An EdConnective Coach shares 4 Strategies for asking more Engaging Questions

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What's Hidden in Your Question?

Questions set the stage for students to take on the cognitive load in a lesson, but teachers’ habits and phrasing can affect how profoundly their students engage with those questions. When asking for student responses, a few words and pauses can mean the difference between a halting, painfully slow discussion and lively, focused debate.

Consider the entire class of learners as you read the following questions.

1A.) “Who can tell me the capital of Arkansas?”

2A.) “Jamal, what do you think?”

3A.) “What’s the product of seven and eight?”

These are perfectly standard question formulations, but they can be improved. Even when asking questions of factual recall, teachers can modify their phrasing to empower their students to answer.

Inclusive Phrasing Asks More Students to Think

In the first question, the phrase ‘Who can tell me’ indicates that some students can and some students cannot answer. Hands will shoot up into the air, but they are likely to belong to the same students time and time again. In the age of smartphones and internet access, information is available to those who are willing to look for it.

Consider instead:

1B.) “Raise your hand when you can share the capital of Arkansas.”

I know,I know--it doesn’t end in a question mark, but pay attention to the differences in this formulation. First, the language implies that all students can access the information. As soon as one student flips the page to their map or types in the search, others will notice and do the same. By changing the opening phrase, all students feel responsible for a response, rather than relying on the quickest hand. As an additional bonus, replacing ‘tell me’ with ‘share’ reminds everyone that the focus of the class is not on pleasing the teacher’s whims, but instead on the collective learning of the group.

Wait-Time and Golden Seconds of Silence

2A.) “Jamal, what do you think?”

If it didn’t before, the second question on our list should now strike you as exclusive rather than inclusive. Naming the student who will answer has the effect of relieving all the other brains in your class from engaging with and responding to the question. Cold-calling can be an effective technique, but it should be used to consistently demonstrate that all students are responsible for learning and sharing their thinking. One reason that teachers might fall into the name-first phrasing is that it reduces pauses, which can feel awkward and unnerving with thirty students watching.

Our first step to improve this question could be:

2B.) “What do you think about this paragraph?” [Wait-Time] “Jamal?”

One way to preclude the awkwardness of silent think time is to build it into the question:

2C.) “Take ten seconds to think: What struck you about this paragraph?”

If students tend to raise their hands immediately, a gesture established with the class  such as lowering your hand or tapping on your temple can remind them to respect the think time of others.

2D.) “I’ll ask for hands in a few moments. What struck you about this passage?”

In every one of these new formulations, the time that the individual student would spend mumbling through the beginning of their answer is instead invested in all students ordering their thoughts. This can lead to more cohesive discussions that save instructional time. Additionally, making the question as specific as possible and making them your last statement before the think time will yield more focused responses.

Write It Down

If you want to remember something, write it down. This rule helps you as a teacher so that your lovingly crafted question does not devolve into a simple recall question when the pressure of sixty eyes falls on you. Written questions and instructions are one of the most fundamental forms of accommodations for English Language Learners and students with IEPs. It is a universal support for all students and helps avoid those “What are we supposed to do?” questions that we have all experienced when attending professional development.

When writing major questions down, it is extremely helpful to include the time allotted, any deliverables students should have at the end of that time, and the levels of volume and interaction you expect from the class. By having your central questions written down and projected to students, you may ask fewer questions in a given class period, but your deliberate structure will ensure that you provide the time for students to process and respond to the most potent parts of the lesson.

[For more on providing clear directions, see Lauren Vargas’s article]

Preview and Return

One of the most satisfying aspects of teaching math occurs when students walk out of a class demonstrating a skill or understanding that they did not have at the beginning. While this shift might be most obvious in the case of solving algebra problems, students’ growth can be emphasized in almost any lesson plan by previewing a question at the start of class and returning to it at the end of class.

Let’s look at our third example:

3A.) “What’s the product of 7 and 8?”

There are many ways a student might be able to answer this question without achieving the day’s objective. Do you want students to be able to read a multiplication table? To know what the definition of product is? To have this particular multiplication fact memorized? Each of these skills could be more directly be addressed by a question that included the central objective in the phrasing.

Consider the formulation:

3B.) “Show three ways to find the product of 7 and 8, including ____ method.”

This phrasing challenges a broader base of your students and includes learners who already know the factual response. By previewing the objective-oriented question at the beginning of class, all students recognize they have something new to learn.

Whenever we ask our students to engage with a question or task, paying close attention to our language can yield greater participation and understanding. In many cases, we use question formulations adopted from one-on-one conversations or from our own upbringing as students in the classroom. While these are comfortable habits of speech, they can also send unintended messages about who is capable of and responsible for responding. Through repeated practice, more inclusive and deliberate formulations will eventually become natural for teachers and instructors.

Remember: The unexamined question is not worth asking.

[For more on engaging questions during Direct Instruction, see Allison Tallman’s article]