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Question-asking techniques in teaching

Overview:

Teachers ask questions to discover what the students have understood and misunderstood, to stimulate the students’ thinking and to invite the students into a joint conversation. Clever teachers ask good questions, give the students good conditions for answering and build on the answers they receive.

 

The good questions

What a good question is depends on the course, the students and the teaching situation. That said, please consider the following. Ask open question and limit your use of closed questions. Open questions provide space for several possible answers, while closed questions limit response options. Ask questions because you want to hear the students’ answers, not necessarily the correct answer. Students don’t like guessing what the teacher is thinking. Start by asking relatively simple and concrete questions and gradually ask more difficult and abstract questions. In this way you are warming up the conversation. Prepare your key questions in advance and write them down. It takes time to construct good questions.

Motivate the students to answer

Teachers’ question-asking styles vary greatly, and therefore the students’ willingness to answer also varies. You should therefore stand in the middle of the room, look at your students and then ask your question. Don’t speak too fast. Your body language and voice will then indicate that a question is coming. Then wait! The students need to think. Look around the room. Don’t ask the first student that puts up their hand to answer. Be patient. If only a few students put their hands, you may repeat your question. Avoid answering your own question.

You should allow your students a minute to think about the key questions; then ask your students to speak together in pairs before asking for their questions. This gives them an opportunity to develop and test their answers, and it gives you an opportunity to ask a group, even if they did not necessarily put up their hands.

Build on the students’ statements

It is not only necessary to ask good questions. It is also important that you build on the answers you receive. Many teachers tend to quickly begin to speak again, but as the figure demonstrates, there are other options. Playing ‘ping pong’ means that we begin a conversation with the individual student. If we are uncertain about what the student actually meant, we can examine their statement. If we accept the statement but would like the student to include more aspects, we can expand the statement (see the figure). We can also ‘play the ball’ to other students to invite them into the conversation. When doing so, we are of course responsible for making sure that the tone is constructive and factual and that we discuss the statement, not the person. If Lisa said that “Denmark was part of the allied forces during World War 2”, it is important to ask “do others think Denmark was among the allied forces?” and not “do you agree with Lisa?”

 

Source: Herrmann & Bager-Elsborg (2014) Effektiv Holdundervisning [Effective class teaching], Frederiksberg: Samfundslitteratur (publisher).

Teachers should ask themselves the following questions:

  • What do you want to accomplish by asking questions?
  • Think of teachers you thought were good at engaging students. What did they ask about? And how?
  • What will you do if no one answers straight away?
  • Have you considered telling your students why you are asking questions and why it is important to hear their answers?

Activities

Under development

    Examples of practice

      Further reading

      Herrmann, K. J., & Bager-Elsborg, A. (2014). Effektiv holdundervisning: en håndbog for nye undervisere på universitetsniveau. Frederiksberg: Samfundslitteratur.

      Wichmann-Hansen & Wirenfeldt Jensen (2015). Processtyring og kommunikation i vejledning. I: Universitetspædagogik, (329-350) Frederiksberg: Samfundslitteratur.

      Brown, G., & Atkins, M. (1988). Effective teaching in higher education. Oxon: Routledge.

      Christensen, R. (1991). The Discussion Teacher in Action: Questioning, Listening, and Response. In: Education for Judgment (s. 153-174). Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

       


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      The content of the page was prepared by Kim J. Herrmann and Anna Bager-Elsborg