Anatomy of a Good Question – What should questions look like in the classroom?

By Amreen Pathan

Do you know..?

(Well, it would be a missed opportunity to not start with a question)!

So, question:

Do you know how many questions teachers ask in a day?  

According to the stats, teachers ask approximately 400 questions in a day. 400. That is two questions every minute, 70,000 a year. For some, that is two to three million in the course of their teaching careers.

But we always talk about quality over quantity. And the same applies here.

Much of my learning comes from Dylan Wiliams, Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment. His research interest focuses on formative assessment or assessment for learning. This is in contrast to the assessment of learning or summative which provides data about the final achievement of a pupil to the teacher, parents and of course the pupil him/her self.

Teachers will know about the importance of both but in particular the importance of formative. Part of this formative learning is the type of questioning in the classroom according to Wiliams which can make or break a classroom.

So what does a good question look like?

Well what does a bad question look like?

A bad question Heick (2022) argues is one that yields the following:

  • Stops thinking
  • Leads to uncertainty
  • Obscures understanding
  • Causes doubt
  • Reveals emotional and/or psychological artefacts

This is revealing in itself about the purpose of questioning and this is what teachers must ask themselves when using questioning in the classroom: why am I asking this question?

Why am I asking this question?

If the answer to this is to merely ascertain how much or what it is some students know, particularly by the end of the lesson, then it is the purpose that is flawed. And this creates flaws in the aesthetics of the questioning too (more on this later).

Consider the question as a piece of evidence. Evidence of:

  1. A pupil’s progress in the class
  2. Whole class progress in the lesson
  3. Gaps in knowledge
  4. Ability to apply knowledge
  5. The strength and depth of learning
  6. Further and extended thinking

If I had to summarise the purpose of a good question then, I would say that the question is designed to inform about and review student progress, critically engage students in the learning process and activate higher-order thinking by challenging thinking and encouraging further questions. 

Condense further?

1. Gather data to know what to do next

2. Cause thinking in pupils

The aesthetics

How can we make sure a question is fully functioning?

Here are my top ten tips based on my reading and research around questioning.

1. Create a comfortable culture of expectancy in the classroom where all pupils respond. As Wiliams says, students should know they can be called upon. A good starting point for this is a no-hands approach – the teacher selects the ‘answerer’ for that question.

2. Encourage pupils to extend and/or challenge what other students have said. This is important especially if we are promoting thinking. Use simple phrases like ‘build on that, or ‘challenge that’.

3. Allow thinking time after posing a question. A practitioner’s tendency (including mine!) is to ask a question and expect an answer pretty immediately. Waiting in a question-charged room where nobody is seemingly responding feels awkward after all. An average teacher pause is 0.9 seconds when actually providing thinking time (up to 2 minutes for ‘on the spot’ questions that require better processing for synthetisation) improves student learning. This is the same for think-pair-share activities. How often do we use this in our lessons but actually jump straight to the pair part?

 4. Plan questions in advance. Not all questions can be pre-planned of course but there will be those questions that you want to draw attention to. Again as Wiliams says, it’s about orchestrating your classroom discussions so that pupils are encouraged to think but also recognise that their responses are valid.

5. Use Bloom’s Taxonomy for designing questions. This is a ‘hierarchical ordering of cognitive skills’ designed as a sort of classification for learning outcomes – a feudal system sort of thing except for cognitive abilities rather than people. At the lower end of the Taxonomy lie the lower-order cognitive functions such as understanding and remembering. This slowly moves up to applying, then analysing, evaluating and finally creating. Understand it like it this, if a pupil has understood a new concept in its fullest form, then they should be able to build and write and compose and adapt that new learning into a new creation.

6. Use multiple-choice questions. This means all pupils will have to participate and the teacher can ascertain full class learning by a mere show of hands or a letter on a mini whiteboard. Of course, use the responses as an opportunity for discussion to once again, extend and cause further thinking.

7. When a student gives an unexpected or irrelevant response, do not feel the need to pursue this. Make it clear that the question is not necessarily relevant to the lesson but that you are open to having a one to one discussion later.

8. Despite all of the above, do not shy away from questions that encourage retrieval. Science has spoken – retrieval makes the memory stronger.

9. Use hinge questions every 20 minutes in the lesson to check students are still very much present in the lesson. These questions should correlate with the design of the lesson. The idea is that the post-question time remaining, hinges on this response to this question. Do I (teacher) need to reteach this aspect? Do I need to rephrase my wording? Or can I move on?

10. Last but not least, deliberately plan ‘trick questions.’ What is meant by this is that the question needs to be something that students cannot get right by mere luck or chance. Really get the students thinking about the ‘why’s and how’s instead of just the ‘what’s’ even in simple and lower order questioning types.

Any questions?

Actually, let me rephrase that.

What questions do you have for me? (Tip no.11 for you: encourage questions. The phrase ‘any questions’ leave students inclined to saying no whilst ‘what questions do you have for me’ creates an expectancy that students will have questions!) 

#Questions #PowerOfQuestions #TeachingInTheClassroom

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