What makes a good question?

18th January 2013 at 00:00
Mike Gershon continues his series of practical guides to big teaching topics by looking at questioning techniques

Teachers ask thousands of questions each week. They are the prime means of finding out what pupils think and the number one method for getting them to think in the first place. And there are a range of strategies and techniques you can use to develop your questioning skills.

Here are five ways to avoid that frustrating situation where you ask a question and receive absolutely no response:

1. Avoid questions that require a single, direct answer, such as: "What is the capital of Mongolia?" Of course, there will be times when they are useful or unavoidable but, in general, questions like these will discourage many pupils from responding. This is because they will be thinking: "There is one right answer to this and I don't want to be seen to get it wrong."

2. Use questions that invite pupils to talk about what they think, such as: "What do you know about Mongolia?" This elicits information in a broader way and the stakes are much lower. It is not a question of there being only one right answer but becomes about pupils sharing their thoughts with the teacher and the class.

3. Put pupils in pairs and ask them to talk to their partner first. This alleviates two key problems: the social awkwardness of being the first to speak and the numerical imbalance between teacher and pupils. If you stand in front of a class and ask a question, who is to answer? You are seeing the class as a unit but they cannot answer as a unit. Nor is it likely that one person will take it upon themselves to respond. And is that really what you want? Giving pupils time to discuss in pairs means everybody in the class has a safe, easy setting in which to get to grips with the question and to share an answer.

4. Give pupils thinking time. Ask a question and then... wait. This means they will be able to analyse the question and consider their answer. It can be easy to fall into the trap of asking a question and then demanding an immediate response, or asking questions in quick succession. A good way to avoid both scenarios is to ask a question and then say to pupils: "Take 30 seconds of thinking time." Alternatively, ask a question and count slowly and silently to 10.

5. Encourage pupils to write something down. This helps free up space in their short-term memory, allowing them to explore the issue in more depth. Also, it means they will have something in front of them that they can reflect on.

Differentiation through questioning

As a differentiation tool, questioning is second to none. The teacher can tailor their questions to fit any audience - be it the whole class, a group of pupils or an individual. Here are examples of three structuring tools you can use:

Concrete to abstract

This method involves a gradual transition from concrete thinking to abstract thinking, as opposed to a specific delineation of skills. Here is an example:

1. How many ducks are in the pond? (The most concrete question.)

2. What colour are the ducks?

3. How are the ducks behaving?

4. What are the relationships between the ducks?

5. What might be influencing the behaviour and relationships of the ducks?

6. Why might they have come to be as they are?

7. Is all human life mirrored by the ducks?

8. If ducks could speak, would we understand them? (The most abstract question.)

Keep the concrete-to-abstract continuum in mind when you are asking questions. If a pupil is struggling with the topic, ask them a concrete question; these are simple and easy to access. If they are confident with the topic, use a more abstract question so as to push their thinking.

Show me, tell me, convince me

This method goes from simpler to more challenging questions - to convince someone requires knowledge, rhetorical skill and a sound understanding of the issue. Here is how it works:

Show me. Use the phrase "show me" as the command part of your question to ask a pupil to show you what they have done, how they have learned something or what something means. The word "show" indicates that this activity will involve a basic level of thinking.

Tell me. Using the phrase "tell me" means you are making greater demands of your pupils. You might ask them to tell you what they think about something, or about the structure or origins of something. The use of "tell" indicates that this activity will require a deeper level of thinking than was the case with the word "show".

Convince me. Using the phrase "convince me" will result in even greater demands on your pupils. You might ask them to convince you that they are right, that something is the case or that a certain course of action should be taken. The use of "convince" indicates that this activity will require complex thinking - beyond the level of showing and telling.

When using this method, you can ask a number of questions based on each category. You need not be limited to one per section. You could extend the strategy by using different command words (explain, describe, persuade and so on).

Digging deeper

This is where your main aim is to get to the very bottom of what pupils think. Here, your questions will involve asking for explanations and justifications of what has been said. You will need to be persistent, continually pushing pupils to explain themselves. Listen carefully to what they say and latch on to anything that is not sufficiently clear, plausible, supported by evidence, reasoned or explained. Here are some examples of "digging deeper" questions:

What do you mean by that?

How does that relate to the question?

Why do you think that?

What evidencereasonssupport do you have for that?

How can you justify what you have said?

Why should we accept your answer?

On what is your thinking based?

How might someone challenge that?

How might someone attempt to disprove what you have said?

On what does your answer restrely?


This approach differentiates because it helps whoever is answering to explore the foundations underpinning what they have said. Whether a pupil is more or less able is immaterial. Any statement relies on some sort of justification and pupils can explore this in whatever depth they can manage. Using this structure is a good way of ensuring that all pupils are challenged.

Making knowledge provisional

As teachers, we want to help pupils develop critical thinking skills. One way of doing this is to present knowledge as provisional rather than fixed. This can be achieved through the use of the word "might". Instead of asking pupils to guess the right answer, questions containing the word "might" help them to arrive at a reasoned answer built on careful thinking and discussion.

For example: What is democracy? What might democracy be? If you ask the second question, pupils cannot help but reason, analyse, assess and examine. This will not necessarily be the case if the first form is used. In the second case, and with support from the teacher, pupils will be able to arrive individually and as a group at an answer or answers based on critical thinking.

There are two further benefits of making knowledge provisional. First, the teacher is able to elicit detailed information about what pupils think and why. This is of greater use than information likely to be elicited through non-provisional questions. It means the teacher can get an insight into pupils' thinking. They can then use this to adjust and improve their teaching.

The second benefit is that theories, answers and ideas are tested in a critical crucible - one in which logic, evidence, examples and reasoning must be used to justify ideas. Making knowledge provisional means placing it in relation to the criteria that have developed since the Enlightenment and underpin what we are prepared to accept as true (or as near to true as we can know at present). This type of questioning trains pupils to think critically, by demanding certain types of response and by subjecting these to further analysis and evaluation.

Questions as a diagnostic tool

Teachers are concerned with human thought and action as it manifests in the developing child, although their area of expertise is not quite as clear-cut as that of doctors. The word "education" is a catch-all for disparate knowledge rather than a signifier of a discrete discipline. Teachers need to be knowledgeable about a range of things: pedagogy, learning, specific subjects, thinking and psychology (more lay than professional). But unlike the doctor, they do not need to know about any of these in significant depth. It is likely that they will know more about one area than the others but their skill comes from a synthesis of the various elements.

This presents a small quandary that must be clarified if a teacher is to use questioning for effective diagnosis. Namely: what is being diagnosed? We can put pedagogy to one side because it concerns the teacher not the pupil. But we are still left with four elements: learning, the specific subject, thinking and psychology. If a teacher is using questioning in order to diagnose and then prescribe, they ought first to consider which of these they want to know about. This will ensure they ask questions that are appropriate and that will elicit relevant information.

Here is some analysis of the four elements that can help a teacher decide what it is they are looking to diagnose:

Learning: This refers to the general act of learning. It includes aspects such as how a pupil learns, how they interact with what the teacher is asking them to do, what they perceive learning to involve, their general attitude to learning and any elements that might prevent them from learning. If a pupil does not appear to be grasping what is going on in class, the teacher may question them in order to find out why. They may find that the pupil does not understand the task or how it will help their learning. The teacher can "cure" this by explaining and exemplifying.

The specific subject: This refers to the content of the lesson. It includes aspects such as knowledge of key terms, understanding of concepts and certain processes. If a pupil says they do not understand the work, this may be because they cannot come to terms with the content. In such a case, diagnostic questioning would help the teacher to identify what, specifically, the pupil does not understand. For example, perhaps they have misunderstood a key concept and are now misinterpreting new material. The teacher can follow up their questioning by rectifying the error.

Thinking: This refers to the general notion of thinking, including reasoning, analysis, making connections, problem-solving and so on. A pupil may give you an answer to a question that does not include any evidence of how or why they have come to that conclusion. Questioning could then be used to draw out the thinking that led to that answer. It may be that the pupil's thinking was sound. Even so, it is still better to make the process explicit.

On the other hand, it may be that the pupil came to the correct answer through incorrect means. In this case, the questioning will have elicited the error and given the teacher an opportunity to correct it.

Psychology: This refers to the psychological factors that are at play in the classroom. It includes aspects such as motivation, self-confidence, the influence of past experience, self-esteem and so on. If a pupil is reluctant to engage with a particular task, it may be because a psychological factor is inhibiting them. Diagnostic questioning can be used to elicit what precisely is causing the problem. The teacher can use information they gain to suggest alternative approaches.

For example, a pupil might be reluctant to take part in group work that will lead to a presentation. Diagnostic questioning may reveal they are scared of speaking in front of a large audience. The teacher could then suggest that they work on scripting the group's presentation but do not have to speak in front of the class.

In summary, diagnostic questioning involves asking questions to elicit specific information. This will probably be problem-solving, identifying error or checking what is known or understood. It stands to reason, therefore, that it is useful for teachers to think about this in advance.

None of these techniques is foolproof. The key thing is to reflect on your questioning and review it week by week, to identify what works best for particular classes. It is a large topic and for more strategies, techniques and activities see my e-book, How to Use Questioning in the Classroom, due to be published in early 2013.

Mike Gershon is an author and sociology teacher at King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds. His free teaching resources can be downloaded from the TES website at www.tes.co.ukmikegershon

The challenges

Reasons why students may not respond to questions:

They do not know the answer.

They do not feel confident.

They do not understand the question.

They have not listened to the question.

They feel social pressure that prevents them from answering.

They are bored.

They do not feel sufficiently safe or comfortable to share their thoughts.

They fear getting the answer wrong.

How to ask

How to develop good discussion questions:

Think big. It is easier to hone in on specifics from the big picture than vice versa.

Find something that is, or could be, at issue. This can act as the focus point for your discussion.

Pitch your questions carefully. Ensure that pupils will have enough knowledge and understanding to talk about them for a sustained period.

Make your questions clear (or be ready to explain them).

Imbue your question with purpose. What is it that you want your pupils to get out of the discussion? Develop your questions accordingly.

What to ask

Examples of probing questions that help pupils to develop their thinking:

What do you mean by that?

What you just said, could you expand on that?

How might that play out?

For what reason?

Could you give me an example of that?

What other examples might there be?

What has led you to think that?

How did you come to think that?

What else do you think about it?

How have you come to that conclusion?

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