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The One Question Every Teacher Should Ask: ‘How Effective Is My Questioning?’

In schools we posit hundreds of questions every day, so it makes sense to enquire whether your interrogation style is getting the best answers

  • The One Question Every Teacher Should Ask: ‘How Effective Is My Questioning?’

Us teachers pose a lot of questions. In fact, the amount of time we spend doing so takes up to a third of all teaching time, second only to that spent on explaining tasks.

We ask roughly three questions a minute, 600 a day and 100,000 a year. So, if you’ve been teaching for 10 years or so, then you’ve probably asked a million questions. Enquiring about the best way to question, then, is probably one of the best things we can ask.

The very best question strategies, the ones that have the greatest impact on pupil learning, all have the following features: full student participation, plenty of thinking time, and opportunities for discussion and higher-order questions.

The importance of these features is most obvious when they’re absent. If students aren’t participating in the question, they’re not participating in the learning. If they’re not given thinking time, they can’t think. If they’re not discussing their answers, they’re not learning from others. And if the question itself is lower-order, their learning can only be rote or factual.

Now, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with lower-order questions, but if that’s the type of question that students get most of the time, then they’re missing out on all the benefits that come from higher-order questions: a depth of understanding, a connectivity of ideas and the creation of new perspectives.

Here’s the thing, the above scenario is actually the daily reality for the majority of students. And it’s got a name: it’s what Geoff Petty calls ‘Q&A volunteer᾿.

1 Q&A volunteer

It works like this. You ask a question. Some hands shoot up. You choose a student to answer. The student answers. You comment on that answer.

This is the most common question strategy, but the least effective in terms of student achievement. It involves just one student at a time and the only voices heard are the students᾿ and the teacher’s. The approach is quick-fire (0.7 seconds is the average response time), the questions are either closed (‘yes’ or ‘no’) or factual (‘What’s the capital of France?’), and consequently, the outcome is surface, rather than deep, thinking.

The usefulness of Q&A volunteer is limited, so its use should be limited too. And anyway, there are better ways to run Q&As.

2 Q&A nominate

This differs from Q&A volunteer in that – you guessed it! – the teacher nominates a student to answer. So, no hands up, no arching backs, no ‘pick me’ faces. It’s better than the volunteer approach because the students don’t know who the teacher is going to pick, and so they’re more likely to pay attention in case it’s them.

In terms of how to nominate, the teacher can choose or it can be left to chance (e.g. names in a hat). Both have their problems. If it’s teacher nomination, then the students may well assume that once picked, it’ll be ages until they’re selected again, so they switch off. And if it’s random nomination, and that’s not well managed, then lesson pace can suffer.

Nominate is better than volunteer, but it’s not the best Q&A approach. That honour belongs to our next mention…

3 Q&A PPPB

Essentially, it’s an extension of Q&A nominate but with the added strategy of PPPB: pose, pause, pounce and bounce. You pose a question. You pause to give thinking time. You pounce the question onto a student of your choosing. Finally, you bounce their response to another student to generate discussion.

To get even greater depth of thought, you can keep the ‘bounce’ stage going as long as you want. The teacher only provides the ‘answer’ (or his view of the answer) after the ‘bounce’ stage.

Of the three Q&A approaches, it’s the best one, and so it’s definitely recommended. But there are other questioning strategies that are even better. They are not Q&A based, but group based. Again, there’s three and here’s the first one: pair checking.

4 Pair checking

Students first work individually on a higher-order question, then share their answer with a partner. Each partner gives the other feedback, something positive ‒ WWW (What Went Well) – and something that could be improved – EBI (Even Better If…). The teacher then gives the correct answer. At this point, the pairs give each other another EBI.

Pair checking can easily turn into quad checking, that is, the pair shares their answers with another pair using the same feedback process.

5 Buzz groups

If done right, as the label suggests, these groups create a buzz of industrious conversation. Students work in small groups on a higher-order question. To promote task focus, it’s a good idea to make the question time limited (and stick to it!).

Following the group discussion stage, the teacher takes a partial answer from each group:

Can this group tell me one disadvantage arising from the use of fossil fuels? This group, another advantage. This group, one reason why are they continued to be used? This group, another reason. And lastly, from this group, give me a disadvantage if we stopped using fossil fuels tomorrow.

In the example above, volunteers answer from each group, but it is just as easy for the teacher to nominate a student – in fact, as we’ve seen, there’s benefits to the nominate approach. And in the case of buzz groups, nomination creates peer pressure.

If a student thinks that she might have to speak for the group, she is more likely to pay attention because if she doesn’t, she could let the group down. As before, the teacher does not provide the full answer until the end of the whole process.

Nomination can happen at the time of group responses (as above) or when the question is initially set. This latter approach is particularly helpful if you have a student who has been coasting (nominate them) or a student who has been too dominant (don’t nominate).

6 Assertive questioning

This is an extension of buzz groups, but the difference is that once teams have given their answer, they then have to come up with a class-wide consensus answer. The teacher does this by taking a critical role, pointing out differences and inconsistencies in group responses, bouncing responses from one group to another, and playing devil’s advocate if necessary. The teacher’s answer is only given once a consensus has been reached.

Assertive questioning is high in student participation, provides plenty of thinking time and discussion, and is excellent for higher-order questions.

So that’s it: six questioning strategies. Of the three Q&A strategies, the least effective (volunteer) is the most used, and the most effective (PPPB), the least used. Each of the group strategies are effective and so will accelerate student learning – in fact, they can make a grade and a half difference over the course of a year. Buzz groups and assertive questioning also allow teachers to check for student understanding, correcting any confusion and filling gaps in knowledge.

To finish, here’s a question: if you haven’t used Q&A PPPB, pair checks, buzz groups or assertive questioning yet, when will you start? After all (and this really is the last question), why wait?

Robin Launder is a teacher trainer, education consultant and public speaker. You can contact him through his website, behaviourbuddy.co.uk and follow him on twitter at @behaviourbuddy.

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