree with Richard’s reasons?’ or Mary ‘can you provide a counter argument to this?’ Probing questions can be used as guiding hints. Susan, ‘what do you predict will happen to the marble chips?’ Susan replies ‘I am not sure sir’. Susan ‘can you remember what happened to the magnesium ribbon last year?’ Probing questions can ask students to provide more detail. Roger, ’will this happen in all cases, can you think of an exception?’

Open ended questions often require more thought processes. Answers are rarely simply right or wrong. Bill ’what do you think would have happened if Japan had not attacked?’ or Sarah ‘what would happen if we replaced all the metal parts with plastic?’ Open ended questions may require students to move from the specific to generalisations. Jerry ‘in the last two case studies the market crashed when inflation reached x%, do you think it will happened in every case?’ Open ended questions can be of the comparison kind. Sue ‘compare and contrast the imagery in the first poem with the second.’  They may ask students to take understanding from a familiar situation and apply it to make a prediction in an unfamiliar situation. Tom ‘use what you know about rivers to predict the action of a glacier.’

Opinion questions can be attempted by all students but allow more sophisticated responses by more able students. Virgo’ how do you feel about this painting?’ Susan ‘how did that piece of music effect your emotions?’ Opinion questions can be used to place students in other people’s shoes. Jackie ‘How do you think Fourier felt when he discovered that…?’ Billie ‘When Jesus went to Jerusalem, how do you think Mary felt?’

Bloom’s taxonomy can be used as a classification system for questions. Bloom’s taxonomy can indicate increasingly higher order thinking questions. We start at lower order thinking questions based on knowledge (remembering or recalling learned material).  Peter ‘give me a definition of an adjective?’ or Mary ‘What is the date of the Battle of Hastings?’ Next would be a comprehension type question (understanding the meaning of material) such as Julie ‘what does your graph show?’ or Bill ‘what did the Spanish girl say in English?’

The third tier of Blooms taxonomy is application type questions (using learned information in new situations). Derek ‘how can we use this joint to construct a bird table?’ The fourth tier is an analysis question (critically reducing arguments or elements to see their relationships, organisation and principles) Sarah which of the factors on the list could contribute to the causes of the First World War?’ The fifth tier would be a synthesis question (form a whole new from various parts). Tom ‘pick the best elements of Paul and Susan’s diagram to produce a diagram of your own.’

The sixth tier is evaluation (judging based on criteria). Larry ‘compare the black biscuit with the blue one’. The final tier is creation. Lucy ‘design a buggy to travel on Mars’

Socrates style questions may demand greater thought processes. Ricky ‘why is a polar bear white?’, is more limiting than Jackie ‘what would happen if a polar bear was born with black fur?’

Research suggests that we should use at least 5 seconds of wait time. This is a time when students should be thinking and cannot put their hands up. This will reduce the chance of premature articulation.

In my search for a good question, maybe I have driven down the wrong road. Perhaps I should be looking at the questions our students ask. Not the questions teachers ask. We should encourage our students to question everything. They question all new learning in a respectful yet rigorous way.  Students are encouraged to ask questions before, during and after new learning. The teacher then becomes a role model for asking good questions that the students can imitate. The teacher may need to support student generated questions with question stems and scaffolding.