What does research evidence tell us about effective questioning?

24 May 2018

By Andy Tharby

Asking questions has always has been an essential ingredient of the craft of teaching. For the most effective and successful teachers, it is usually such an ingrained part of classroom dialogue that it seems to happen quite naturally. It can be very hard for new teachers to emulate this kind of seamless, automatic expertise. Experienced teachers usually rely on three forms of knowledge to develop questions and sequences of questions: their refined knowledge of the content being taught; their knowledge of the misconceptions and misunderstandings associated with this content; and their understanding of the prior-knowledge and dispositions of their students.

An effortless questioning sequence is often the cumulative result of years and years of purposeful (and error-filled!) practice. Effective questioners seem to know exactly what question to ask, when to ask it and who to ask it to. But the question remains: just how do they do it?

In this post, we will look at questioning from a different angle. If we put classroom craft to one side, what does research evidence tell us about the features of effective teacher questioning? In fact, a strong body of evidence has developed on effective questioning – and most of this has been known for over 30 years. A useful and accessible review of this evidence comes from Kathleen Cotton (1988). Below are some of the highlights:

Ask some questions! Teaching with questions is more effective than teaching without questions.

Avoid off-topic questions. Questions should centre on the salient elements of the material-to-be-learnt.

Quick-fire factual questions. When the material is factual, use ‘lower-order’ questions and keep the pace of questioning brisk.

Match the level to the student. As a rule of thumb, the majority of questions should be higher-order when teaching older and higher-ability students. Lower-order questions should be used the majority of the time with younger and lower-ability students.

Use wait time. Give students time to think by leaving 3 seconds or more after posing a question. Leave longer for higher-order questions than lower-order questions.

Redirect and probe. Move the questioning around the room to keep all students involved. Probe some students further to unpick their thinking.

Praise sparingly. Avoid criticising student responses, but praise very sparingly. When using praise, make it very clear what you are praising. Avoid vague or unspecific comments.

Barack Rosenshine’s more recent review of the principles of effective instruction (2012) also reveals the following insights.

1. The most effective teachers spend more than half of class time lecturing, demonstrating and asking questions; less effective teachers ask fewer questions.

2. Effective teachers ask a large number of students and check responses of all students.

3. Effective teachers ask students to explain the processes they used to find an answer; the least effective teachers ask almost no process questions.

4. Effective teachers obtain a high answer success rate  – i.e. questions should not be too difficult, but not so easy that they provide no cognitive challenge at all.

Of course, the recommendations shared above are easier said than done. It is very hard for teachers to ask questions if they do not have a handle on student behaviour or do not have a deep understanding of the concepts and processes they are teaching. Nevertheless, if you are looking to improve your own teaching or the teaching of your colleagues, this evidence provides a useful indicator about where to start.

Posted on 24 May 2018
Posted in: Blog, Evidence
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