Ensuring Questioning Impacts Students’ Learning

Just before Christmas I ran a short CPD session with staff on questioning techniques. Now the difficulty with such an area is that there is no secret ingredient or coverall fail safe approach (like with starters for example, you try an activity and it either works or does not.) However when it comes to questioning, this is not an activity it is a skill, so the first step is recognising what you are currently doing and asking if it is working or not. This is often best supported with an observation, another set of eyes that can listen to the questions asked and the responses given but this is not always the desired approach nor very helpful when running a training session. So instead I turned to my new set of books (and Google of course).


I started the session by asking staff the reasons why we ask questions. Now I know this is not a very creative start however it was necessary to emphasise that we know as teachers why we question (e.g. to interest, engage and challenge students, to check on prior knowledge and understanding, to focus students’ thinking on key concepts and issues etc) but what the research points out is that whilst we know why we question, very few questions are asked that promote reasoning, problem solving and evaluation or to promote students’ thinking about the way they have learned.

This got me thinking back to my PGCE days and Bloom’s Taxonomy. Now I am not a big fan of teaching fads, however Bloom’s to me is different. Back in the 1950’s Dr Benjamin Bloom, educational psychologist and his team, designed a framework that focused upon Knowledge (cognitive), Skills (psychomotor) and Attitudes (affective). This developed into his Taxonomy, a six stage developmental programme of learning. So within my session I give teachers a blank triangle separated into 6 sections and they had to order the subheadings from least to highest order skill:Annotation 2020-01-16 152849

We discussed answers and reasoning behind them then looked at the answers:

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(This is taken from the 2001 revised version. The original version had evaluate at the top with synthesis underneath. Synthesis was then changed to create and moved to the top.)

Research indicates that it is the higher stages of Bloom’s Taxonomy, those connected with higher order questions, which are the areas that are often neglected in the classroom. From here I asked staff to reflect on the areas they do well, areas they think they could improve and finally problems that are holding them back. From exploring the different research, it was easy to predict the areas that staff would identify as development areas or problems, so I created a ppt (download for free from TES) summarising the common pitfalls and researcher’s tips.

So here are the highlights:

Common Pitfalls

  • Asking too many closed questions that need only a short answer.
  • Asking too many questions at once (research indicates this is a very common mistake where teachers ask 2-3 different questions in a row. Students who are listening to the next question, cannot process the answer to the first. If you want students to answer multiple questions – write them on the board so they are visual, rather than having to remember the questions and come up with answers as well.)
  • Asking difficult questions without building up to them.
  • Asking a question then answering it yourself (this was the most common pitfall. If students know you will give the answer they won’t even try. Never give the answer.  Always re – word the question, give alternatives or clues but never the answer. If a class cannot answer, go back and teach the area again because at this point if they do understand they will then avoid the repetition of going over it again by answering your original question).
  • Focusing on a small number of students and not involving the whole class
  • Dealing ineffectively with wrong answers or misconceptions
  • Not treating students’ answers seriously

Wait time

Research (such as from Rowe, 1974) on classroom questioning and information processing indicates that students need at least three seconds to: comprehend a question, consider the available information, formulate an answer and begin to respond. In contrast, the same research established that, on average, a classroom teacher allows less than one second of wait-time. Dramatic changes occurred when teachers allowed between three to five seconds of wait time including: increased and more appropriate responses, the length of student responses increased and the number of student questions increased.

Researcher’s Tips

  • Write your main questions in advance = “scripting.”
  • When planning your questions, try to anticipate possible student responses.
  • Try to re-use parts of a student’s answer in your explanations to show the students that their contributions matter.
  • If you are going to use a question that requires deeper consideration write it on the board, this allows students time to reflect on what has been asked of them.
  • Even if an answer is right get students to explain their reasoning – imagine there is someone in the room that doesn’t understand the topic or why an answer is right (How do you know? For what reasons?)
  • Once a student is engaging through answering a questions – see how far you can develop their understanding through further questioning (works well with students who volunteer answers)
  • Written record of answers: questions are asked because they are important. Need to find a way to write down answers or activity afterwards to reflect the answers received. Teacher could also write student’s contributions on the board.
  • Be an ‘interpretive listener’ rather than an ‘evaluative listener’. – be interested in what the students think not just looking for the right answer because even wrong answers can indicate a lot about the learning process (Dylan William).

I finished the session, like all good teacher’s, with homework. I gave staff a reflection table to go away and fill out once back in the classroom. This table included: did you plan your questions before the lesson, how long do you leave for wait time and what is the length of student responses.

The handout can also be downloaded for free on TES.

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