Re-thinking classroom questioning to improve student understanding

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From my experience of observing lessons for a number of years in secondary schools, the area where I think teachers can make the biggest improvement is in the way questions are asked of students in classrooms. The following features of classroom question and answer sessions are typically observed:

  • They are mostly led by the teacher who tends to dominate the discussion
  • Most of the time questions are asked of the class and the same students tend to respond
  • Protocols are rarely used to facilitate the Q and A
  • Wait time is not incorporated to allow students to think about the question
  • Questions often start with what, where, how, when
  • Most of the time students are sitting in their chairs to answer questions

The following five strategies may help to improve your classroom questions, increase student engagement and achieve high levels of thinking:

  1. Before you say anything, count to three. By incorporating wait time into your questions, the research points to greater student engagement. By giving students 3 seconds to think about what has been asked, before you ask for a response allows students some processing time and, even though, some may be a little uncomfortable in whether they have the right answer, a little time to prepare a response does lead to better engagement. Here is a link to a great article that gives more detail on the theory and application of wait time in the classroom.
  2. Use more directed questions. When questions are thrown open to everyone in the class, then the same students tend to respond; the confident ones, those who have a better command of English. Subsequently, the classroom is no longer inclusive. There are a range of strategies for getting all students involved in classroom discussions. One of the strategy could be giving each student answer board to write their answer and then hold it up for you to see. This allows the teacher to now clarify understanding with students or ask other to explore their  response in more depth. Choosing students to answer is important, allowing a teacher to differentiate questions for students with different ability levels and getting the level of challenge just right or boosting confidence.
  3. Let the students ask the questions. Before beginning to explore a theme / topic / idea / assessment task, it could be a good idea for the students to have time to write three questions about what they would like to know. After a little time exploring the topic or going through the task, the teacher then can return to these questions and directing them to students in the class.
  4. Use more academic language when asking questions. Most tests and assessment tasks use specific command terms such as define, determine, estimate, explain, justify, to what extent. Consider using these command terms as opposed to what, why, how, when. This moves the class into using academic vocabulary, increasing familiarity with these terms. So, instead of saying, what is photosynthesis? Ask students to define photosynthesis? Instead of saying, what sort of person was Nelson Mandela? Ask students to describe the type of person that Nelson Mandela was? Instead of saying, do you agree that man-made global climate change is happening? Ask students, to what extent do they think that global climate change is caused by humans? Not only does changing the question language get students more familiar with command terms, teachers can use the different levels associated with Bloom’s Taxonomy to promote higher order thinking.
  5. Get the students moving but not for the sake of it. Human graphing is a great method to get students to move around the class to show their understanding of a concept, show points of view and generate discussion. Setting up a continuum graph, whereby students stand at various points along a line to show to what extent they agree or disagree with a statement. This type of activity is great for students being aware of each others’ opinions and allows for points of view to be explored. Multiple choice answer letters could be placed in the four corners of the room and the students move to the corner of the room to where they think the right answer is, this allows the teacher to ask students why they chose their particular answer, which could help the teacher identify the learning issues or, sometimes, areas where instruction can be improved. Finally, human graphing can be applied really well in a mathematics classroom as this teacher shows.

Most importantly, question and answer sessions in a class should be inclusive and they should be driven by a goal. So, the next time teachers use a Q and A session in their class, ask them explain what they they were trying to achieve and take the improvement conversation from there.

 

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