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Try Diagnostic Questioning and see its Impact on Pupils’ Learning

Join the research revolution – try the infinitely adaptable method of diagnostic questioning, says Geoff Petty...

  • Try Diagnostic Questioning and see its Impact on Pupils’ Learning

For centuries, teachers have either taught the way they themselves were taught or have been required to follow fads, fashions or diktats. But over the last few decades, researchers have rigorously trialled thousands of teaching methods in real classrooms with real teachers.

They have mined cognitive science and researched what excellent teachers do. Some of the teaching methods discovered in this trawl for evidence have almost doubled the rate at which pupils learn.

Let’s take back control of our professional practice and use the methods that improve our pupils’ learning most.

Diagnostic questioning is just one of many methods that have done exceptionally well in classroom trials.

This technique can be adapted to almost any teaching subject or topic. Here’s an example to explain the method:

A teacher has just taught pupils how to calculate the area of rectangles and squares in maths. She puts the following statements up on a screen and begins by asking pupils which of these statements are true and which are false:

  • Area is length x height for a rectangle
  • 2 metres x 2 metres is ‘2 square metres’
  • For a square, area is twice the length of one side
  • Area is measured in units of length, such as centimetres or metres
  • For a rectangle, the area is always a bigger number than that for its perimeter
  • Area is the two-dimensional space occupied by a shape, in square units

You will notice that the cunning teacher has included some common misconceptions in these statements (the second one, for example). The statements should be designed to stretch students, but not too much.

There are six statements here and the chances of a pupil guessing correctly which are true and which are not is one in 64 – not likely! Here is the procedure she uses with these statements:

  • Pupils work alone to decide which statements are true and which are false
  • Students then discuss their answers with a peer, exploring disagreements
  • The teacher takes each statement in turn and asks pupils to display their thinking by putting their thumbs up if they agree or thumbs down if they disagree. Children all display their thumbs at the same time

The teacher scans the thumbs and can then use this feedback in a number of ways. If all pupils have the answer correct, the teacher can skip to the next statement.

If there is disagreement, she or he can start a class discussion, for example, “Paul, why do you think point two is correct? Mohammed, why don’t you agree?”

If there is still confusion, you can reteach the point before moving on to the next statement.

This is an infinitely adaptable method. Imagine an English teacher explaining simile and metaphor then asking the following statement:

Which is a metaphor, which a simile, and which is neither?

  • He is as cunning as a fox
  • The stars in the sky were like diamonds
  • She froze with fear
  • His nose made me think of a rhinoceros
  • English is killing me

Pupils display their answers using thumbs up for metaphor, thumbs down for simile and a flat-palmed ‘stop’ sign for neither.

Other than this, the procedure is the same as for the maths example. Class discussion of the reasoning to the answer is crucial.

Why does this teaching method work so well? It’s because it gives every pupil the chance to learn what they got right (and what reasoning led to this answer) and what they got wrong (and how to fix it). Their discussion with their peer or class clarifies the reasoning used to identify metaphors and similes.

In the meantime, as teachers we learn what our pupils know and can do versus what they can’t – and why. We can use this knowledge to fix errors or omissions in learning in real time.

With practice, pupils love this method. It is teaching methods that have the biggest impact on learning so it’s time to use evidence to improve our practice – the rest is a distraction. Join the research revolution, for your pupils’ sake.


Geoff Petty is the author of How to Teach Even Better: An Evidence-Based Approach (new in the Oxford Teaching Guides series), Teaching Today, and Evidence Based Teaching, all published by Oxford University Press.

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