Asking Effective Questions…Effectively: Part 2

Asking questions is a fundamental way educators elicit information from learners about their learning…or is it? The nature of the question, the way it is asked, and the way educators respond greatly impact the quality of the information that’s elicited. It’s basically a case of ‘you get what you give’. In other words, quality questioning elicits quality information and leads to richer learning. 

For example, asking, “Is 11 a prime number?” will elicit a yes or no answer. At most, you’ll find out if the learner knows about the number 11. Asking, “How do you know that 11 is a prime number?” would elicit more in-depth information about what learners know and understand about prime numbers, and also whether they can justify their thinking with examples, and how they communicate mathematically.

In our previous post, we looked at the use of ‘triadic dialog’, a pattern of oral interaction that involves a teacher-initiated question, a student response, and a teacher reaction.

This pattern of interaction is deeply embedded in the culture of our classrooms, repeating itself continuously as teachers and students interact. Culican (2007) suggests that it is so prevalent a way of interacting with learners that we can be blind to its impact on student learning and motivation. 

Can it be an effective way to achieve our goals of eliciting information about learning? Yes, but it can also shut down thinking and learning.

Consider this example from our previous post:

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. 

McComas & Abraham (2004):

Once the teacher has obtained the answer they were looking for, the interaction essentially ends. The result is that two students have responded, and we know that one, student, April, knows the answer the teacher was looking for.

What if questioning were rooted in the assessment loop? That would mean the teacher would have identified and shared the learning goal with the learners prior to this questioning episode. 

Learning Goal: We are learning to investigate the characteristics of air and water.

Further, imagine that learners have already had some learning experiences that generated some success criteria, which have been recorded on chart paper:

Success Criteria:

I can wonder about a topic and ask questions.

I can make predictions about the answers.

I can make a plan to try to find the answers.

Rather than simply posing the question, “What skill are we using when we use our five senses?”, what if the teacher activated learners’ memory of these important pieces of information and their prior knowledge about investigation skills:

Teacher: We’ve been learning to investigate the characteristics of air and water. Here on our chart, we’ve recorded what we have learned so far about what good investigation looks like. One of the things you said was important when we’re investigating is to wonder, and then write down our questions. Today, we’re going to do an experiment to try to answer our question, “What happens when water changes temperature?” 

While we’re doing the experiment, I’d like you to think about what other things you could do to be a good investigator. Does anyone have any ideas to add to our success criteria before we start?

Anika: We need to measure things carefully?

Teacher (to Anika): Can you give an example of when you measured carefully while investigating?

Anika: <Silence>

Teacher (to Anika): I’ll give you some time to think about it. Let’s see what others are thinking. (to Class): What does Anika’s idea remind you of? Can you think of a time when you measured something when we were investigating?

Notice that the teacher in this case has ‘prepared’ learners to think about the new learning (how to investigate) by seeding the brain with something to pay attention to: referencing the learning goal, and connecting to the success criteria that have been co-created up to this point in the learning. 

Continuing with this idea of connecting the assessment process to the questioning process, let’s look at the teacher’s responses in our two examples. In the first example, the teacher responds, “very good”. This is an example of evaluative feedback; while it confirms the correctness of the student’s response, it ends the learning and thinking at that point. Evaluative feedback judges the learner’s response as being correct or incorrect, or even “good” or “bad”. Even if we don’t say these words, learners will often interpret our responses as approval or disapproval. 

In the second example, the teacher’s response was to further probe the student’s idea, and to encourage the other learners to build on it. This response invites all learners to think about the question, and to reason about and analyse their peers’ ideas.

By making connections to the learning goal and success criteria, the teacher creates the opportunity for learners to reflect on and consolidate their learning after the learning experience. The learners have hypothesized that accurate measurement is an important criterion for observing while investigating. They test this hypothesis during the learning experience, and then refine their thinking in the consolidation afterwards. This is the nature of learning – testing a hypothesis and refining.

The feedback provided by the teacher, “I’d like you to think about what other things you could do to be a good investigator” is descriptive, focusing the learners on what needs to happen next. After the learning experience, the teacher will return to the criteria by having learners share their ideas, making connections, refining, adding to, or removing the initial response with other ideas.

One last thought and a call to action:

When asking a question, consider:

  1. Introducing the question in the context of the learning goal and any success criteria that have been identified and shared in prior learning experiences.
  2. Responding with descriptive rather than evaluative feedback.
  3. Inviting learners to think about and respond to the initial response.

Making these connections to the assessment process will encourage deeper thinking, increased participation among learners, and will support a learning environment where all, teacher and students, are responsible for moving learning forward.

References:

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.

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

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