10 effective questioning techniques to help steer students in the right direction
We all ask our students questions, but how often do we question how we question? Be honest. Possibly not that regularly, and it’s all too easy to fall into a routine of using the same two or three approaches every lesson. Instead, consider introducing these effective questioning strategies.
1. Wait time
Once you have asked your question, allow adequate wait time before taking answers from pupils – they need time to consider their responses.
2. No hands up
I mostly discourage my pupils from putting their hands up in class. They know they’re expected to contribute, and this avoids discussion being dominated by a few. Choose pupils based on your knowledge of your class and don’t confuse this technique with arbitrarily picking students using a random name generator. Pupils who often contribute in a lesson may try to shout out the answers – remind them not to do this and sanction appropriately if they do.
There are times when it may be useful to have hands up – to see how many pupils think they know an answer, for example, or to check if pupils agree or disagree with a classmate.
3. No opt out
Most of us have encountered a pupil who says they ‘don’t know’. Respond by saying you will get back to them, then ask a pupil who does know the answer and have the first pupil repeat the correct answer. You could also try rewording your question or helping the pupil to scaffold their response. The crucial thing is: make sure you go back to them. They’ll soon realise you won’t accept ‘don’t know’ as an answer.
4. Say it again, better
I really like Tom Sherrington’s ‘say it again, better’ technique, where you simply don’t accept average answers.
Teacher: How could you test for chlorine gas?
Pupil: It makes litmus paper white.
Teacher: Good start, but what could you say instead of ‘it’ and ‘makes’? Can you be more specific with the litmus paper?
Pupil: Chlorine bleaches? Not sure about the litmus.
Teacher: OK, let’s say it again, better. How could you test for chlorine gas using damp litmus paper? Don’t use ‘it’ and ‘makes’ in your answer.
Pupil: Chlorine bleaches damp litmus paper white.
In this example, I had to scaffold that the litmus paper is damp, making sure the pupil used the word in their answer. After establishing the better answer, you can then ask another pupil to repeat it for maximum effect.
Probing is when you ask the same pupil several questions to check and improve understanding.
Teacher: What is the relative formula mass for H2SO4?
Pupil: It’s 98.
Teacher: Can you explain how you worked that out?
Pupil: There are two hydrogens, one sulfur, four oxygens, and you just add them together.
Teacher: Add what together?
Pupil: The relative atomic masses, so (2 x 1) + (1 x 32) + (4 x 16), and that gives you 98.
Teacher: Good. Is anyone still unsure of how to get to the answer of 98?
In this technique, you fire quick retrieval questions at pupils. Don’t slow down or engage with pupils to discuss an answer. If a pupil gets an answer right, move on to another pupil with a new question; if they get the answer wrong, ask another pupil the same question.
This technique was developed by Frank Lyman in 1981. You pose a question, give pupils sufficient time to think, have them pair up to discuss their answer and then select individuals to share their answers with the class.
8. Whole-class response
A quick way to check whole-class understanding is to use mini whiteboards. Pose the question, have pupils write their answers on their boards and show you their answers, then quickly check responses. You may then wish to discuss incorrect answers, address misconceptions, have pupils analyse other pupils’ responses, or get them to expand on their answers.
9. Call and response
Ask your class a question and get students to reply in unison. If they get a question wrong, give them the correct answer and have them chant the answer together. Ask the question again later in the lesson. This is particularly useful when introducing new scientific vocabulary.
10. Hinge questions
Hinge questions are a useful way to check if you need to go over something again. Often, they are multiple-choice questions.
Hinge questions should:
- be quick for pupils to answer (one to two minutes);
- be difficult for a pupil to get the right answer for the wrong reason/s;
- contain wrong answers that link to common misconceptions;
- make it easy for you to check pupils’ responses (~30 seconds).