How can we improve our use of questioning in the classroom?

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Elena Stevens dives into the scholarship surrounding teacher questioning before providing some thought-provoking tips to help improve your own repertoire.

A few years ago, I finished a Year 11 revision lesson held the day before students’ first History GCSE exam (remember them?) with a sigh of relief, and – I must admit – satisfaction.

At my school we are allocated a double lesson the day before each of the students’ exams, so that last-minute reminders can be outlined and panics allayed.

This session had, I thought, gone well – the students had a good grasp of the knowledge and question structures needed for the exam, and most were in a positive frame of mind.

However, just as students were leaving the classroom, one held back for a chat – and she informed me with a laugh that she’d been tallying up the number of questions that I’d asked and answered during the lesson.

It was more than 100. Over 100 questions in the course of nearly as many minutes – no wonder I was exhausted!

Aside from being slightly concerned that this student had plainly used the double lesson not to prepare for her upcoming exam but instead to take an inventory of my questioning, I found myself feeling quite uncomfortable.

Surely the fact that students had felt compelled to confirm so much information the day before the exam spoke either of insufficient knowledge, or crippling self-doubt?

Surely the responses that I’d been able to give must have been perfunctory and basic, if I had spouted so many in such a short space of time?

Surely the questions that I myself had posed could not have been of the highest quality, and therefore the more able students had not been sufficiently engaged, challenged or reassured?

I felt that I must have done students a real disservice.

Looking back, it is clear to me that I had framed the entire session incorrectly.

The day before an exam is not the time for quick-fire question-and-answer sessions; how must students have felt when listening to the responses (or the questions) of their peers, knowing that they themselves did not have the expertise to answer – or to frame – such questions themselves?

Really, the questioning had been for nobody’s benefit but my own – I had been keen to reassure myself that students were sufficiently equipped to sit the exam, and I had taken the easy option by firing low-stakes questions at them, and allowing them to do the same in return.

History Resource Cupboard KS3

The classroom as ‘laboratory’

Recently, I have become interested in the purpose, function and efficacy of different types of questioning methods, and in preparation for a CPD session that my colleague and I led at my school in December 2020 I looked into some of the latest research on this important aspect of teaching.

As early as 1912, Romiett Stevens published a report based on four years’ observation of verbal behaviours in secondary school classrooms The Question as a Measure of Efficiency in Instruction.

She found that teacher questioning – across diverse age ranges, subjects and assessment levels – tended to focus on the testing of rote memory and superficial comprehension.

That the rate of questioning generally ranged from between one and four questions per minute (in line with my own practice in that revision session!).

Stevens identified several problems with this approach: first, that it indicated a higher proportion of work and effort on the part of teachers as compared to students; second, that it engendered an almost exclusive focus on the development of ‘verbal memory and superficial judgement’; and third, that it rendered the classroom ‘the place for displaying knowledge instead of a laboratory for getting and using it.’

Though Stevens’ work is now over a century old, more recent research has echoed her findings.

A 2009 study by Christopher Tienken et al. (Questioning the Questions) found that only 32% of the questions asked by teachers were ‘productive’ (those designed to promote higher-order thinking, including analysis, evaluation and synthesis), as opposed to the 68% of questions classified as ‘reproductive’ (testing students’ recall and comprehension).

A 2007 study by Debra Myhill and Frances Dunkin (Questioning Learning) reported similar findings; a significant majority of the questions asked of students were those of ‘factual elicitation’ (ie questions to which there are a limited number of possible answers), with only a minority relating to higher-order thinking, such as ‘speculative and process questions’.

Moving students ‘from passive participants to active meaning makers’

In the book Questioning for Classroom Discussion, Jackie Walsh and Beth Sattes identify questioning and discussion as “important means – and ends – of student learning’, suggesting that questioning has the power to move students ‘from passive participants to active meaning makers”.

There are a number of strategies that we can integrate into our teaching to help facilitate students’ development into “active meaning makers”.

The benefits of these strategies will be enjoyed both in the short and long term, as students are encouraged to think more deeply, process information in different ways, and express their ideas with greater nuance, precision and creativity.

First, it is useful to adopt a more conscious approach to our use of questioning.

Planning the questions that we might ask of students in the course of a particular lesson or enquiry is a productive exercise.

Based on the suggestions made in some of the research mentioned above, we came up with five practical questioning categories ahead of a CPD session that we held – these were affective questions (those eliciting expressions of value, importance or even emotion); probing questions (those requiring elaboration or further explanation); higher-order questions (questions to which the ‘answers’ needed to be figured out or reasoned); divergent questions (those without definite, prescribed answers); and finally factual questions (those requiring the recall of specific information).

Despite research indicating that factual questions are accorded too great a prominence within the secondary-school classroom, this fifth category ought to be retained.

There is a key role for comprehension questions in the History classroom, whatever the topic, assessment material or student demographic in question.

To test the efficacy of this more cognisant approach to the use of questioning, I planned the questions that I would use in an A-Level enquiry on the state of the Soviet Union in 1941 (see picture 2).

Putting this into action, I devoted a good deal more time to questioning and discussion that I might typically.

Perhaps because I was asking more diverse, challenging questions, the responses given by students were precise, focused and in fact often prompted thoughtful, apposite comments by other students.

Of course, my planning sheet represented a guide rather than a script, and at times the quality and nature of students’ responses dictated a deviation from my planned questions – although this is to be expected (and desired) in the course of an organic discussion or debate.

Questioning picture 1
Picture 1: Planning for the questioning I would use in an A-Level enquiry on the state of Russia in 1941.

An alternative framework for integrating more diverse questioning strategies into classroom practice was outlined by Plato in his overview of Socratic questioning methods (discussed in Mike Gershon’s How to Use Questioning in the Classroom, 2018).

According to Socrates, there are four types of questions: gadfly questions (nippy questions that dig deeper and elicit greater precision); stingray questions (stinging questions that challenge traditional ideas or mind-sets); midwife questions (those which help give birth to ideas or develop them further); and idiot questions (feigning ignorance in order to encourage explanation).

Planning with an overview of these question types to hand might help to diversify the use of questioning in the classroom.

Alternatively, having the visual reminder below pinned to the classroom wall – along with examples of each question type – could focus students’ minds on the types of questions that they themselves are asking.

Students might even be asked to take on the role of the gadfly or be the stingray in the course of a lesson, and in this way they could assume greater responsibility for the direction which questioning takes during a particular discussion.

Questioning Picture 2 - Socratic questioning methods
Picture 2: An overview of Socratic questioning methods.

An alternative way in which students might be encouraged to become more conscious questioners – and to thereby become more active participants in class discussions – is to adopt Jackie Walsh’s framework (How to Get Your Students to Ask More Questions, 2019).

Suggesting that students might themselves benefit from posing different types of questions, Walsh outlined a range of skills which might be developed, along with corresponding questions.

Walsh’s framework (adapted below) could be displayed to students, with students asked to concentrate on posing questions corresponding to certain skills.

The activity might help to encourage greater independence and metacognitive reflection among students, too: at certain points students could simply ask themselves some of the questions, rather than posing them verbally to the teacher or to their peers.

Questioning Picture 3. An adaptation of Jackie Walsh’s 2019 questioning rubric.
Picture 3: An adaptation of Jackie Walsh’s 2019 questioning rubric.

With more seasoned questioners – like, perhaps, A-Level students – it might be suitable to introduce the rubric shown below, challenging students to move their discussions to the next level.

I have found this rubric particularly useful in encouraging students to improve the quality of their responses to points and arguments made by their peers.

Less confident debaters had tended to fall back on responses that could be situated within the lower (hopefully not the lowest!) levels, and it is helpful for students to practise framing responses or questions that sit within the higher levels.

This rubric might also be used to hone in on the points or arguments made in discussions.

Picking apart one student’s statement and discussing as a class where the statement might be situated on the pyramid (and why) is a great way of preparing students to translate their verbal statements into effective arguments for written, examined responses.

Questioning picture 4 - A rubric for encouraging higher-level debating among A Level students.
Picture 4: A rubric for encouraging higher-level debating among A Level students.

Integrating these approaches into my lessons has raised the quality of discussion and debate, and I feel much more confident that students of all abilities are challenged by the diverse questioning methods that I have been consciously employing.

I think that the posing of divergent or affective questions tends to take students by surprise; in among the sometimes relentless pressure on exam skills, discussions centred on counterfactual scenarios or students’ own convictions and judgements provide welcome relief.

The diversifying of my questioning methods has therefore helped to raise engagement, but I think that it has also boosted the quality of students’ written responses.

A-Level students are, for example, becoming more adept at prioritising key arguments; selecting more appropriate evidence to support their points; and anticipating counter-arguments – which they are able much more convincingly to undermine.

As students’ verbal responses become increasingly focused, thoughtful and creative, their written responses are developing in nuance and sophistication, too.

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