The art of asking questions in the classroom
By Viviana Cortes, Ph.D. (Department of Applied Linguistics & ESOL and CETLOE)
When we teach classes in real time, face-to-face or online synchronously, we do not often reflect upon our language practices in the classroom. When we teach blended courses or asynchronous online classes, we may have a little more time to think about the functions of the instructional language we use.
When thinking about ways to help our students get engaged with our teaching and the content we want to transmit, questions become central. Questioning plays a critical role in the way we structure our classes because questions can help organize the content of our courses and can help students assimilate the information that is presented in class.
There are many taxonomies in the literature that classify questions for teaching purposes. McComas and Abraham (2004) introduced four types of questions. Low and high order questions and convergent and divergent questions. I want to go over the classification and provide some examples to illustrate each type.
Low order questions check a student’s ability to recognize something and they only allow for a very narrow range of possible answers. Some examples are questions like “What was the date of The Russian Revolution?” or “What is the chemical composition of hydrochloric acid?”
High order questions allow the student to recognize and identify something, but then ask the student to consider the relationship of that something to other things. An example of high order questions could be “How effectively does this author use language to evoke nature in his poetry?”
Convergent questions have a more narrowly defined correct generally short answer and require little reflection and a bit of factual information. They ask for little original thought on the student’s part in the development of an answer. The answers to this type of questions could be found within the context of the lecture or readings assigned by the instructor. An example from literature, could be “On reflecting over the entirety of the play Hamlet, what were the main reasons why Ophelia went mad?”
To respond to a divergent question, a student must be able to recall some information from memory, but must apply that knowledge and other knowledge to explain, extrapolate, or further analyze a topic, situation, or problem. Divergent questions are broader in nature, can have multiple answers, and require a higher level of thinking on behalf of the student. As a follow up to the convergent question posed before, this could be a divergent extension, “In the love relationship of Hamlet and Ophelia, what might have happened to their relationship and their lives if Hamlet had not been so obsessed with the revenge of his father’s death?”
These orders and question types can be intertwined, giving way to lower level and higher level convergent questions and lower and higher level divergent questions. These different types of questions can be directly connected to class goals and objectives and also student learning outcomes. Different stages in the class may call for different types of questions. In online teaching, for example, it is important to consider all question types when designing discussion boards to ensure student’s answers are going in the right direction towards higher levels of thinking.
Techniques for Successful Questioning
Consider these techniques for successful question formation and implementation. These tips can help ask better questions and improve classroom questioning procedures in general.
Phrasing: teacher communicates the question so that the students understand the response expectation.
Adaptation: teacher adapts the question to fit the language and ability level of the students.
Sequencing: teacher asks the questions in a patterned order indicating a purposeful questioning strategy throughout the different stages of the class.
Balance: teacher asks both convergent and divergent questions and balances the time between the two types. The teacher uses questions at an appropriate level or levels to achieve the objectives of the lesson.
Participation: teacher uses questions to stimulate a wide range of student participation, encouraging responses from volunteering and non-volunteering students, redirects initially asked questions to other students.
Probing: teacher probes initial student answers, and encourages students to complete, clarify, expand or support their answers.
Wait Time (Think Time): teacher pauses three to five seconds after asking a question to allow students time to think. The teacher also pauses after students’ initial responses to questions in class.
Student Questions: teacher requires students to generate questions of their own.
McComas, W., & Abraham, L. (2004). Asking more effective questions (pp. 1-16). Rossier School of Education. https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/sites/ca.centre-for-teaching-excellence/files/uploads/files/asking_better_questions.pdf