Question: what’s the best way to ask questions?
Now, that’s a good question. In fact, it’s one of the best questions that a teacher can ask – and given we ask a lot of questions, that’s saying something.
And we do ask a lot of questions too. In fact, the amount of time that we spend asking questions takes up to a third of all teaching time, second only to the time we spend on explaining tasks. We ask three questions a minute, 600 questions a day and 100,000 questions a year. If you’ve been teaching for 10 years or so, then you’ve probably asked one million questions. You are a question millionaire!
Now the very best question strategies, the strategies that have the greatest impact on student learning, all have the following features:
- full student participation
- plenty of thinking time
- opportunity for discussion
- higher order questions
The importance of these four features is most obvious when they’re absent. If students aren’t participating in the question, then they’re not participating in the learning. If they’re not given thinking time, then they can’t think. If they’re not discussing their answers, then they’re not learning from others. And if the question itself is lower order, then 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, 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 called Q&A volunteer (see Geoff Petty).
Q&A volunteer 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; the only voices heard are the student’s 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’s better ways to run Q&As.
Q&A nominate 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 picked again, so switch off. And if it’s random nomination and that’s not managed well, then lesson pace can suffer.
Nominate is better than volunteer, but it’s not the best Q&A approach. That honour belongs to 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 on to 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 their view of the answer) after the bounce stage.
Of the three Q&A approaches, it’s the best one and so 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.
Students first work individually on a higher order question. They then share their answer with their partner. Each partner gives the other feedback, something positive (what went well – WWW) and something that could be improved (even better if – EBI). 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.
If done right, buzz groups create a buzz of industrious conversation – hence the label. 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 they might have to speak for the group, they are more likely to pay attention because if they don’t, they 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).
Assertive questioning is an extension of buzz groups. The difference is that once the groups 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. Three Q&A strategies and three group strategies. Of the Q&A strategies, the least effective (Q&A volunteer) is the most used, and the most effective (Q&A 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. So, a high ‘D’ can become a low ‘B’; a low ‘B’ a high ‘A’. Buzz groups and assertive questioning also allow teachers to check for student understanding, and so correct any confusion and fill 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?
Geoff Petty, Teaching Today & Evidenced-Based Teaching
John Hattie, Visible Learning
Kathleen Cotton, Classroom questioning from School Improvement Research Series