The most commonly used questioning methods are the least effective – and it matters*.

Take for example the “volunteers” approach: you ask a question; hands go up; you choose someone to answer; they answer; you comment on that answer.

What is wrong with this?

  • Many students keep their hands down, and may not even listen to your questions.
  • You only learn what one student thinks, not how all the rest would have answered.
  • Students don’t discuss their answers and correct each others’ misconceptions.
  • The best students answer quickly, so there is little time for the others to think out their own answers.

You can of course choose a series of students to answer without using ‘hands up’, this is the ‘nominees’ approach. But:

  • This can be scary for many students.
  • A student who has just answered will guess that it will be ages before you ask them again. So they may stop listening.
  • You still don’t know what the majority of students think.

Compare these very common approaches with the much more effective “Assertive Questioning” approach.

Buzz groups work on a thought provoking question. The teacher asks individuals to give their group’s answer.  These individuals are nominated by the teacher.  The teacher gets a number of answers saying just ‘thank you’ after each, and perhaps ‘why did your group think that?’. The correct answer is not given away.  The teacher then encourages the class to discuss these various answers, and to agree, and justify a ‘class answer’.  Minority views are allowed, but the aim is consensus. Only when the class has agreed its answer, does the teacher ‘give away’ the right answer. The teacher reviews the class’s thinking.

With Assertive Questioning:

  • All students are thinking – “the teacher might choose me”.
  • All students are talking and checking each others’ thinking – they need to agree an answer with its reasoning. Group members will be cross if one of their number misrepresents their group’s answer to the class. So peer-pressure increases participation.
  • You get detailed and representative feedback on all the class’s thinking, and can eventually correct misconceptions before they take root.
  • There is lots of thinking time.
  • Students are usually very comfortable to give answers, as they are answering for their group not as an individual.

You get the best representative feedback on understanding if you ask supplementary questions like:

‘Why did your group think that?’

‘Did any other groups get that answer?’…’Why?’

‘Has anyone got a different answer?’ ….’Why?

See chapters 9 and 15 in Evidence Based Teaching if you want to use Assertive questioning, or chapter 24 in Teaching Today. There is not enough detail here. It took me a term to get used to this method but this method revolutionised my classroom when I adopted it, and made teaching and learning much more fun. it taught my students to think like a scientist (I taught physics).

There are many other high performance questioning strategies in Teaching Today and Evidence Based Teaching, like Pair Check; Mini-whiteboards; and Buzz group nominees.

Here are some training materials on Questioning.

Here are some materials on the level of questions you ask, from the differentiation page: diff 2 task design

* Prof John Hattie’s most recent effect size table has ‘Class Discussion’ as the most powerful teaching strategy with a huge effect size. Only the most effective questioning strategies like ‘Assertive Questioning’ lead to high quality class discussion. The best teachers don’t use the most common questioning methods see ‘Evidence Based Teaching’ chapter 22.

See my ‘Teaching Today’, ‘How to Teach Even Better’ or  ‘Evidence Based Teaching’ for much more on this topic.