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Lecturing: Formulating Effective Questions
Reprinted with permission from B. Black and M. Kaplan, Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan.
Different types of questions will elicit different responses from students. Two pairs of question types may be particularly helpful in planning questioning strategies.
1. Initiating vs. Probing Questions
An initiating question begins consideration of a particular topic. Initiating questions can be planned in advance to make them suitably interesting. Initiating questions can be arranged in sequence from simple to complex to fully develop the various aspects of a concept. Frequently, you will find it desirable to follow the initiating question with one or more probing questions. A probing question is asked of the responding student to bring out more of what he/she knows about the subject. Probing questions are not easily planned; the nature of the probing question depends upon the student's initial response.
2. Convergent vs. Divergent Questions
Convergent questions require students to solve problems which have a single correct answer. Divergent questions require examination of problems for which many answers are plausible. For example, a standard organic chemistry text may provide students with sufficient reactions such that one general synthesis may be approached through five routes. An instructor may want to get students to first come up with several of these routes (a divergent task), and then to evaluate them so as to select one best available route (a convergent task).
The way in which you state your question will often determine its effectiveness. Here are a few points to think about:
- Plan some questions as you prepare.
While making your lesson plan, consider your instructional goals and emphasize questions that reinforce them. The questions you ask will help students see what topics you consider important.
- Use vocabulary familiar to students.
Students cannot respond well to a question that contains unfamiliar terms. If students seem to have a hard time answering after waiting five to ten seconds, rephrase the question or try explaining confusing vocabulary. Be sure to use vocabulary that does not have a specific cultural bias.
- Ask questions from all intellectual levels.
Create questions which take all levels of comprehension into consideration (see "Defining Instructional Objectives"). Mixing more difficult questions that require synthesis and evaluation in with simple questions that require memorization keeps students actively switching gears and gives you a sense of how students' learning is progressing.
- Avoid ambiguous questions.
When you formulate an oral question in class, think of the corresponding direction you would give for a written exam question. This will help to avoid ambiguous questions.
- Avoid "yes" and "no" questions.
For example, the question "Is carbon monoxide considered a pollutant?" is almost certain to be followed by "Why is carbon monoxide considered a pollutant?" You might as well begin with the second question.
- Avoid double-barreled questions.
Questions that pose two problems simultaneously are confusing and are to be avoided. For example, the question "What is the difference between fission and fusion, and how is electrical power generated from these reactions?" is actually a three-in-one question.
Questioning and Responding Techniques
The manner in which you ask questions and treat responses is as important as anything else involved in questioning. Thus far we have dealt with the levels of questions, the strategy of selecting questions, and the phrasing of questions. Even though these aspects of questioning are important, the efforts you expend on these tasks is lost without follow-through in managing the questions.
After you ask a question, other than a memory or recall question, wait about three seconds before selecting a respondent. Do this even if someone volunteers immediately. After a student responds, wait about five seconds before you respond to the answer. By waiting after your question, you give everyone in the class an opportunity to think about a response. If you pick a respondent immediately, other students are under no pressure to think about a response. They may listen to the respondent, or they may pay little attention. By waiting after a response, you give the respondent an opportunity to expand upon his/her answer. Frequently, the student will initiate an extended response, and thus you won't need to use a probing question to elicit the extended response.
- Distribute questions.
Distribute questions among students so that many can participate. Be sure not to call on students from only one particular group. You should choose from among volunteers, but you should also feel free to call upon students who are not volunteering.
- Reinforce responses.
You may reinforce responses with verbal praise ("Good!" "Excellent!" etc.) and with non-verbal encouragement (smile, nod). You may also reinforce a student's response by repeating the response. Never ridicule an answer. You may be tempted to do this when a student makes a response indicating that she or he has been inattentive or has not prepared. The problem with such ridicule is that the act of responding is punished along with the response. While the student subjected to ridicule is less likely to respond incorrectly in the future, the student's peers feel that their safety in responding to questions is threatened, and the overall response frequency is lowered.
- Let students correct each other.
Use your students to reinforce answers and to help you eliminate erroneous responses. For example, ask the class to comment on respondents' answers both when they are correct and when they are incorrect. This is a good way to allow students' peers to deal with incorrect responses.
- Encourage student debate.
When you are using divergent questions, it is particularly helpful to get students debating with one another. For example, when two students have each devised synthetic routes to a compound, debate about which route is the preferred route. This will be a valuable learning experience for both the students and the class.
- Have students formulate questions prior to class.
Any time you assign reading, math problems, experiments, case studies, journal writing, etc., ask your students to prepare three questions they had while they were completing the assignment. Also, you might ask them to write three questions they might be expected to answer on a quiz covering the material they encountered. Begin class by having your students share their questions in small groups or as a whole. Their questions will not only stimulate discussion but also will allow you to determine confusing aspects of the material. In addition, being able to anticipate questions a teacher will ask on exams is an important study skill for students to develop.