Five Simple Rules of Teacher Questioning

Teacher questioning can be a very effective and engaging instructional strategy. However, if misused, it can be a strategy that has very little impact. As we know, since the days of Socrates, teachers have been using questioning to encourage student thinking and check for understanding. However, high-quality teacher questioning is much more than just tossing out questions. Developing questioning skills can take a lot of time and professional development, but there are some simple rules teachers can follow to make some immediate improvements.

Here are Five Simple Rules for Teacher Questioning:

1. Have a Purpose!

When asking a question, the question itself should have a purpose. A teacher should know if the question is intended to promote a conversation, dialogue, discussion, or simply solicit a simple response to check for understanding. Good questions engage more than one student at-a-time. They provide an opportunity for students to discuss (ex: turn and talk; debate; conversation), lead to students generating their own questions, and allow for multiple responses. However, when teachers ask a question that has one specific answer, and call on one student to answer it, the question has very little value for the rest of the class.

2. One at a Time!

Most teachers would be surprised to have a count of how many questions they ask in one class period. In our building, when we tallied the number of questions teachers were asking in one, 42 minute class period, the total number was usually between 100 and 200 questions. In some classrooms, the number of questions posed in one class period exceeded 200. Without realizing it, many teachers use a rapid-fire approach to questioning, asking multiple low-level (Webbs DOK) questions, one after another. When it comes to high-quality questioning, less is more.

Challenge: Have someone come into your room, unannounced, and count how many questions you ask in one period.

3. Pick One Question!

Teachers should know the question they are going to ask, and ask it clearly. If it needs to be repeated, it should be repeated verbatim. Many times, teachers will ask a question… immediately rephrase it… add more detail… ask it again in a different way… add even more detail… then rephrase the question again. By the time the teacher states the final, revised question, it is drastically different than the original one. This can leave the student who raised their hand to answer the original question, pretty confused. Pre-planning some of our questions is the only way to ensure we are asking high-quality questions. These questions should be aligned to the objectives or learning outcomes for the lesson. Of course, teachers can also utilize spontaneous questions, as appropriate. However, key questions should have a purpose, be pre-planned, and align with objectives or learning outcomes.

4. Wait a Minute!

Some teachers feel rushed to get through a lesson. Others feel uncomfortable in silence. However, it is important for teachers to provide appropriate wait-time after asking a question. Remember, if teachers are asking high-quality questions, requiring thinking and discussion, it will take time. Teachers should avoid calling on the first student who raises their hand. Personally, I stopped allowing students to raise their hand in my classroom. I called on students randomly, making sure I always responded to them in a way that made them feel safe, whether they knew the answer or not. Although I am not aware of a specific, scientifically proven “appropriate” amount of wait-time, I like to use at least ten seconds. It is also important to never include a student’s willingness to raise their hand as part of a “participation grade” (which shouldn’t exist anyway). I’ve heard teachers say a student’s participation grade has suffered due to lack of participation. Then I’ve watched the same teacher repeatedly call on the first or second student to raise their hand, which didn’t even give most students a chance to participate. Give time for students to process the question.

5. Use Scaffolding!

When planning questions, it is important for teachers to review the content around the question. Teachers should review the prerequisite knowledge, as well as the knowledge that will extend the learning beyond the initial answer. If a teacher asks a question and a student doesn’t know the answer, they can scale down to more simple, prerequisite knowledge questions. Then the teacher can build back up to the original question. This strategy is more supportive of that student’s learning, than just jumping to another student when someone doesn’t know the answer. Be able to adjust questioning from simple to complex, as a student requires.

Reference Disclaimer:

Some of the rules and ideas shared in the post were adapted from information shared by Dr. Rebecca Woodland, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and the work of the East Penn School District Instructional Leadership Team, during a professional learning session.

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Student Behavior: It’s Not About You!

“You don’t have the skills to get a job a Walmart. Even they require their employees to remember to bring their vest everyday!”

It is with great shame I admit these horrible words once came out of my mouth… to a student. It seemed like the hundredth day in a row one particular student forget his pencil. My frustration, with what turned out was my lack of control, overflowed and I let him have it. I verbally attacked, and probably humiliated, this student in front of classmates. It was soon after this shameful experience that I realized something was wrong with my traditional methods of classroom management. Sure my rewards and consequences approach seemed to work for many students, but not for all. In reality, any system works for the majority. Eventually I realized, even when something works, it doesn’t always make it right. In addition, my approach certainly was not working for some of my students. I knew something had to change.

Changing Your Mindset

The first step in establishing a positive classroom environment is to have the right mindset. In his book, Lost at School, Dr. Ross Greene (2008) proposes the idea that “kids do well if they can.” This idea promotes a belief that if a child is not meeting academic or behavioral expectations, it is because they lack the skill to do so. Early in my teaching career, I had a very hard time accepting this belief. In fact, my beliefs in terms of students being able to meet behavioral expectations were completely opposite. However, after a few years of teaching and implementing traditional behavior management strategies, it became clear to me that no child would willingly subject themselves to the punishment and embarrassment I sometimes put them through.

By changing my mindset, I began to approach all students, in all cases, as if they needed help to meet expectations. I started to believe that kids would do well, if they had the skills to do so. When a student wasn’t getting started on an assignment, I would approach them and ask questions like:  “Is everything okay?”, “It looks like you’re having trouble getting started, do you have any questions?”, “Let me sit with you and help you get started.” I completely stopped assuming students were just refusing to do their work.

And, when a student forgot a pencil, I gave them one. In reality, it didn’t really matter why they didn’t have one. Ensuring they had what they needed to be successful became my only priority.

When responding to student misbehavior, it is important to remember it is not about you. It’s not personal. It is not you v. them. Remembering this in a frustrating situation can be difficult, but when it becomes part of our everyday mindset, it gets easier.

Creating a Positive Classroom Environment

Here are a few ways to establish a positive classroom environment or respond to misbehavior:

 

  • Give Verbal Praise (A LOT OF IT!)

 

This is one of the most powerful strategies a teacher can use. Recognize students, individually or as a class, for every direction/instruction they follow. Students who crave attention will often adjust their behavior to receive this praise.

Examples: “I really like the way you are walked into the classroom; Thank you for using a quiet, raised hand; I really appreciate the way you are including everyone in your group discussion.”

  1. Use Subtle Strategies for Redirection

Using proximity, walking over and standing next to a student while continuing to teach, will often be enough of a cue for a student to stop talking.

Quietly going over to a student and whispering “Do you have a question?; Is there something I can help you with?” will either unearth a student question, or cue them to get back on task.

A teacher can also quietly ask the student if they can speak with them on the side, or in the doorway. When doing so, the teacher should state the expectation the student should be meeting, and ask them what they can do to help them meet the expectation: “I see you are having trouble getting started on your fraction activity, is there something I can help you with, or any questions I can answer?”

  1. State/Restate the Expected Behavior

When a student is not following a direction, instead of using “no; stop; don’t”, recognize a student who is meeting expectations, or restate the expected behavior to the whole class.

Example: If a student is calling out in class, a teacher can remind the class, “Please remember to use a quiet, raised hand when you would like to participate.” The student who is not following the expectation will often get the hint.

  1. Avoid a Power Struggle

When responding to students with challenging behaviors, it is important to avoid power struggles, especially in front of their peers. Teachers can completely destroy a relationship with a student in a power struggle scenario. If a student is refusing to do work, and does not respond to offers of support, it is important not to increase the demand and create a power struggle. Threats such as, “Do your work or go to the office; Get started or I’m going to call your parents,” create a me v. you power struggle. In this situation, even if the teacher wins in the moment, overall, they lose. They lose because they damage the relationship. And ultimately, that damage will have to be repaired at some point in order for the teacher and student to have success working together in the future. If a student is not causing a significant disruption to the whole class, the teacher is better-off waiting until the end of class to have a private conversation to establish the cause of the student behavior. Other students pick up on this, as well. Creating a scene by yelling or posing threats does not “prove” to the rest of the class that you are in charge. Instead, they may be left worrying about the possible consequence the next time they make a mistake. Maintaining composure and offering respect, even if it is not being reciprocated at the time, goes a long way in building a positive classroom culture.

How do you ensure students’ emotional needs are being met in your classroom? What strategies are successful for you?

To learn more about responding to students with behavioral challenges, I recommend:

Greene, R. W. (2008). Lost at school: Why our kids with behavioral challenges are falling through the cracks and how we can help them. New York: Scribner.

Greene, R. W. (1998). The explosive child: A new approach for understanding and parenting easily frustrated, “chronically inflexible” children. New York: HarperCollins.