Questions and Questioning

This post is based on a school TLAG (Teaching, Learning and Assessment Group) meeting held at lunchtime on Monday. Wonderfully, sixteen teachers came along and gave up their free time to debate and discuss how we use questions. The stimulus material is shared below.

Why Do We Ask Questions?

Good question! Well it seems they provide necessary practice for students to actually practise new material and help connect new information to prior learning. Questions also allow a teacher to make an assessment of how well material has been learned and whether there is a need for re-teaching. Effective teachers ask students to explain the process they used to answer a question. E.g. orally, through rough working, mini-whiteboards, etc.

Wait Times

Teachers significantly overestimate the time they give students to think about and answer a question. The typical teacher pauses, on average, between just 0.71.4 seconds after their question before continuing to talk or attempting to ‘repair’ the interaction… Even worse, if teachers think a student does not know or will be slow in giving an answer this period of time is often less than 0.7 seconds. However, if we can just wait three seconds, amazing things start to happen:

  • The length and correctness of responses increase.
  • The number of “I don’t know” and no answer responses decrease.
  • The number of volunteered answers greatly increase.

Patterns of Questioning

Is there a pattern of questioning that you notice? Using I (initiation of a question), R (response), E (evaluation) or F (feedback) and the colours red (teacher) and blue (pupil) we can construct some theoretical patterns of questioning:

  • IRERF
  • IRF
  • IRERERF

Or how about getting peer evaluation or feedback from another pupil:

  • IREF
  • IRERF

Next time you observe a lesson, try to make a note of the patterns that questioning takes in the classroom.

‘Open’ and ‘Closed’ Questions

‘Open’ questions give pupils the chance to “influence the subsequent course of the lesson”. Therefore ‘open’ questions transfer power from the teacher to the learners. ‘Closed’ questions tend to have one answer, or a range of correct answers. E.g. recalling facts or information. Therefore they have a more predictable pattern (IRF).

DISCLAIMER: Harris and Williams argue that the words ‘open’ and ‘closed’ are not sufficiently complex terms to cover the concept!

Hands Up?

Finally, a consideration of how to select pupils to answer a question. A random name generator? Lollipop sticks? With a brief clip from Dylan Wiliam’s BBC2 programme The Classroom Experiment, first shown in 2010 used to end the session.

Read Further

Why Do We Ask Questions?

Via Chris Moyse’s Research in 100 Words series.

Good and Grouws (1977) Teaching effects: a process-product study in fourth grade mathematics classrooms. Journal of Teacher Education.

King (1994) Effects of teaching children how to question and how to explain. American Educational Research Journal

Wait Times

Stahl (1994) Using “Think-Time” and “Wait-Time” Skillfully in the Classroom. ERIC Digest.

Patterns of Questioning

Mehan, H. (1979) ‘Learning Lessons: Social Organisation in the Classroom’. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Mortimer, E. and Scott, P. (2003) ‘Capturing and characterizing the talk of school science’’ in Meaning Making in Secondary Science Classrooms, Buckingham: Open University Press.

‘Open’ and ‘Closed’ Questions

Harris and Williams (2012) (2012) The association of classroom interactions, year group and social class, British Educational Research Journal, 38, 3, 373-397.

Hands Up?

BBC2 The Classroom Experiment (2010), Episode 1 

BBC2 The Classroom Experiment (2010), Episode 2 

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