Use targeted questions to curb learning loss and improve student engagement and recall
Imagine you are in your classroom delivering a crystal-clear, chunked science explanation and you’re feeling very proud. You then ask your class questions to check understanding, only to find that, well, they haven’t quite grasped the ideas you thought you had explained so well. I’ve been there, and it can be extremely frustrating.
In recent years, there has been a push towards improving explanations using cognitive science principles, which has transformed many teachers’ practice, especially those who favour explicit instruction. But I think there’s a missing part of the puzzle: a coherent questioning strategy to maximise student success in the classroom.
Three questioning phases
In my science department, all teachers plan three types of questions, which they cycle through over the course of each explanation chunk. These are: checks for listening, rehearsal and checks for understanding. Here are my tips for how to plan them.
1. Checks for listening
For every sentence or two of an explanation, ask your students simple questions to check they are listening. ‘This is the centre of the atom, called the nucleus. What is this central part of the atom called? Where is the nucleus of the atom?’ By using these checks for listening , you eliminate the most fundamental problem in the classroom: student attention loss. Since answers are typically one word, you can use choral response. Ask students to say the answer out loud in unison.
Students often fail to correctly answer questions at the end of an explanation, because they simply haven’t had enough opportunities to rehearse. To solve this problem, explicitly plan in lots of opportunities for them to rehearse while you’re explaining. I tend to use a ‘turn and talk’ approach for these questions, where students rehearse the answer verbally with the person next to them in 10- or 20-second bursts. For example, I might give students sentence starters to complete – ‘The nucleus of an atom contains …’ – or ask them to recall the first two points of my explanation before proceeding to the third. Sometimes I give them a few key words to construct a sentence with, based on what I’ve explained so far – ‘Share a sentence with your partner including the words nucleus, subatomic and atom.’
3. Checks for understanding
These are the trickier application questions, or ones that require more extensive answers. For example, you might ask students why the nucleus is positive overall. The chances of students answering this and other questions correctly will be much greater because you secured their attention with the checks for listening and helped build their fluency through rehearsal first.
All hands up
To ensure all three phases of questioning land with my students, I rather controversially flip a common strategy on its head: instead of using no-hands-up cold calling, I use all-hands-up cold calling. For checks for listening and rehearsal questions, I insist that every student’s hand goes up before hearing anyone’s answers. This hands-up culture creates a more energetic classroom and fosters a habit of participation. Insisting on all hands up makes it more likely that I can spot anyone who isn’t taking part, allowing me to better support those students.
Step up the frequency
I ensure that I ask a lot of questions – between 50 and 60 in a typical lesson. Questions interrupt the loss of attention, as well as maximising the number of opportunities students have to rehearse. Consequently, my understanding check questions give me more reliable data about the quality of my explanation, how it’s landed with each of my students and how much more practice they need.
The synergy between the three questioning phases and the all-hands-up, frequent questioning strategies maximises student participation – and I’ve found it yields great success.