Asking Effective Questions…Effectively

All day long, teachers and students ask and answer questions. What’s the purpose of all this back and forth? Paul Black and his fellow educational researchers suggest two purposes: “Put simply, the only point of asking questions is to raise issues about which the teacher needs information or about which the pupils need to think.” (Black, Harrison, Lee, Marshall & Wiliam, 2004)

The first purpose, to get information, relates directly to assessment. Educators often pose questions to find out what students know and can do. The second purpose focuses on questioning as an instructional tool, to get learners thinking about the knowledge or skill being studied, with the intention that it will deepen their understanding. Questioning is a teaching and learning activity that embodies the idea that effective assessment and instruction are inextricably intertwined. They happen simultaneously, and for the benefit of the educator and the learner.

Why is questioning so important? 

Well, for one thing, it’s ubiquitous, residing at the core of most educator-student interactions. The Ontario Ministry of Education’s Capacity Building Series: Asking Effective Questions, rightly states that questioning “is a powerful instructional strategy”. However, as with most things in education, whether it will have a positive impact on learning depends on how it is done. The National Centre for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics (NCETM) points out that questions can:

  • lead learners through a planned sequence which progressively establishes key understandings;
  • focus thinking on key concepts and issues; and
  • promote reasoning, problem solving, evaluation and the formation of hypotheses.

Unfortunately, not all questioning has these positive results.

Much study has been conducted to look at classroom questioning. Lemke (1985) identified ‘triadic dialogue’ as the most common pattern of classroom questioning. You may also see it referred to as IRF (initiation, response, follow-up) or IRE (initiation, response, evaluation). The pattern typically consists of three ‘moves’: 

  • initiation – a teacher question;
  • response – a student’s attempt to answer the question; and
  • a follow-up – a teacher’s feedback to the response or an evaluation of the response.

Sound familiar? While this pattern is believed to account for a possible seventy percent of teacher-student classroom interactions, researchers question its effectiveness, citing concerns that it may actually shut down student participation as well as thinking (Culican, 2007). 

How can that be? Let’s explore this idea a little further. Here’s an example of an IRE pattern from a science class, shared by researchers McComas & Abraham (2004):

Teacher: What skill are we using when we use our five senses to look or feel at something?

Student: A guess or hypothesis.

Teacher: Right, okay, we could be doing that. April?

Student: Observation.

Teacher: Observation, very good, we’re going to observe. 

It seems the teacher wants learners to focus on the concept of observation as an investigation skill. Looking back at Black’s two purposes, this interaction doesn’t really accomplish either. From an instructional perspective, the question is too open ended to focus learners on the skill, nor does it promote learners to think about the skill. From an assessment perspective, it doesn’t provide much information either, as the question is so vague, it doesn’t cue the learner as to what knowledge or skill they are to demonstrate. 

In fact, it demonstrates two questioning approaches that present barriers to learning. The first we’ll call the “guess what’s in my head” approach. The question, “what skill are we using when we use our five senses” has a variety of correct answers, but the teacher wants to focus on observation, so they keep eliciting responses until they get what they’re looking for.

The second is the habit of repeating a student’s response, which is frankly annoying, and could also be interpreted by the student as, “Your answer is not important unless I say it.”

In and of itself, the triadic model isn’t positive or negative — it’s simply a pattern of classroom interaction that at times can be effective or necessary. Culic (2007) warns us, however, that patterns of classroom talk are ‘historically and culturally located and have evolved over a period of time to become inextricably interwoven in the identities and subjectivities of teachers and students”. When triadic dialog is the principal way of interaction in the classroom, there’s an issue: this model of interaction is entirely educator-controlled. The educator poses the question, setting the topic for speaking, and the educator accepts or rejects the response. 

One last thought, and a call to action:

Think about the last time you questioned learners. What was the purpose of the questioning? Did the question actually accomplish that purpose? If not, how could you adjust the questioning so that learners are invited to demonstrate their knowledge and skills?

In the right conditions, questions can open the door to stimulating dialogue and discussion that extends far beyond the ‘triadic’ forms discussed earlier. Effective questioning encourages learners to learn with and from each other, supporting a classroom community focused on eliciting and sharing thinking and building thinking skills. 

In our next post, we’ll examine some ways of creating those ‘right conditions’.

Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & Wiliam, D. (2004). Working inside the black box: Assessment for learning in the classroom. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(1), 9–21.

Capacity Building Series: Asking Effective Questions. (2011). Toronto: Queen’s Printer for Ontario. Retrieved October 13, 2020 from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/CBS_AskingEffectiveQuestions.pdf

Culican, S. (2007). Troubling teacher talk: The challenge of changing classroom discourse patterns. The Australian Educational Research, 34(2), 7-28. Retrieved October 13, 2020 from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ776211.

Lemke, J. L. (1985). Using language in the classroom. Geelong, Victoria: Deakin University Press. 

McComas, W. & Abraham, L. (2004). Asking More Effective Questions. Retrieved October 13, 2020 from https://moodle2.beitberl.ac.il/pluginfile.php/237424/mod_resource/content/0/Asking_Better_Questions.pdf

National Centre for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics. Module for mathematics specialists in post 16 education and training. Retrieved October 13, 2020 from https://content.ncetm.org.uk/courses/tenhourmodules/post16/activity5/learning.htm

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