The Power of Questioning in the Classroom (Part 1)

Do you know that asking questions opens the door to understanding?

Questioning is the strategy that propels readers forward. When readers ask questions, they are less likely to abandon a text. When one question is answered, another one usually arises. The more students learn to question, the more sophisticated their questions become.

This is the power of questioning in the classroom.

Asking questions is natural and intuitive. Teachers ask questions from the start of the lesson until the end . . .

  • to develop learning and higher order thinking,
  • to promote imagination,
  • to speculate,
  • to create thinking and
  • to pitch a suitable challenge level.

ASKING QUESTIONS forms part of any lesson because it invites the student to think, and even within a ‘lecture’ style lesson, rhetorical questions are used to invite silent agreement or begin the organisation of ideas to present a response. Research suggests teachers ask over 400 questions a day.

How and why do we use Questions and Talk in the classroom?

Teachers use questioning as part of their teaching for many reasons, but often to:

  • maintain the flow of the learning within the lesson;
  • engage students with the learning;
  • assess what has been learned, and check that what has been learnt is understood and applied;
  • test student memory and comprehension;
  • to initiate individual and collaborative thinking in response to new information;
  • seek the views and opinions of students;
  • provide an opportunity for students to share their opinions/views, seeking responses from their peers;
  • encourage creative thought and imaginative or innovative thinking;
  • foster speculation, hypothesis and idea/opinion forming;
  • create a sense of shared learning and avoid the feel of a ‘lecture’;
  • challenge the level of thinking and possibly mark a change to a higher order of thinking;
  • model higher order thinking using examples and building on the responses of students.


Effective questioning sessions in  the classroom require advance preparation. While some teachers may be skilled in extemporaneous questioning, many find that such questions have phrasing problems, are not organized in a logical sequence, or do not require students to use the desired thinking skills. As a result, it is important to think of strategies or tactics to help students’ understanding.

Since teachers use the strategy of questioning so frequently, there is a need to learn to SKILLFULLY, THOUGHTFULLY, and INTENTIONALLY ask questions to gain the results we want with our students. Such strategies include . . .

 1. Asking One Question At A Time: Sometimes, in an effort to generate a response, teachers attempt to clarify a question by rephrasing it. But often the rephrasing constitutes an entirely new question. Keep your questions brief and clear. Long complex questions may lose the class.

2. Avoiding Yes/No Questions: Ask “why” or “how” questions that lead students to try to figure out things for themselves. Teachers cannot get a discussion going if they ask questions that only require a one-syllable or short-phrase response. The key is to minimise the use of “yes / no” questions except when checking meaning and understanding or encouraging weaker students.

3. Pose Questions That Lack A Single Right Answer: Such questions emphasize to students that the answers to these questions are matters of controversy or puzzlement to scholars and asks the class to generate their own hypotheses. The answer to such questions remains unsolved.

4. Asking Focused Questions: Avoid asking broad questions which can lead your class far off the topic. Instead, ask questions which are focused to the work at hand, eg: “What are your thoughts on the title of the short story? Justify your answer.”

5. Avoiding Leading Questions: Instead, ask questions that are open-ended (divergent) to encourage opinions, elaboration and discussion. Similarly, avoid answering your own question/s.

6. Building In Wait Time: Research suggests that if the teacher waits about THREE SECONDS, both before a student answers a question and also before speaking after the answer, there are substantial benefits in the classroom. It is likely to:

  • encourage longer answers;
  • encourage a greater number and variety of responses;
  • encourage more confidence and ‘risk taking’;
  • encourage students to ask questions in return.

WAITING is a signal that you want thoughtful participation.  You might also want to wait until several hands have been raised to let the students know that replies do not have to be formulated quickly to be considered.

7. Searching For Consensus On Correct Responses. If one student immediately gives a correct response, follow up by asking others what they think. “Do you agree, Hady?” is a good way to get students involved in the discussion. So, try to personalise questions where possible.

8. Asking Questions That Require Students To Demonstrate Their Understanding: Instead of “Does everybody see how I got this answer?” ask, “Why did I substitute the value of the delta in this equation?” If you want to ask, “Do you have any questions?” rephrase it to “What questions do you have?” The latter implies that you expect questions and are encouraging students to ask them.

9. Structuring Questions To Encourage Student-To-Student Interaction: “Sam, could you relate that to what Molly said earlier?” Be prepared to help Sam recall what Molly said. Students become more attentive when you ask questions that require them to respond to each other.

10. Drawing Out Reserved Or Reluctant Students: Sometimes a question disguised as an instructor’s musings will encourage students who are hesitant to speak. For example, instead of “What is the essence or thesis of John Dewey’s work?” saying, “I wonder if it’s accurate to describe John Dewey’s work as learning by doing?” gives a student a chance to comment without feeling put on the spot.

11. Using Questions To Change The Tempo And Direction Of The Discussion, Kasulis (1984) identifies several ways to use such types of questions.

  • To lay out perspectives: “If you had to pick just one factor?” or “In a few words, name the most important reason?” This form of questioning can also be used to cap talkative students.
  • To move from abstract to concrete, or general to specific: “If you were to generalize . . . ?” or “Can you give some specific examples . . . ?”
  • To acknowledge good points made previously: “Sandra, would you tend to agree with Francisco on this point about . . . ?”
  • To elicit a summary or give closure: “Beth if you had to pick two themes that recurred most often today, what would they be?”

12. Using Probing Strategies: When a student responds to a question, probes are useful follow-ups and can be used to seek more information, to clarify responses or to get to extend their answers. Questions such as ‘Can you tell me more about that?’ are very good.  Probes can ask for specifics, clarifications, consequences, elaborations, parallel examples, relationship to other issues, or explanations. Probes are important because they help students explore and express what they know even when they aren’t sure they know it.

13. Creating a climate where students feel safe to make mistakes: This is very important if students are going to build the confidence to speculate and take risks. It is important that students’ contributions are listened to and taken seriously by both the teacher and the class. You should model this by ensuring that you make appropriate responses to contributions and are not critical. It is also important that you do not allow the class to ridicule wrong answers. You could also model making mistakes yourself to show that being wrong is acceptable.

14. Using a ‘no-hands up’ rule: This tactic can contribute to creating a supportive classroom climate. It ensures that all students are likely to be asked for a response and makes the questioning process more inclusive. If you only ever ask people with their hands up, it limits who is included and can leave some students disengaged from the process. The ‘no-hands’ tactic also lets you direct questions where you want and to pitch a question at the appropriate level to extend the student you are asking.

15. Telling students the big question in advance: This helps to reinforce the main ideas and concepts and gives students time to prepare for the question as they work through the lesson. You could also provide signals to help students recognise the range of possible responses to the question being asked and to help them to select the most appropriate one.

16. Allowing time for collaboration before answering: Asking pairs of students to consider the question for a set period of time before seeking answers leads to more thoughtful and considered answers. It can also promote engagement by giving students a very immediate context for their work.

17. Placing a minimum requirement on the answer: Saying something like ‘Do not answer this in less than 15 words’ will begin to produce longer responses. Firstly, make sure that students clearly understand questions and then spread them randomly around the class.

18. Asking questions about important rather than trivial content by deciding on the purpose of questions.

There are pitfalls such as over-eliciting when the learners have little collective knowledge, and bombarding students with questions of little relevance or importance. The questions ‘Do you understand?’, ‘Is that clear?’ and ‘OK?’ are unlikely to provoke a helpful response. It is also wise to avoid questions which may cause embarrassment or which may offend through sarcasm (‘Are you awake?’).

pexels-photo.jpgCertainly, there is more to asking questions than the common division into ‘information’ or ‘wh’, ‘yes/no’, direct and indirect questions, though this is often how they are taught and how learners categorise them. The above tactics are tried and tested ways to engage fully our students.

Good questioning provides a model which hopefully will promote correct and intelligent questions from our learners.

Good luck in all endeavours.

As of old: Be EMPOWERED and EXCEL!


  1. Andrew Mutyavaviri says:

    Wow feeling enlightened. Always took it fo granted wen pausing questions to mi kids esp with regards to their homework. No wonder why it ddnt elicit e correct responses,nd thts why mo often thn not mi kids kind of felt frustrated by e way i asked. No positivity bt lots of negative answers. Mayb it ws a case of :fo every action there is an equal nd opp reaction. Now i truly know hw to pause questions inorder to xtract e best responses.most teachers nd parents are found wanting on this. Thank u sir

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