Questioning

What is questioning?

The art of asking questions is at the heart of effective communication and information exchange, which underpins good teaching. If you use questioning well, you can improve the student learning experience in a whole range of Teaching Settings.

Socrates believed that to teach well, an educator must reach into a learner's prior knowledge and awareness in order to help the learner reach new levels of thinking. Recent research into student learning (Biggs and Tang, 2007) and learning from experience (Andresen, Boud and Cohen, 2000) support this view. You can use questions to draw from and build on students' prior knowledge and experience to help them to develop deeper understanding of a topic.

Why use questioning?

Through thoughtful questioning, teachers can not only extract factual information, but help learners:

  • connect concepts
  • make inferences
  • think creatively and imaginatively
  • think critically, and
  • explore deeper levels of knowing, thinking and understanding.

Developing good questioning skills is particularly important if you use Case Studies in your teaching.

Common issues with questioning

The challenges with questioning are similar to those with Discussions:

  • getting students to talk, and keeping the discussion moving,
  • pointless arguments, which can throw a discussion off track.

Sometimes lecturers tend to overuse particular types of questions, for example, only factual or only divergent questions (see question types in the table below). This can hinder the development of a good debate, or stop students moving through discussion towards a conclusion.

Effective questioning: how do I achieve it?

  • Use a variety of question types.
  • Hone your questioning skills by practising asking different types of questions.
  • Monitor your teaching so that you include varied levels of questioning.

Types of questions

There are 5 basic types of questions: factual, convergent, divergent, evaluative and combination.

Factual

Factual questions solicit reasonably simple, straightforward answers based on obvious facts or awareness. They are usually at the lowest level of cognitive or affective processes. Answers are frequently either right or wrong.

EXAMPLE:
What is the name the Shakespeare play about the Prince of Denmark?

Convergent

Answers to convergent questions are usually within a very finite range of acceptable accuracy. These may be at several different levels of cognition (comprehension, application, analysis) or the answerer may have to make inferences or conjectures based on personal awareness, or on material read, presented or known.

EXAMPLE:
On reflecting on the entirety of the play Hamlet, what were the main reasons why Ophelia went mad? (This is not specifically stated in one direct statement in the text of Hamlet. Here the reader must make simple inferences as to why Ophelia committed suicide.)

Divergent

Divergent questions allow students to explore different avenues and create many different variations and alternative answers or scenarios. Correctness may be:

  • based on logical projections
  • contextual, or
  • arrived at through basic knowledge, conjecture, inference, projection, creation, intuition, or imagination.

Divergent questions often require students to analyse, synthesise, or evaluate a knowledge base and then project or predict different outcomes. Frequently the intention of these types of divergent questions is to stimulate imaginative and creative thought, or investigate cause-and-effect relationships, or provoke deeper thought or extensive investigations.

Be prepared for the fact that there may not be right or definitely correct answers to these questions.

EXAMPLE:
In the love relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, what might have happened to their relationship and their lives if Hamlet had not been so obsessed with the revenge of his father's death?

Evaluative

Evaluative questions usually require sophisticated levels of cognitive and/or emotional or affective judgment. In attempting to answer evaluative questions, students may be combining multiple logical and/or affective thinking processes, or comparative frameworks. Often an answer is analysed at multiple levels and from different perspectives before the answerer arrives at newly synthesised information or conclusions.

EXAMPLES:
a) What are the similarities and differences between the deaths of Ophelia and Juliet?
b) What are the similarities and differences between Roman gladiatorial games and modern football?

Combination

Combination questions blend any combination of the other 4 types.

Tips and techniques

  • Plan key questions to provide structure and direction to the lesson. Spontaneous questions that emerge are fine, but make sure to plan the overall direction of the discussion.
  • Phrase the questions clearly and specifically. Avoid vague and ambiguous questions.
  • Adapt questions to the level of the students' abilities.
  • Ask questions logically and sequentially.
  • Ask questions at various levels.
  • Follow up on students' responses.
  • Elicit longer, more meaningful and more frequent responses from students after an initial response by:
    • maintaining a deliberate silence
    • making a declarative statement
    • making a reflective statement giving a sense of what the students said
    • declaring perplexity over the response
    • inviting elaboration
    • encouraging other students to comment.
  • Give students time to think (wait time) after you ask a question.
  • Use divergent questions, as the question type that is most likely to produce a range of responses.

Resource (external source)


References

  • Adapted and edited from Erickson, H. L. (2007) Concept-based curriculum and instruction for the thinking classroom, Thousand Oaks, CA, Corwin Press.
  • Andresen, L., Boud, D. and Cohen, R. (2000) "Experience-based learning (PDF)," in G. Foley (ed.), Understanding Adult Education and Training, 2nd edn, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 225-239.
  • Biggs, J. and Tang, C. (2007) Teaching for Quality Learning at University, 3rd edition, New York, Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.