Pedagogical Moments: Questions

A group of men clustered on the temple floor. In hushed tones they discussed their problem. There was a teacher among them who had many followers. Their position and authority were threatened by this teacher’s wise teachings. They needed a plan to disgrace the teacher and rid the city of him.

They sent out a delegation to confront this Great Teacher. “Master, we know you are true, and you teach the truth of God. You are not partial to any man no matter his political or social standing. Tell us then, is the tribute money a lawful tax?”

The Great Teacher understood their trap. “Show me the tribute money,” he requested. “Whose image and superscription are on this coin?”

Questions create an active learning encounter. Questions pull the listener from a passive role into a participatory one. Using the right questions, a teacher can take a student from the unknown to the known more effectively than merely telling them would do.

Questions for review

An obvious place to use questions is when reviewing material previously learned. That is part of checking for understanding. A good teacher will start a class with a few questions of review to tie together previous knowledge with the new that is to be learned. Classes such as reading, and history will often end with a few questions to check how well the lesson was comprehended. Questions at the end of a class should also recap the written work students may be doing on their own.

When students need reminders about a procedures and routines, such at the beginning of the school year, a teacher should ask the students for the information rather than just telling them again. If students need to respond in some way, they are actively engaged and are less likely to let the teacher’s words roll off their backs like a duck sheds water. Here the use of question is only for review and practice. The teacher has already clearly taught what the expectations are.

Questions as introductions

A good question can also introduce a lesson. The answer to the question will be found in the lesson. Asking young students, “What did Abraham Lincoln store in his hat?” or “What was the purpose of the Lewis and Clark Expedition?” will keep them looking for the answer as class proceeds. This type of question can be used to find out the information students already know and give them a reason to engage in the lesson.

Questions to check for understanding

Use questions as you move through the lesson to keep students engaged with the material. Don’t wait until the end of the lesson to check if students understand what is being taught. Use questions throughout the lesson to make sure they know what is going on.

 Ask questions as you go through history and science texts or a reading story. Some questions may be to summarize what has just happened and some may lead into the next part. Questions such as, “What do you think is going to happen next?” don’t need a vocal answer. Students can each internalize their answers.

Methods of requesting answers to questions

In my first-grade classroom, the purpose for asking questions is to invite active learning from my students. The more they are engaged the better they understand. Therefore, when I ask a question, I usually want a response from the whole class. There are various ways I do this depending on the type of response a question needs.

  • Group response: If the response to a question is a one-to-three-word definitive answer I will ask for a group response at the given signal. Example: “What shape has three angles?” Group answer, “Triangle.”
  • Partner response: If the needed answer is less objective or is longer than a few words we tell the answer to our partners. This works well for review purposes and for open-ended questions. Sometimes questions are just to get students to start thinking; I don’t necessarily need to hear the answer. Often I can tune into their responses or I may ask a few to share their response. In the case of review questions, I may state the correct answer after they have all shared with a partner.
  • Individual response: Sometimes they take turns saying an answer or I will call on a raised hand. I use this method when I’m checking for individual understanding or when I have a harder question for which only a few of the class might have an answer.

These types of responses work well for younger students. Teach students how to respond properly. Making use of signals in group and partner responses help students to know when to respond. Observe the students’ responses. Are they all engaged? Are they answering correctly?

Allow a “wait time”

An important part of receiving answers to questions is to allow a wait time of three to five seconds for students to form a response. Moving too quickly to the next person or for the choral answer deprives the brain of interaction with or the retrieval of the required information.

Invite the students to participate in your classes with questions. The more interaction they have with the lesson, the less likely they will be to lose focus and attention. Questions ask students to do something besides absorb what the teacher is telling them. Questions can also propel thinking and grappling with subject matter beyond what the teacher can state. Questions allow students to own their answers. A good teacher knows when and how to use good questions.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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