Questioning is an important part of good teaching. In a typical classroom, it is generally the teacher who talks the most, while the students merely listen. However, questioning, if done correctly, can be a powerful teaching tool. Questioning techniques can also be varied according to the classroom situation and students' abilities.
Not only can effective questioning elicit interactive responses from the students, they can also guide them in their cognitive thinking. This will help them to absorb the lesson content better.
There are basically two main types of questioning - narrow and broad. Narrow or convergent questions would require the student to provide factual recall or specific short answers. On the other hand, broad or divergent questions will require a longer answer and sometimes have no explicit right or wrong answers.
1. Narrow / convergent questions
The answers to such questions are usually Yes/No, Right/Wrong or recalling facts. Examples are
- Who was first man on the moon?
- When did World War Two start?
- How many states does the United States of America have?
2. Broad / divergent questions
There can be several possibly correct responses to such questions, as long as the student is able to support his response with a cogent argument or concrete evidence.
- Why did the British adopt the policy of ....?
- Why is it important for the government to invest in public education?
- What factors account for the popularity of Facebook?
These questions encourage the student to think deeper about the background context of the question and provide evidence to support his point of view.
Within this category of questions, there are further classifications such as
(i) Empirical questions
These questions require the student to analyse a given information before replying. Examples are
- Among the three forms of public transport, which do you think is the most efficient. Why?
- What are the necessary conditions for this phenomenon to occur?
(ii) Productive questions
These questions are open-ended. They require the student to think creatively to produce a somewhat unique answer. He will have to go beyond recalling facts. Examples are
- How can industrial emissions be reduced?
- How can we reduce the unemployment rate?
(iii) Evaluative questions
These questions require the student to make a judgement or value call on an issue. Given the moral context of such questions, they are usually more difficult to answer, as they require a pre-established critera to make the judgement call. Examples are
- Who is responsible for this incident? Why?
- Who do you think is the best President? Why? On what basis do you think so?
3. Focus your questions
In order to generate the responses that you are looking for, it is important to ask the students the right questions. Focus on what exactly you are seeking. What is the purpose of your questions? Is it to get a straightforward factual response or to elicit a general discussion?
4. Guiding / prompting questions
If the student is initially unable to provide the responses you are looking for, change track and answer peripheral questions to guide or prompt him along. Depending on the student's ability, it might be necessary for you to provide the scaffolding for him to go through the cognitive process.
5. Probing questions
In order to get the student to think more thoroughly about his initial response, you can ask probing questions to get him to clarify or develop critical thinking skills. Very often, the initial responses have not been well thought-out, so such probing questions will force the student to think deeper and come up with a more cogent response.
e.g. Q: What do you think was the cause of World War Two?
A: Germany's expansionist policies.
Q: Is that the only reason? What was the international situation then? Was Germany the only country then with expansionist policies?
6. Some basic guidelines on questioning techniques
- Ask clear questions.
- Avoid questions that require a Yes/No or Right/Wrong answer.
- Ask the question before getting a student to answer it. This is to allow the students to think first, as well as to involve the whole class (as nobody knows who will be called to answer the question).
- Pause for a while after each question to allow the students some time to think and formulate his answer.
- Vary your questions according to the students' abilities. If you feel that the student could be "stretched" further, ask a follow-up question.
- Listen carefully to the responses and allow other students to react to the student's response. This will encourage a lively classroom discussion and involve as many students as possible.
Asking good questions is more than just asking students to provide straightforward factual-recall responses. In order to develop the students' critical thinking skills, the questions should be varied and adjusted accordingly to the classroom situation.
The role of the teacher is to be able to ask the right types of questions to suit the purpose of instruction. Effective teaching requires the use of diverse questioning techniques. Moreover, they can also enhance student participation and improve the quality of their responses.
7. Teaching students the art of questioning
As you can see, the way questions are phrased can invoke different response from students. For higher-ability students, a further step could be to teach them the art of questioning. This might seem ironic given that children are generally inquisitive in nature. Since young, they have displayed their curiosity about the world around them by asking many questions. Unfortunately, parents and teachers have often inadvertently extinguished, rather than nurtured, this spirit of curiosity.
The French philosopher Voltaire once said, "Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers". Teaching students the various types of questioning techniques will let them gain a better insight into the knowledge-seeking process. The search for information is intrinsic in many people, though to do so in an organised and purposeful manner is often lacking. Hence, by imparting the art of questioning to students, teachers are actually passing on one of the most profound tools of learning - self-motivated and self-directed learning. Driven by his own inherent desire for knowledge and the joy of discovery, the student will, through the formulation of his own questions and the search for answers, acquire a lifelong skill that will keep him in good stead next time. And that will be the best gift that a teacher can give to his students.