“Does anyone have any questions?” Silence fills the room. The teacher waits the customary three seconds and then moves on to the next topic. Often in traditional classrooms, students pose few questions. How can we get students to ask questions? And why is student questioning important?

What the Research Says about Student Questioning

When Harvard education professor Tony Wagner interviewed CEOs about important qualities of employees, one key trait that they mentioned over and over was the ability to ask questions. Wagner even asserted that “problem-posing is more important than problem-solving” (p. 214). However, in many classes, teachers are still the ones posing all the questions. It is like a ping-pong match. The teacher tosses the question out and a student answers. The teacher tosses another question out, and the cycle repeats. J. T. Dillon made this observation, one that’s obvious but hard to follow through on: “One of the simplest ways to permit student questions is to stop asking questions yourself” (p. 37).

The More They Talk, the More They Learn

Students’ questions can make a powerful contribution to their own learning process by creating deeper engagement and providing teachers with clear evidence of their students’ understanding. One research study found a negative link between the quantity of teacher talk and student achievement. In high-achieving classrooms, teachers talked around 55 percent of the time, whereas in low-achieving classrooms, teacher talk consumed 80 percent of the instructional time (Flanders, 1970). When teachers fill the void with their own voice, they leave little opportunity for students to talk. The question is, when teachers talk so much, who is doing the thinking? The danger of too much teacher talk is that, in some instances, teachers end up doing the thinking for their students.

Students Who Ask Questions Are More Motivated

Having students generate their own questions about topics has been shown to be an effective questioning practice (Crowd, Kaminsky, & Podell, 1997). Students who can formulate quality questions can become self-directed learners with high levels of intrinsic motivation. Children are naturally curious. Instead of accepting a diminishing trend of student questions as students get older, we should be reversing this trend and celebrating students’ questions. Catlin Tucker argues that “students who learn to ask questions are no longer just consumers of information; they are also generators of information” (p. 78).

Endless Applications Can Help Increase Learning

More than just boosting curiosity, self-questioning has a positive impact on reading comprehension and knowledge retention (King, 1991; Pate & Miller, 2011). After learning how to develop quality questions in class, students seem to apply the strategy in other situations (King, 1991). When students formulate questions, the teacher gains insights into students’ learning interests. Teachers can then use this information to adapt instruction to harness their students’ innate curiosity.

4 Keys to Supporting Student Questioning

Ok, all that research is great, but what practical ways can teachers use to build student questioning skills? There are 4 crucial aspects for teachers to consider as they support student questions.

1. Time

Students need ample time to think about the information, brainstorm ideas, and construct their questions. Only then will they be ready to share them with a group.

2. Protocol

To support students as they begin creating questions, teachers can use protocols and questioning stems (see infographic) to initiate the process. These structures guide students toward designing quality questions.

Question Stems

3. Refinement

Students need sufficient time to reflect, revise, and select their best questions. Good thinkers are always refining their thinking. The Question Evaluation Checklist (see checklist infographic) can be used by students to assess the quality of their questions.

Question Evaluation Checklist

4. Supportive Environment

As students begin generating questions, students might be anxious about sharing. Teachers and peers need to provide supportive, constructive feedback to encourage students to participate and refine their questions. If the teacher or peers provide discouraging comments, students may not feel emotionally safe to share their question ideas in the future.

Next, check out 5 questioning protocols you can use to jump-start a culture of questioning in your classroom. Share your ideas in the comments below or on Twitter to @mentoringminds.


Sources

Crowl, T. K., Kaminsky, S., & Podell, D. M. (1997). Educational psychology, windows on teaching. New York: Brown & Benchmark.

Dillon, J. T. (1983). Teaching and the art of questioning. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa.

Flanders, N. (1970). Analyzing teacher behavior. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

King, A. (1991). Improving lecture comprehension: Effect of a meta-cognitive strategy. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 5(4), 331–346.

Pate, M. L., & Miller, G. (2001). Effects of regulatory self-questioning on secondary-level students’ problem solving performance. Journal of Agricultural Education, 52(1), 72-84.

Tucker, C. (2015). More than a Google search. Educational Leadership, 73(1), 78-79.

Wagner, T. (2008). The global achievement gap: Why even our best school don’t teach the new survival skills our children need—and what we can do about it. New York, NY: Basic Books.