7 Ways Teachers Can Improve Their Questioning Technique

Solutions to the Problem of Ineffective Questioning Strategies

Stressed School Teacher
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Interestingly, there are seven common problems with student questioning techniques made by teachers time and time again. However, it's a problem that's easily fixed — with solutions that can help to change both teachers' and students' attitudes and behaviors.

How Wait-Time Improves Thinking

One such solution is the concept of wait-time. Wait-time offers positive outcomes for teachers and teaching behaviors when they wait patiently in silence for 3 or more seconds at appropriate places including:

  • Their questioning strategies tend to be more varied and flexible;
  • They decreased the quantity and increased the quality and variety of their questions;
  • Teacher expectations for the performance of certain children seem to change;
  • They asked additional questions that required more complex information processing and higher-level thinking on the part of students.
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No Wait Time

The Problem: As mentioned previously, researchers have observed that that teachers do not pause or use "wait-time" when asking questions. Teachers have been recorded as asking another question within an average time span of 9/10 of a second. According to one study, the "wait-time" periods that followed teacher questions and students' completed responses "rarely lasted more than 1.5 seconds in typical classrooms." 

The Solution: Waiting for a minimum of three seconds (and up to 7 seconds if necessary) after posing a question can improve outcomes for students, including the length and correctness of student responses, a decrease in "I don't know" responses, and an increase in the number of students who volunteer answers.

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Using a Student's Name

The Problem: "Caroline, what does emancipation mean in this document?"

In this example, as soon as a teacher uses one student's name, all the other student brains in the room immediately shut down. The other students are likely thinking to themselves, "We don't have to think now because Caroline is going to answer the question."  

The Solution: The teacher should add a student's name AFTER the question has been posed, and/or after wait-time or several seconds have passed by (3 seconds is appropriate). This will mean all students will think about the question during the wait-time, even though only one student (in our instance, Caroline) may be asked to provide the answer.

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Leading Questions

The Problem: Some teachers ask questions that already contain the answer. For example, a question such as "Don't we all agree that the author of the article gave misinformation about the use of vaccines to strengthen his viewpoint?" tips the student as to the response the teacher wants and/or stops students from generating their own response or questions on the article. 

The Solution: Teachers need to objectively frame questions without looking for collective agreement or and avoid implied response questions. The example above could be rewritten: "How accurate is the information on the use of vaccines used by the author to strengthen his viewpoint?" 

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Vague Redirection

The Problem: Redirection is used by a teacher after a student responds to a question. This strategy can also be used to allow a student to correct another student's incorrect statement or respond to another student's question. Vague or critical redirection, however, can be a problem. Examples include:

  • "That's not right; try again."
  • "Where did you get an idea like that?" 
  • "I'm sure Caroline has thought it through more carefully and can help us."  

The Solution: Redirection can be positively related to achievement when it is explicit on the clarity, accuracy, plausibility, etc. of student responses.

  • "That's not right because of a factoring error."
  • "Where is that statement supported in the text?" 
  • "Who has a solution that is similar to Caroline's, but with a different outcome?"  

Note: Teachers should acknowledge correct responses with critical praise, for example: "That's a good response because you explained the meaning of the word emancipation in this speech." Praise is positively related to achievement when it is used sparingly, when it is directly related to the student's response, and when it is sincere and credible. 

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Lower Level Questions

The Problem: Too often teachers ask lower level questions (knowledge and application). They do not use all of the levels in Bloom's Taxonomy. Lower level questions are best used when a teacher is reviewing after delivering content or assessing student understanding on factual material. For example, "When was the Battle of Hastings?" or "Who fails to deliver the letter from Friar Lawrence?" or "What is the symbol for iron on the Periodic Table of Elements?"

These kinds of questions have one or two-word responses that do not allow for higher level thinking.

The Solution: Secondary students can draw on background knowledge and low-level questions can be asked both before and after content has been delivered or material is read and studied. Higher level questions should be offered that use critical thinking skills (Bloom's Taxonomy) of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. You can rewrite the examples above as follows:

  • "How did the Battle of Hastings change the course of history in establishing the Normans as the rulers of England?" (synthesis)
  • "Who do you believe bears the most responsibility for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet?" (evaluation)
  • "What specific properties make the element of iron so usable in the metal industry?" (analysis)
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Affirmative Statements as Questions

The Problem: Teachers often ask "Does everybody understand?" as a check for understanding. In this case, students not answering — or even answering in the affirmative — may not really understand. This useless question may be asked multiple times during a day of teaching.

The Solution: If a teacher asks "What are your questions?" there is an implication that some material was not covered. A combination of wait-time and direct questions with explicit information ("What questions do you still have about the Battle of Hastings?") may increase student engagement in asking their own questions. 

A better way to check for understanding is a different form of questioning. Teachers can turn a question into a statement like, "Today I learned______". This could be done as an exit slip.

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Imprecise Questions

The Problem: Imprecise questioning increases student confusion, heightens their frustration, and leads to no response at all. Some examples of imprecise questions are: "What does Shakespeare mean here?" or "Is Machiavelli right?"

The Solution:
Teachers should create clear, well-structured questions in advance using the cues students need to construct adequate answers. Revisions of the examples above are: "What does Shakespeare want the audience to understand when Romeo says, 'It is the East and Juliet is the sun?" or "Can you suggest an example of a leader in government in WWII that proves Machiavelli right that it is better to be feared than loved?"

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