Questioning

If you have some answers ...

Call me a cynic, but I wonder whether you have arrived here the second time around?

Either way, let's have a look at some of the potential answers:

To check on understanding

This is probably the most common usage: but it is important to emphasise the "understanding" element, because if you are not careful, your questions can end up testing something quite different.

The most familiar questions are "closed" ones, much used in school.

  • "What is the formula for calculating speed from time and distance?"        
  • "What is the first person plural subjunctive, present tense, of 'docere'?"

They are closed, because they are searching for a single correct answer (or possibly one of a range of correct answers) based on what has already been taught.

The other kind of question is "open": it calls for an answer in which the student draws on her experience, knowledge or judgement beyond the confines of the class. Open questions may well have incorrect answers, but potentially many correct—or more accurately, useful—answers.

One well-known problem with questioning is that students frequently assume that all questions are closed, sometimes despite the teacher's protestations. This is the heritage of schooling, and leads to the "Guess what I'm thinking" game, which stems from ill-thought-out questions, and to my mind has no place in post-school education.

    What's the major difference between Trollope and Conrad?

    Conrad's more exciting

    I suppose you could argue that... Can you think of another?

    Conrad writes about the rest of the world. Trollope's all about England.

    Well, that's right, but...

    Conrad is a twentieth-century writer, but Trollope is firmly in the nineteenth.

    True—can you think of anything in the structure of the novels?

    Trollope digresses, with all those long boring passages about...

    Well, you could argue that Conrad digresses, too. Still, you are onto something... The major difference is in their approach to plotting the story

The teacher had that answer in mind when he asked the question, and the principal task of the students was to find out what it was. In the end, the teacher had to supply it, by a rather convoluted route. The effect of the interchange was to devalue the suggestions made by all the students: the lead-in to the teaching point (about plot) in fact came from the least accurate of all the answers.

Closed questions test knowledge, but not understanding. As familiarity with Bloom's taxonomy will remind you, (What are the six levels of Bloom's taxonomy in the cognitive domain? Find out here) knowledge is a necessary but not sufficient condition for comprehension.

Closed questions have their place, but usually it is as a follow-up to a broader question which sets the scene, as it were, and which can get at the context. They then serve as a focusing device:

    "In the next few sessions we are going to look at language. What do you think are the issues psychologists are most likely to be interested in, about language?

    Why people in different countries speak different languages?

    That's a fascinating question, but it's more to do with the languages themselves, which is a linguistics issue, and perhaps history and social factors. Psychologists are more concerned with individual competence in using language.

    So would they be interested in why some people talk a lot and others don't say much? Can they explain why O'Connor over there never shuts up?

    (Laughter: someone chips in, "Can they explain the effect of kissing the Blarney Stone?")

    He's not the only one! Well, social psychologists are indeed interested in that kind of thing, and how conversations are structured—we'll be getting onto that, later.[...]

    How about how we learn a language?

    Yes indeed. In fact, that's where we're going to start. [...] From what we've done so far, have you any ideas about different approaches to language acquisition?

    Nature and nurture?

    Yes! What would that mean in practice?

    Nature theories would [...] say language was sort of built in to us.

    And...? Someone else?

    Nurture would say we learned it all from scratch.

    Good: that's it, more or less exactly. Who would you expect to emphasise learning?

    Behaviourists?

    Exactly...

In the above example the initial question is open, and although the first answers are not exactly on target for the rest of the lesson, they are taken seriously and linked in to the main theme.

Digressing: the banter about the Blarney Stone (sorry about the stereotyping: the student in question did have an Irish name) says something about the relaxed atmosphere in the class, which was in part a product of the teacher's approach: this page may be all about questioning, but it can't be totally isolated from the rest of what is going on.

The later questions are more closed, but make sense in the context of earlier ones, so that what is really quite a sloppy question, "have you any ideas about different approaches...?" nevertheless "hits its target".

For better or for worse, closed questions are a means of control. They emphasise the teacher's authority. Nominated questions: "O'Connor, tell me the name of a prominent behaviourist." (OK, it's an order, not a question) are an even stronger form of control. At least one textbook in the field recommends the following procedure for questioning:

This implies a very tight structure: it is the "teacher as Predator" approach. As with all these things, it has its place, but it is not always appropriate.

To get students thinking

Here, we are moving up Bloom's taxonomy in the cognitive domain, beyond knowledge to understanding or application and beyond. Nevertheless, because each level presupposes those below, a question of this nature gets at the lower levels, too.

    "Why do you think the trusses are constructed with cross-bracings?

    Because it makes them stronger?

    But it also adds to the weight

    So it must make them stronger than the additional weight matters [...]

    OK, but why does it make them stronger? Gerry?

    Because it stops the top and bottom moving relative to each other.

    Good point. Why does that matter? Sam?

    Well, it's like you had a thicker beam, but not as heavy.

    You've answered the weight question! But we can still be more explicit [...] Think about why the bracings are criss-crossed. Why don't they go straight across? Ali?

    Is it something to do with compression?

    Could be—go on..."

This is the kind of questioning which is often neglected, because really, it would be a lot easier to tell them the answer. The students are building on their pre-existing knowledge (strength vs. weight, compression and tension) and groping towards the answer. The fact that the answer is already known is not relevant—they don't know it, yet, and they are constructing it for themselves. There may be more vivid ways of getting them to understand the point (building something for themselves, for example, or just a demonstration with a model), but routinely, this kind of questioning is an effective stock-in-trade for the teacher.

As ever, it is respect for the answers which is central to success. Some students might have been discouraged by the initial objection to the first answer, and it is debatable whether the teacher should have moved on so fast to the next student, but there is nevertheless a sense of building something between teacher and student. This is the so-called Socratic method (only Socrates wasn't very good at it—he asked too many leading questions). See the discussion of the Conversational Model.

To get examples, to check out principles

"Does this ring any bells with anyone? Is Gestalt actually relevant to your teaching?

Yes, I think it is, only I'm not sure it's Gestalt—it's more of a way of thinking...

Can you say a bit more about what you're getting at, Judy?

Well, with my marketing students [...] sometimes they'll learn all the stuff, and you can test them on it, and they know it, but they still haven't got a clue what it's all about. [...] but some of them, who may not be as good, technically, they just think in a marketing kind of way, if you know what I mean...

[Another member] Doesn't that say something about the assessment?

Perhaps it does, but can we stay with this point for a while? Judy?

Marketing is more of a perspective—in business—than a subject. Some students just get it, and some don't—and I'm not sure how to ensure that they all get it..."

The question is open-ended: it calls for students to search their experience for anything which might possibly be related, and then to check out whether they are on the right lines by linking experience and theory. In this instance, the material the student brought up could have been considered under a number of theoretical perspectives, but she was testing ("I'm not sure it's Gestalt") her understanding.

A pre-requisite of such a discussion is that students have to know that their ideas will not be dismissed. This example might well not have been the kind of thing the teacher was thinking of when he asked the question, and the answer posed some problems in terms of discussion management (it might easily have gone off the point, into a discussion of assessment methods, and it was important not to be dismissive of the other student's contribution). However, the point was firmly task-related, even if not a central example of Gestalt. 

There are many other potential headings under which we could discuss questions, but these three subsume most of the variants, and there is no virtue in multiplying categories for the sake of it.

Who made that a cardinal principle?

An eloquent account of "Guess what I'm thinking" is to be found in Holt (1970)

What do you do when no-one answers?

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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