How do I ask students better questions?

While preparing for class I find that a lot of my time is spent composing my delivery, i.e., what is the content that I will present, how will I present it, how I will use the board, how I will use computer demonstrations, etc. These are all important to consider. However, I often find that my lectures or assignments may be weakened not by the whats and hows of my delivery but by the questions I ask — the whats and hows I pose to the students. The silent class, lack of engagement or incorrect answers are sometimes due to not giving as much thought to my questions as I do to my delivery.

The importance of asking the right questions is in itself a field of study. Inquiry-Based Learning is a well-evolved teaching system based on asking questions. The Foundation for Critical Thinking has a nice (and short) opinion piece with a somewhat call-to-arms tone emphasizing the importance of a well-considered question strategy in the classroom. One example can be found in this recent article, which asks how to pose questions with the goal of increasing participation and engagement: A “simple, effective approach” that this article suggests is to ask specific questions of specific students.

At the level of a specific question, how a question is asked can generate different answers and stimulate different thought processes. As described in the paper Asking More Effective Questions, questions in the classroom typically take one of two forms: convergent questions, where there is generally a specific answer, and divergent questions, whose answers are more open ended. Formulating effective divergent questions is recognized as more challenging for instructors. This theme is taken up by Nesbit and Cliff in the field of physiology and I note one of their conclusions: “Our findings indicate that, despite the fact that instructors of anatomy and physiology recognize the value of open-ended science questions, they have considerable difficulty in successfully creating them. Inexperience may contribute to the low rate of success in producing open-ended questions.” This gets down to perhaps the most detailed level of asking questions, i.e., how do we word them to best achieve our goal?

I often struggle with the open-ended question posed to the classroom. Is the silence that follows due to a mis-application of a teaching technique or strategy indicating lack of engagement, preparation or understanding? Or is it simply the fact that they don’t know what I want? Is my attempt to pose an open-ended question merely resulting in obfuscation? As another example, I recently posed an exam question (mathematics) that said, “Solve the following differential equations for x(t):”. Many students did not carry the solution as far as I intended. The fact that many did not and that many stopped at the same point indicated to me that I must be somewhat culpable for the misunderstanding. In this case, it appears that I should have said, “Solve the following differential equation and determine all unknown coefficients.” In this case I needed to be more specific. On the other hand, sometimes I don’t want to be more specific because understanding what I mean with a question is part of the examination.

I conclude not with any “how tos” or suggestions to try a nifty bit of technology. Instead, I want to emphasize that just like our delivery methods, which can be analyzed from theory down to their MOOC bits, we should give equal attention to our question techniques. And for those questions, we must consider not only the theoretical and strategic issues of engagement and convergent vs. divergent questions, but also simple wording. Sometime (maybe often), it’s less an issue of pedagogy, and simply a matter of careful, considered and effective composition.

About Thomas Carr

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