Effective question strategies capture students' attention, foster student involvement, and facilitate a positive, active learning environment. The following strategies for asking questions, responding to questions, and listening can help instructors get students answering the questions asked in class in ways that promote learning.
Establish expectations early
Start asking questions early in the course term to set the tone for an active learning environment.
Make it clear on the first day that you will be posing lots of questions and that you want the students to interact with you during a lecture. Let them know that you are interested in their ideas and that you encourage questions and comments throughout class.
Let students know who will be called on and why
Will you wait for volunteers to answer questions? Or will you call on students — a practice sometimes referred to as "cold calling"? A study by Dallimore, Hertenstein, and Platt (2012) suggests that more students respond to questions voluntarily in classes with high cold-calling. If you plan to call on individuals, give students reasonable opt-out opportunities. Whatever your approach, let students know early in the term how questions and answers will be handled in class, and why. Be transparent about the learning outcomes you hope to foster through your question style.
Prepare meaningful questions in advance
Think about different questions that you can ask your students as well as different ways to ask them. The types of questions you ask should capture students' attention, arouse their curiosity, reinforce important material, and foster an active learning environment.
- High-level questions require analysis, synthesis, or evaluation and often begin with "why" or "how." Low-level questions, or questions that require rote memory or restating course content, can help you assess whether or not students understand the material, but high-level questions are more engaging.
- Divergent questions have multiple plausible responses, which make them "safer" to answer. They also encourage high-level thinking (e.g., "What are some...?). Convergent questions only have one correct answer and are "riskier" (e.g., "What is the...?).
- Structured questions point students toward a context or frame within which they can formulate an answer (e.g., "What are some of the chemical structures at work in this solution according to our model?)" Unstructured questions (e.g., "What's at work in this solution?") are wide open and as a result can feel riskier to answer or can elicit responses outside of the relevant area.
- Single questions clearly let students know what you are asking them (e.g., "How can this principle clarify the problem for practitioners?"). Ask just one question at a time and refrain from adding others to qualify or clarify what you're trying to express. Asking multiple questions in a row (e.g., How can the application of this principle clarify the problem? What about the principle is useful to practitioners? Why would practitioners in the field turn to this principle?) can leave students uncertain of which direction to move in.
Asking "how" and "why" questions, avoiding questions with one correct answer (including yes/no questions), making sure your question is sufficiently specific, and asking only one question at a time will help foster high-level thinking and engagement in your classes.
Be cautious of asking "Are there any questions?"
This question, and others like it (e.g., "Do you understand?") are often viewed by students as a "ritualistic" exercise on the instructor's part and are often met with silence. When asking the above, be sure that your question is genuine and has a clear purpose. If the question is met with no response, be prepared to use follow-up probing questions: "That means that if I were to ask you on an exam whether…, you would know how to answer?" This can elicit questions and concerns from students.
Responding to questions
Wait for the answer
Instructors often don't give students enough "wait time," or the amount of time an instructor waits after asking a question before giving the answer or moving on (Rowe, 1986). Waiting at least five seconds after asking a question can result in deeper student learning and a more dynamic classroom environment. Summarizing the research on wait times, Rumohr (2013) explains that "as the use of wait-time increases, so do:
- The number of student responses.
- The number of unsolicited but appropriate responses.
- The use of higher levels of logical thinking.
- The incidence of speculative thinking.
- The number of questions students ask.
- Students supporting their answers with evidence, logic, and details.
- Student-to-student communication and exchanges.
- The number of positive responses.
- The students’ confidence in their ability to construct explanations."
Although the silence of wait times might seem awkward and uncomfortable, smile, wait patiently, scan the room, and endure at least a five to ten second wait between your question and student responses.
Reach non-responsive students with wait times
Do the same students tend to respond to your questions? When the first person to raise their hand is always chosen to give an answer, it can communicate to students that the fastest answer is the best answer. In fact, we might prefer to encourage answers that take time to formulate — thoughtful, logical, or analytical answers. To avoid this, consider explaining to your students that you want everyone in the class to reflect on your question for a set period of time (between 20-60 seconds) and that you will then open the floor to answers. This strategy has the added benefit of giving less extroverted students and students with learning disabilities more time to prepare to participate. If this isn't a feasible strategy to use with all questions, considering using it once a class instead.
Encourage student-to-student interaction
Try to structure your comments to encourage students to interact with one another, "Mark, that's a good point. Could you relate that to what Sally said earlier?" Be prepared to facilitate recall of Sally's comment. When students are required to respond to one another, they become more attentive.
Admit when you don't know the answer
You'll lose more credibility by trying to fake an answer than by stating that you don't know. If you don't know the answer to a student's question, say so, "That's a good question. I'm not sure about that." Then follow up in one of the following ways:
- ask the class if anyone knows the answer (be sure to verify any responses)
- suggest resources that would enable the student to find the answer
- volunteer to find the answer yourself and report back at the next class
Repeat questions/comments to the whole class
Repeating student questions or comments to the whole class ensures that everyone can hear the information. You may need to paraphrase a long or complex question/comment. When responding to student questions or comments, be sure to look around the room to include all students in your comments. A general rule of thumb is to respond by focusing 25 percent of your eye contact on the questioner and 75 percent on the rest of the class - this is the 25/75 rule.
Give clear signals to students that you are listening
Avoid interrupting a student's answer, even if you think the student is heading toward an incorrect answer. Also, be sure to maintain eye contact and use non-verbal gestures such as smiling and head nodding to indicate your attention and interest in the student's response.
Acknowledge all student contributions
Thank or praise the student for having asked a question or expressed a view with comments such as "Good question" and "Thank you for sharing that with us." Such comments reinforce the behaviour of asking questions and volunteering information during class. Be sure, however, that you vary your reactions to students to avoid overusing the same comments. You can vary your responses in the following ways:
- Restate what the speaker has said to reinforce the point.
- Invite the student to elaborate: "Tell us more about that."
- Ask for clarification: "What do you mean by that?"
- Expand the student's contribution: "That's right, and to follow up on that point…"
- Acknowledge the originality of the response: "That's a good point. I hadn't thought of that."
- Connect the students' response with other students' comments.
Andrews, J. D. W. (1980). The verbal structure of teacher questions: Its impact on class discussion. POD Quarterly: The Journal of the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education. Paper 32.
Dallimore, E. J., Hertenstein, J. H., Platt, M. B. (2012). Impact of cold-calling on student voluntary participation. Journal of Management Education, 37(3).
Rowe, M. B. (1986). Wait times: Slowing down may be a way of speeding up. Journal of Teacher Education. 31(1), 43-50.
Rumohr, F. (2013). Reflection and inquiry in stages of learning practice. Teaching Artist Journal, 11(4), 224-233.