How effective are your questions?

[listen -10 mins -or read below]

Questions you ask students are at the heart of teaching and assessment but where and how you ask them, the types of questions you ask and the ways you ask them can sometimes be neglected. This is especially true of the informal (often unplanned) questions you might ask in a live session (whether in-person or online) where a little additional forethought into your rationale, approach and the actual questions themselves could be very rewarding. I was prompted to update this post when reviewing some ‘hot questions’ from new colleagues about to embark on lecturing roles for the first time.  They expressed the very common fears over ‘tumbleweed’ moments when asking a question, concerns over nerves showing generally and  worries about a sea of blank screens in online contexts and ways to check students are understanding, especially when teaching online.  What I offer below is written with these colleagues in mind and is designed to be practically-oriented:

What is your purpose? It sounds obvious but knowing why you are asking a question and considering some of the possible reasons can be one way to overcome some of the anxieties that many of us have when thinking about teaching. Thinking about why you are asking questions and what happens when you do can also be a useful self-analysis tool.  Questions aren’t always about working out what students know already or have learned in-session. They can be a way of teaching (see Socratic method overview here and this article has some useful and interesting comments on handling responses to questions), a way of provoking, a way of changing the dynamic and even managing behaviour.  In terms of student understanding:  Are you diagnosing (i.e. seeing what they know already), encouraging speculation, seeking exemplification or checking comprehension?  Very often what we are teaching- the pure concepts – are the things that are neglected in questioning. How do we know students are understanding?  For a nice worked example see this example of concept checking.

The worst but most common question (in my view). Before I go any further, I’d like to suggest that there is one question (or question type) that should, for the most part, be avoided.  What do you think that question might be? It is a question that will almost always lead to a room full of people nodding away or replying in other positive ways. It makes us feel good about ourselves because of the positive response we usually get but actually can be harmful. The reason for it is that when we ask it there are all sorts of reasons why any given student might not actually give a genuine response. Instead of replying honestly they see others nodding and do not want to lose face, appear daft, go against the flow. They see everyone else nodding and join in. But how many of those students are doing the same? How does it feel when everyone else appears to understand something and you don’t? Do you know what the question is yet? See foot of this post to check** (Then argue with me in comments if you disagree).

Start with low stakes questions. Ask questions that ask for an opinion or perspective or to make a choice or even something not related to the topic. Get students to respond in different ways (a quick show of hands, an emoji in chat if teaching online, a thumbs up/ thumbs down to an e-poll or a controversial quotation – Mentimeter does this well). All these interactions build confidence and ease students into ‘ways of being’ in any live taught session. Anything that challenges any assumptions they may have about how teaching ‘should’ be uni-directional and help avoid disengagement are likely to help foster a safe environment in which exchange, dialogue, discussion and the questions that are at the heart of those things are comfortably accepted. Caveat: it is worth noting here that what we might assume if a student is at the back and not contributing will almost certainly have reasons behind it that are NOT to do with indolence or distraction. A student looking at their phone may be anxious about their comprehension and be using a translator, for example  They are there! This is key. Be compassionate and don’t force it. Build slowly.

Plan your questions. Another obvious thing but actually wording questions in advance of a session makes a huge difference. You can plan for questions beyond opinion and fact checking types (the easiest to come up with on the fly). Perhaps use something  like The Conversational Framework or Bloom’s Taxonomy to write questions for different purposes or of different types.  Think about the verbal questions you asked in your last teaching session. How many presented a real challenge? How many required analysis, synthesis, evaluation? Contrast to the number that required (or could only have) a single correct response. The latter are much easier to come up with so, naturally, we ask more of them. If framing the higher order questions is tough on the spot, maybe jot a few ahead of the lecture or seminar. If you use a tool like Mentimeter to design and structure slide content it has many built in tools to encourage you to think about questions that enable anonymous contributions from students.

The big question. A session or even a topic could be driven by a single question. Notions of Enquiry and Problem-Based Learning (EBL/ PBL) exploit well designed problems or questions that require students to resolve. These cannot of course be ‘Google-able’ set response type questions but require research, evidence gathering, rationalisation and so on. This reflects core components of constructivist learning theory.

The question is your answer. Challenging students to come up with questions based on current areas of study can be a very effective way of gauging the depth to which they have engaged with the topic. What they select and what they avoid is often a way of getting insights into where they are most and least comfortable.

Wait time. Did you know that the average time lapse between a question being asked and a student response is typically one second? In effect, the sharpest students (the ‘usual suspects’ you might see them as) get in quick. The lack of even momentary additional processing time means that a significant proportion (perhaps the majority) have not had time to mentally articulate a response. Mental articulation goes some way to challenging cognitive overload so, even where people don’t get a chance to respond the thinking time still helps (formatively).  There are other benefits to building in wait time too. This finding by Rowe (1974)* is long ago enough for us to have done something about it. It’s easy to see why we may not have done though…I ask a question; I get a satisfyingly quick and correct response…I can move on. But instilling a culture of ‘wait time’ can have a profound effect on the progress of the whole group. Such a strategy will often need to be accompanied by….

Targeting. One of the things we often notice when observing colleagues ‘in action’ is that questions are very often thrown out to a whole group. The result is either a response from the lightning usual suspect or, with easier questions, a sort of choral chant. These sorts of questions have their place. They signify the important. They can demarcate one section from another. But are they a genuine measurement of comprehension? And what are the consequences of allowing some (or many) never to have to answer if they don’t want to? Many lecturers will baulk at the thought of targeting individuals by name and this is something that I’d counsel against until you have a good working relationship with a group of students but why not by section? by row? by table? “someone from the back row tell me….”. By doing this you can move away from ‘the usual suspects’ and change your focus- one thing we can inadvertently do is to focus eye contact, attention and pace on students who are willing and eager to respond thereby further disconnecting those who are less confident or comfortable or inclined to ‘be’ the same.

Tumbleweed.  The worry of asking a question and getting nothing in response can be one of those things that leads to uni-directional teaching. A bad experience early on can dissuade us from asking further questions and then the whole thing develops its own momentum and only gets worse. The low stakes questions, embedding wait time and building a community comfortable with (at least minimal) targetting are ways to pre-empt this. My own advice is that numbers are with you if you can hold your nerve and relaxed smile. Ask a question and look at the students and wait. 30 seconds is nothing but feels like an eternity in such a situation. However, there are many more of them than you and one of them will break eventually! Resist re-framing the question or repeating it too soon but be prepared to ask a lower stakes version and building from there. More advice is available in this easy access article.

Technology as a question not the answer. Though they may seem gimmicky (and you have to be careful that you don’t subvert your pedagogy for colour and excitement) there are a number of in- or pre-session tools that can be used.  Tools like Mentimeter, Polleverywhere, Socrative, Slido, Kahoot all enable different sorts of questions to be answered as does the ‘Hot Questions’ function in Moodle that prompted me to re-post this.


Putting thought into questions, the reason you are asking them and how you will manage contributions (or lack thereof) is something we might all do a little  more of, especially when tasked with teaching new topics or to new groups or in new modalities.



*Rowe, M. B. (1974). Wait‐time and rewards as instructional variables, their influence on language, logic, and fate control: Part one‐wait‐time. Journal of research in science teaching, 11(2), 81-94. (though this original study was on elementary teaching situations the principles are applicable to HE settings)


**Worst question? ‘Does everyone understand?’ or some such variant such as nodding and smiling at your students whilst asking ‘All ok? or ‘Got that?’. Instead ask a question that is focussed on a specific point. Additionally, you might want to routinely invite students to jot their most troubling point on a post it or have an open forum in Moodle (or equivalent space) for areas that need clarifying.



[This is an update- actually more of a significant re-working- of my own post,  previously shared here:]