Helping Students Ask Good Questions

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

Helping Students Ask Good QuestionsIn my work as a coach and consultant, I have observed many hundreds of teachers all over the world. During a typical observation, the teacher will ask almost 100 percent of the questions. In fact, Walsh and Sattes (2017) state that the typical teacher will ask between 200 and 300 questions per day, or about 1.3 to 2 million questions over a career. That’s a lot of questions!

Researchers have found that in most cases the majority of questions teachers ask are lower-level factual (who, what, where, when) and procedural (how) questions and few, if any, are higher-level (why) questions. When asking display-of-knowledge-type questions (factual and procedural), the questioner (teacher) has a set answer in mind, leading the person answering to try to please the questioner.

We need to change the dynamics in the classroom to move from teacher-led questioning to student-driven inquiry. Inquiry is the act of asking questions to gain more knowledge. Wonder, interest, puzzlement, and curiosity interact to help us understand the world around us. Inquiry is performed in all fields, in all walks of life, and at all ages. It is pervasive throughout our lives. Inquiry is what moves our society, culture, and democracy toward a better existence.

The first step in getting students to ask good questions is for the teacher to model good questioning techniques. Students need to hear you frame good questions (from lower-level to higher-level). Most importantly, students need to see questions written out and denoted as lower-level or higher-level.

Example:

  • What are the steps in photosynthesis? (lower-level question)
  • In what ways does photosynthesis impact our daily lives? (higher-level question)

Also look at the chart below to ensure you are moving from lower-level convergent questions to higher-level divergent questions. Here are some guidelines:

  • Lower-level questions seek basic information or are at the surface level of content.
  • Higher-level questions seek reasoning, evaluation, analysis, and creativity.
  • Convergent questions ask for verifiable information that may be found in many ways.
  • Divergent questions require coming up with differing lines of thinking, imagination, and creative solutions.

Helping Students Ask Good QuestionsFor the second step, make sure your students are using lower-level questions to help them reach higher-level questions. Monitor their use of questions, encouraging them to write out their questions and share them with classmates. Help students make adjustments to their questioning strategy as you check for understanding.

The third step is to require students to use questioning throughout the day. This step will require you to back away from asking the questions so that students are doing the questioning. Set up your classroom in a way that encourages collaboration and small-group conversation. To facilitate the questioning process, have students craft questions for homework as an “entrance ticket” for the next class session. Sitting in small groups, have the students ask one another questions to either refresh their memory of past lessons, prepare them for the next lesson, or review for a test.

Finally, have students reflect on their use of questioning. Have them look at different questioning strategies to find the ones that work best for what they are learning. In the early stages of learning a new topic, it is more difficult to ask higher-level questions (since you have limited background knowledge). As students become more proficient with a topic, they can begin to ask more sophisticated questions.

Don’t fear losing control of the management or content by letting students ask more questions. You may find their questions will take you down pathways of interest and new ideas, as well as increase student engagement and motivation to learn. When you release teacher control, you increase learner responsibility!

Helping Students Ask Good QuestionsBonus! For a free resource to help with better questioning in the classroom, check out the worksheet “Clarifying Information” from Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn.

Resources on Types of Questioning Strategies
Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy (2001)
Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK) (1997)
The Ultimate Critical-Thinking Skills Cheat Sheet by Wabisabi Learning

Reference
Walsh, J.A. & B.D. Sattes. Quality Questioning: Research-Based Practice to Engage Every Learner. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2017.

Richard CashRichard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition Differentiation for Gifted Learners


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About Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

Writes the "Cash in on Learning" post series for Free Spirit Publishing.
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