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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