Help students succeed by steering their questioning in the right direction

A question mark made up of brightly coloured cogs

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Conceptual peer-to-peer questioning can stimulate effective learning

Questions are innate to a learning environment: from teachers to students, from students to teachers, in a booklet or textbook, and from students to students. These peer-to-peer questions usually happen when students work collaboratively on a task.

Peer-to-peer questions and responses

Student questions can indicate whether they’ve understood a task. Their questions can also reveal their grasp of the fundamental chemical concepts necessary to successfully complete a task. Essentially, student questions and responses can show if meaningful learning has happened.

Unfortunately, students often don’t ask questions when we want them to. When they do, the questions may be low level and don’t lead to meaningful learning opportunities, such as questions like: Should I write this on a new page?

Question-response pairs which contain a conceptual response lead to evidence of learning

An American study examines the frequency and type of questions and responses students generate when carrying out a collaborative activity. It assesses which question-response pairs lead to evidence of learning.

The study took place in a general chemistry class at an American university, with 41 groups of two to four students participating. The students worked together to illustrate the precipitation of lead(II) iodide by mixing lead(II) nitrate and potassium iodide. They watched a short video of the process and answered questions about formulas, ionic equations and conductivity. The researchers recorded, transcribed and analysed the students’ conversations.

Analysing the discourse

The types of question students asked each other were classified into four types:

  • Confirmation seeking – asking for assurance about a thought or answer.
  • Clarification seeking – asking for more information about a question or task.
  • Information seeking – attempting to answer a question but needing additional information to reach an answer.
  • Understanding seeking – asking a peer to explain a concept or provide a reason for an answer.

The types of question students asked each other were classified as: confirmation seeking, asking for assurance about a thought or answer; clarification seeking, asking for more information about a question or task; information seeking, attempting to answer a question but needing additional information to reach an answer; and understanding seeking, asking a peer to explain a concept or provide a reason for an answer.

Most students asked either confirmation seeking (45%) or information seeking (37%) questions. Far fewer were clarification seeking (11%) or understanding seeking (7%). The researchers identified the low frequency of understanding seeking questions as a concern, as these are considered important for learning. This was corroborated in the responses.

Teaching tips

  • Think about students’ questions and responses. Identify misconceptions.
  • Model good questioning more often. Dedicate class time to explicitly teaching effective questions and responses.
  • Assist students by scaffolding their question-response interactions. Give them template question-response stems to use.
  • Use the question-response classification from the study as a framework for students’ peer-to-peer interactions. You can also adapt it for student-teacher questions.
  • You can adapt the collaborative activity from the study for your classroom, or use it as a template for similar activities. It’s available in the main body of the research paper.

The types of student response were classified as: explanation, justifying why the response was thought to be correct; informational, lacking a justification; unsure; and no response. The most common response type was informational (56%), followed by unsure (26%) and then no response (13%). Only 5% of responses were classified as explanation or conceptual.

Each question-response pair was also analysed for frequency and whether the exchange led to evidence of learning; most of the question-response pairs did not. The question-response pairs with a conceptual response were highly likely (>92%) to lead to evidence of learning, but they were very infrequent.

The frequency of the question-response pairs revealed a mismatch in productive interactions. For example, a question that requires an explanation would often not get an explanation, just information or even no response at all.

This research suggests that teaching students to think more deeply about the nature of their questions and responses can result in enhanced learning, particularly if they ask more conceptual questions.


Grace Tiffany et al., Chem. Educ. Res. Pract., 2023, DOI: 10.1039/D2RP00146B

Fraser Scott