Tomorrow's Professor Msg.#121 Tactics for Effective Questioning
The posting below on tactics for effective questioning is from "Tools for
Teaching," an excellent book by Barbara Gross Davis, assistant vice
chancellor - educational development, University of California, Berkeley.
UP NEXT: College Students grow More Conservative
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TACTICS FOR EFFECTIVE QUESTIONING
B.G. Davis, Tools for Teaching, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc.,
Publishers, 1995, pp. 85-88
ASK ONE QUESTION AT A TIME. Sometimes, in an effort to generate a response,
instructors attempt to clarify a question by rephrasing it. But often the
rephrasing constitutes an entirely new question. Keep your questions brief
and clear. Lon complex questions may lose the class. For example, "How is
the theory of Jacques Lacan similar to Freud's?" rather than "How are Lacan
and Freud alike?" Are they alike in their view of the unconscious? How
about their approach to psychoanalysis?" (Sources: Hyman, 1982; "Successful
Participation Strategies," 1987)
AVOID YES/NO QUESTIONS. Ask "why" or "how" questions that lead students to
try to figure out things for themselves. Not "Is radon considered a
pollutant?" but "Why is radon considered to be a pollutant?" You cannot get
a discussion going if you ask questions that only require a one-syllable or
POSE QUESTIONS THAT LACK A SINGLE RIGHT ANSWER. A history professor
includes questions for which a number of hypotheses are equally plausible-
for example, "Why did the birthrate rise in mid-eighteenth century
England?" or "Why did Napoleon III agree to Carvour's plans? She emphasizes
to students that the answers to these questions are matters of controversy
or puzzlement to scholars and asks the class to generate their own
hypotheses. She embellishes what the students suggest by adding historians'
theories and by showing how different answers to the questions lead in very
different directions. She concludes by stressing that the answer to the
question remains unsolved.
ASK FOCUSED QUESTIONS. An overly broad question such as "What about the
fall of the Berlin Wall?" can lead your class far off the topic. Instead
ask, "How did the reunification f Germany affect European economic
AVOID LEADING QUESTIONS. A question such as "Don't you all think that
global warming is the most serious environmental hazard we face?" will not
lead to a free-ranging discussion of threats to the environment. Similarly,
avoid answering your own question: "Why can't we use the chi-square test
here? It is because the cells are too small?"
AFTER YOU ASK A QUESTION, WAIT SILENTLY FOR AN ANSWER. Do not be afraid of
silence. Be patient. Waiting is a signal that you want thoughtful
participation. Count to yourself while your students are thinking; the
silence rarely lasts more than ten seconds. If you communicate an air of
expectation, usually someone will break the silence, even if only to say,
"I don't understand the question." If a prolonged silence continues, ask
your students what the silence means: "Gee, everyone has been quiet for a
while- why?" or encourage students by saying, "It's not easy to be the
first one to talk, is it?" Someone will jump in with a comment or response.
Don't feel like you have to call on the first person who volunteers. You
might want to wait until several hands have been raised to let the students
know that replies do not have to be formulated quickly to be considered.
Consider choosing the student who has spoken least. After the first student
is finished, call on the other students who had raised their hands, even if
their hands are down. (Sources: Kasulis, 1984; Lowman, 1984; Swift ,
Gooding and Swift, 1988)
SEARCH FOR CONSENSUS ON CORRECT RESPONSES. If one student immediately gives
a correct response, follow up by asking others what they think. "Do you
agree, Hadley?" is a good way to get students involved in the discussion.
ASK QUESTIONS THAT REQUIRE STUDENTS TO DEMONSTRATE THEIR UNDERSTANDING.
Instead of "Do you understand?" or "Do you have any question about
evaluation utilization?" ask, "What are the considerations to keep in mind
when you want your evaluation results to be used?" Instead of "Do you
understand this computer software?" ask, "How would we change the
instructions if we wanted to sort numbers in ascending order rather than
descending order. Instead of "Does everybody see how I got this answer?"
ask, "Why did I substitute the value of the delta in this equation?" If you
want to ask, "Do you have any questions?" rephrase it to "What questions do
you have?" The latter implies that you expect questions and are encouraging
students to ask them.
STRUCTURE YOUR QUESTIONS TO ENCOURAGE STUDENT-TO-STUDENT INTERACTION. "Sam,
could you relate that to what Molly said earlier?" Be prepared to help Sam
recall what Molly said. Students become more attentive when you ask
questions that require them to respond to each other. (Source: Kasulis,
DRAW OUT RESERVED OR RELUCTANT STUDENTS. Sometimes a question disguised as
an instructor's musings will encourage students who are hesitant to speak.
For example, instead of "What is the essence or thesis of John Dewey's
work?" saying, "I wonder if it's accurate to describe John Dewey's work as
learning by doing?" gives a student a chance to comment without feeling put
on the spot.
USE QUESTIONS TO CHANGE THE TEMPO AND DIRECTION OF THE DISCUSSION.
Kasulis (1984) identifies several ways to use questions.
? To lay out perspectives: "If you had to pick just one factor?" or "In a
few words, name the most important reason?" This form of questioning can
also be used to cap talkative students.
? To move from abstract to concrete, or general to specific: "If you were
to generalize?" or "Can you give some specific examples?"
? To acknowledge good points made previously: "Sandra, would you tend to
agree with Francisco on this point?"
? To elicit a summary or give closure: "Beth if you had to pick two themes
that recurred most often today, what would they be?"
USE PROBING STRATEGIES. Probes are follow-up questions that focus students'
attention on ideas or assumptions implicit in their first answer. Probes
can ask for specifics, clarifications, consequences, elaborations, parallel
examples, relationship to other issues, or explanations. Probes are
important because they help students explore and express what they know
even when they aren't sure they know it (Hyman, 1980). Here are some
examples of probing from Goodwin, Sharp, Cloutier, and Diamond (1985, pp.
Instructor: What are some ways we might solve the energy crisis?
Student: Peak-load pricing by utility companies.
Instructor: What assumptions are you making about consumer behavior
when you suggest that solution?
Instructor: What does it mean to devalue the dollar?
Student: I'm not really sure, but doesn't it mean that, um, like
say last year the dollar could buy a certain amount of
goods and this year it could buy less-does that mean
Instructor: Well, let's talk a little bit about another concept,
this is inflation. Does inflation affect the dollar in
Instructor: What is neurosis?
Students: [no response]
Instructor: What are the characteristics of a neurotic person?
Instructor: How far has the ball fallen after three seconds,
Student: I have no idea.
Instructor: Well, Christi, how would we measure distance?MOVE AROUND THE ROOM TO INCLUDE STUDENTS IN THE DISCUSSION. When a student
asks a question, it is natural for an instructor to move toward that
student without realizing that this tends to exclude other students. To
draw others into the conversation, look at the student who is speaking, but
move away from that student.
-----------Hyman, R. T. Improving Discussion Leadership, New York: Teachers College
Goodwin, S.S., Sharp, G. W., Cloutier, E.F., and Diamond, N.A., Effective
Classroom Questioning, Urbana: Office of Instructional Resources,
University of Illinois, 1985.
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