Tuesday 5 August 2014

Can I be that little bit better at......asking effective questions?

After writing my last post on barriers to effective questioning, I began to reflect a lot on the strategies I use in the classroom.  One of the main areas of focus was why some of the methods I have used throughout my career might not have been as effective as they possibly could have been.  Questioning is such a frequent tool in the classroom and one that is used to elicit what it is that students think or know about a topic.  If we don't ask questions then how on earth can we assess their learning.  From the last post I made the point that some of the ways I delivered questions fall short of the mark.  I pulled out a list of reasons why my questioning techniques need tweaking in order to maximise their impact:

  • Calling on high achievers a lot more than low achievers
  • Same student answering
  • Not enough wait time
  • Lack of depth in the questions
  • 'Guess what's inside my head'
  • Responding to students answers (just moving on)
  • Giving them the answer
  • Asking questions that are too complex
  • Dealing with 'The hands up kids!'
  • Patience
  • 'I don't know' and dealing with similar answers
  • Only gaining one students insight
  • Wrong answers and what I do with them
This list is quite extensive and rightly so.  If you look at them closely, they are more about what the students gain from questioning rather than what we as teachers do.  And I firmly believe that that should be the case.  If I remember back to my school days I probably thought questioning was a way for teachers to either annoy us or check we were still awake.  As a new teacher I thought questioning was part and parcel of what we were expected to do.  Now more experienced I see questioning as a way for students remember, connect, expand ideas, discuss, agree, disagree, share opinions, challenge, entice curiosity, offer perspectives and much more.  So when looking at this list in an effort to improve questioning, new strategies or refined techniques might not attend to all of them in one go.  However, a series of habit changes and a combination of strategies might ensure that the questions I ask have a lot more impact than before.  So can I be that little bit better at asking effective questions?


One key area that kept cropping up when looking at my questioning was why students don't involve themselves in the process.  If I think back to my days at school, I can picture classes with old friends and peers with different abilities, backgrounds and views on education.  We had some who enjoyed school.  We had some who tolerated school.  We had the naturally talented.  We had those who struggled.  We had some who gave their all.  We had some who wasted talent.  We had some who knew it all.  We had some who found school wasn't for them.  With such diversity in the class I found that sharing ideas and opinions during class discussions could be a mine field.  A wrong answer could be met with a severe put down from peers.  A great answer could result in ridicule as you are seen as a 'boff' or teachers pet.  The worry of the teacher finding out you have no idea left you feeling pressured, panicked or worried.  The culture of a classroom might not be that different now.  Who really knows.  But that culture where sharing answers during class questioning is safe is extremely important.  Yes we want students to challenge each other and offer opposing opinions, but we need to ensure that the environment in which questioning occurs allows everyone to contribute without the worry of ridicule or panic.  Setting clear rules, modelling how to share answers, demonstrating good protocol and scaffolding the process allow students the security to be involved.  Celebrating good answers, valuing opinions and rationally challenging ideas takes time to achieve, but setting up such a culture means that the methods that follow might have a lot more success.

Quality of answers

If we allow it, student responses could become very weak or low in standard.  Challenging students to provide answers can be quite a task in some instances.  Setting expectations that every answer must be high quality can be even harder.  Still, it is worth the battle if you set ground rules regarding the answers students provide.  It will take time to introduce them, model them, scaffold them and reinforce them, but the quality over time will improve immensely.
  • Set that expectation that every student must speak loud enough so that they can be heard by all.  There is nothing worse when a student mumbles and the majority of the class can't hear it.  
  • Ask that they use well structured sentences and language.  Now this will take time to develop but similar to writing, students should be using specific terminology, sound structure and a range of vocabulary.  Be a stickler for slang words.  It will be tough but it is well worth it.
  • Develop it if it needs to be.  Some students will settle for giving you the minimum they possibly can.  If an answer is a bit thin on the ground, before using another technique like ABC questioning, ask the student to refine their answer so that we as a class can do something with it.  It may need prompts and probing questions but getting a culture established among students that high quality answers are the norm is a great first step.

One Mississippi, two Mississippi........Wait time

As I pointed out in the last post, teachers rarely leave students enough thinking time before asking for an answer.  As simple as it may seem, pausing before asking students to contribute is a key thing.  Unfortunately from my own (and others) experience, the fear of silence in a lesson is one of the reasons we rush in.
Make it your standard practice to allow at least 3 or 4 seconds before asking students to contribute.  The difference in that and rushing is can be immense.  The quality of answers and the depth of thinking might just be that little bit better.  Silence doesn't mean that learning isn't taking place.  Students need space to think so build this in (just make sure that it doesn't just become extended daydreaming time).

Planning questions

With the nature of learning and the messy form that it can take in lessons, it is not uncommon that its direction can deviate at times.  Trying to plan your questions is therefore unrealistic.  In fact I would recommend not trying to plan every question as it would be so time consuming and probably a waste of time.  Instead the majority of questions we pose are responsive to the situation and occur when needed.  The ability to react in such a way requires us to have expertise in our subject knowledge so we can stretch and challenge all abilities.  However, you are still able to plan carefully designed questions to use at specific times.  Imagine a topic you teach.  Many have key points that must be understood or common areas of misconception.  At these times, during your planning phase, construct one or two questions for the lesson that you can pull out at these pivotal points.  The ability to have them on hand to reinforce or correct the learning can be extremely helpful and ensure students head towards a desired outcome.

ABC questions

I have absolutely no idea where I first heard about this technique.  It has now become a regular routine in my classroom even if I don't make specific reference to the strategy.  ABC stands for Add, Build and Contest/Challenge.  It is a way of turning the process of questions and answers into a class dialogue.  Rather than simply gaining one students insight or calling on the same student over and over again, the teacher poses a class question which they allow time to mull over.  When the teacher calls upon a student to answer they use this as the beginning of the dialogue.  The teacher then invites other students to contribute.  The first stage is having others 'Add' to the initial answer.  Was there anything that you would add that might have been missed out?  Was there a bit of information, key word or idea missing?  Was there a part of the answer that needs refining?

The teacher then asks if anyone would like to 'Build' upon the answer.  This involves adding more structure or content.  It could involve drawing in additional information or vocabulary to make the answer more academic.  The idea is the class is now building this up and developing the complexity.

The final stage involves offering the opportunity for anyone to 'Challenge' what has been said.  This is crucial as students may not agree.  Rather than let it be a free for all, the process allows a rational approach to rebut, disagree, oppose or offer a different perspective.  The process of reasoning also allows students to understand a variety of viewpoints or even consider an alternative answer that might not have been initially perceived.  Depending on the quality of the answer, the ABC process can begin again.  The whole process is simple to implement and excellent for modelling.

Live write the answer

Such a simple idea but one that I see underused.  It is certainly one that I have only recently begun to do more avidly.  The process simply involves annotating answers on the board as students give them.  Attention spans, working memory capacity and distractions can sometimes mean that after a complex answer has been given, peers or classmates have forgotten what has been said.  The process involves the teacher keeping track of the answer and noting down any key elements of it on the board.  This allows students to then reflect upon what has been said and generate a discussion about its quality.  With it being so visual, the teacher can then manipulate structure or have it critiqued by the class in an effort to improve it.  Students can discuss the answer in pairs or consider it individually.  By it being live, it is easier to keep track or the thought process and in itself becomes more memorable.

Driving questions

Driving questions are generally thought provoking open ended questions that is used in approaches such as PBL.  A driving question is large in itself but requires a bank of knowledge and understanding to answer it.  Although large, the question is refined enough that it requires students to focus on specific topics and information.  It can been seen as a hook which prompts curiosity.  In our current GCSE course, we split our topics into units.  Each unit was carefully designed to include areas of the curriculum that were related to each other.  Each of these units has a driving question which literally 'drives' the learning.  In our recent physiology unit, the question we launched with was 'How do the four physiological systems interlink to allow an athlete to perform in competition?'.  The question prompted curiosity and thought before the subsequent lessons pieced the answers together.  Every lesson the driving question was mentioned and new information was added to the students thinking.  At the end of the unit students are given this as an extended question which they must answer using what they have learnt.  The beauty behind using this method is every student has the same carefully selected question throughout.  The question itself is one which all students ultimately need to know by covering the unit.  It allows teachers the opportunity to assess what has been learnt and forces them all to demonstrate it.

Questions as objectives

Very similar to driving questions is the process of using questions as objectives.  The question will pose curiosity among the students and set up a bigger picture of where this topic is going.  Like with the driving questions, all students should be expected to answer it in some form during the lesson (whether as a final task or plenary).

No hands up (but with hands up)

There are a lot of strategies out there that work on randomly selecting students to answer questions in lessons.  The 'not knowing if it is me' scenario is one way to keep most students involved in the lesson.  The process involves choosing a student at random who provides an answer.  As it could be anyone, student naturally need to be paying attention.  Over the years you might have seen name cards, lolly pop sticks, spinning wheel random name selectors, an Octopus that selects boxes with students names on (or was that just in the 2010 World Cup?).  My preferred method which I share with fellow teachers is extremely technical and simply involves pointing at a student and asking them.  Either way, the process means that the same students in lessons don't get asked.  But hold on a minute.....what about those students who actually want to answer a question rather than the student trying to wriggle out of it.  Should they still not be allowed an opportunity to share?  Why should they be penalised?  This is a good point.  The last thing we want to do is cause students to lose motivation or give up caring.  A straightforward solution is to work on the no hands up strategy (Doug Lemov calls it 'Cold Call') but after one or two answers, allow students to put their hands up and share their responses.  It seems so simple yet on numerous times when I have mentioned this people say 'Oh yeah, I'll do that'.  Yes all students should be part of the questioning process and have to think.  No hands up does that.  But we should still allow those who genuinely want to contribute, and who may bring a high quality answer that may change the lesson, to share their ideas as well.

Modelling with questions

There are times when a student comes out with a mind-blowing answer that summarises everything you have asked so concisely.  It doesn't happen everyday and sometimes it is lost on the majority of their peers.  Students need to understand why it is you are praising  the depth of the answer.  Annotating it on the board and deconstructing it helps the remainder of the class see how that conclusion was made.  Highlight the thinking.  Highlight the structure.  Highlight the vocabulary and use of terminology.  Show students (just like with writing) how they too can end up at the same outcome.

Hinge questions (and other whole class response systems)

Hinge questions have quickly become one of my favourite questioning strategies.  One of the problems with a lot of questioning is it only asks one student at a time.  There is a danger that doing this does not paint an accurate picture of what the remainder of the class thinks, and, it is time consuming to then move onto the next individual.  Whole class response systems allow you to quickly see what every student thinks and gives you a slightly better temperature of the classroom.  A hinge question itself is where at a critical point in the lesson, usually for me at the stage where I want to move onto more complex tasks, you share a multiple choice question on the board for students to think over.  The answers are labelled 1, 2, 3, 4/A, B, C, D and students have to raise their hand/white board in response to which answer they think is correct.  Designing hinge questions can be tricky to start with.  The wrong options need to be close enough that they may be plausible but not too similar that they may cause a misconception to be learnt.  That can be tricky to unlearn and fix.  They also shouldn't be too easy that they become pointless.  A quick scan of the class allows you to decide whether to move on or spend more time on the topic you have just covered.

Question statements

Stolen entirely from Dylan Wiliam is question statements.  As a teacher you display a statement based on a topic or piece of learning you have just covered.  Rather than it being a question to elicit an answer, it challenges students to think of a more developed response that share their opinion.  To do it justice, here is the excerpt from Dylan:

This is an idea that I have become a big fan of.  It's simplicity yet alternative way of working means that students are forced to think and draw opinions.  The simple tweaks to our input means that students can be continuously challenged.

You've got 30 seconds - Bounce.

Out of all of the lessons I have observed, one where I watched our Director of Learning stood out the most.  In his lesson he had a mixed ability Year 9 class.  During the lesson he asked a question to students.  He offered some wait time before he asked for an answer.  No hands went up and no contributions were made when called upon.  At this point I got my pen out ready to make some eagle eyed observation notes.  Before I had even got the lid off he simply said to the class, "Okay guys you have 30 seconds to get an answer, off you go".  My pen was safely put away.  The answers that came from the repeated round of questioning was a million times better.  Initially I thought a number of problems had occurred.  Maybe the question was to complex?  Maybe the students weren't listening?  Maybe they hadn't gained the necessary knowledge to answer it.  Instead all the students needed was 30 seconds to bounce their ideas around and feel confident that what they were going to say was along the right lines.


One of the first real strategies I had for questioning (apart from simply firing them from the hip) was snowballing.  It still becomes part of my teaching repertoire and crops up in lessons now and again.  I simply ask a question to the class and allow students time to develop an answer for themselves.  I then ask students to share it with a partner so they can compare and evaluate the answers they have reached.  They then grow into groups of four, then half a class until we share a refined answer as a class.  The process allows students to analyse each others statements.  When the group size grows each student has a chance to share their view and time is allocated to refining that answer into a shared consensus.  The final few answers hopefully include a wider content base, more factual meaning, higher reasoning and increased structure and vocabulary.  The process itself doesn't ever have to reach the whole class stage.  Sometimes time won't simply allow it.  A similar strategy is 'Think, Pair, Share' where the same principle of independently creating and answer before collaborating exists.  Instead of going for large numbers, the same principles exist for sharing an answer with a partner before sharing their perspective with a class.

Write it down

Sometimes students aren't able to pull together a constructive answer in their head.  Occasionally a question is quite complex or contains wording which needs thinking time.  In this instance it is a great help to allow students an opportunity to write down initial thoughts.  It only needs to be in short hand or bullet point but allows students an opportunity to refer to notes when sharing their ideas in class.

Exit tickets

Exit tickets have now become a common theme in my lesson.  The strategy is great to use as it ask students to summarise the key learning within the lesson as well as provides some more of formative assessment which you can use for future planning.  Ideally used right at the very end of the lesson, the teacher poses a challenging question on the board.  In my experience, the question should only be a maximum of a 3 or 4 marks so students have ample time to respond to it.  The question pulls out the key learning concept from the lesson and forces students to show they have an grasp on it.  As we know (from Bjork's Learning v Performance) it doesn't give you a huge indicator of what learning has taken place, but it is another opportunity to squeeze thinking into your lesson and have students manipulate the information they have just had shared with them.  The teacher asks the students to either answer the question on a slip or write it in their books for marking.  If the responses are very poor, the teacher can then attend to that topic area in the next lesson.  If the answers are excellent, the teacher can skim this before moving onto a new area.

Generating questions

Research suggests that the majority of questions that are posed in lesson come from teachers.  Why is it that we spend little time getting students to develop their own questions?  A technique I borrowed from Martin Said on my visit to Cramlington in 2009 was the Questioning Grid (Kipling's).  The grid has been well documented by such teachers as John Sayers and Tait Coles.  It uses Rudyard Kipling's 6 questions (who, where, what, when, how and why) combined with other words such as is, did or might.  Responding to a stimulus (possibly a driving question) students have to generate questions for themselves using the boxes as prompts.  The rule of thumb (although I am not quite sure) is that the further to the bottom right corner you get, the higher the level of question you are creating.  Students then select their top one or two questions which they then share on a question wall or with the class in another format.  The class can then select a question which to investigate or pose to the teacher to answer.  The technique itself doesn't have to simply be for inquiry but works well in any other circumstance that the generation of questions is needed.  The modelling and challenge that a teacher facilitates helps students see what a good question looks like.

And so....?

Culture, confidence and strategies are all well and good but as teachers we need to ensure that whatever question we pose has a benefit to the learning.  Sometimes asking less is more.  Sometimes designing a few well constructed questions is better than machine gunning 300 off in one session.  Maybe the strategies themselves are not important but the quality of the students answers.  Maybe forgetting strategies and focusing on designing well crafted questions around the content of your lesson would be time better spent.  I'd have to hold my hands up and say I don't know.  What I do know is that some of the strategies, habits, protocols and procedures that I have listed above have been time efficient and have created an environment where students are sharing their opinions in a much more refined way than they had before.  So can these methods help me ask more effective questions?  I hope so.

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