Why focus on teacher questioning?

Teachers ask so many questions.

(Hattie, 2011)

So much of classroom time is spent with teachers questioning the students…skilled questioning by teachers can guide students to thoughtful and reflective answers and so facilitate higher levels of academic achievement.

(Hattie, 2009)

Research from Cotton (2001), Walsh and Sattes (2005) has found that:

  • Questioning accounts for up to a third of all teaching time, second only to the time devoted to explanation.

  • Teachers ask up to two questions every minute, up to 400 in a day, around 70,000 a year, or two to three million in the course of a career.

  • Of the four hundred a day, a large proportion of these (anything between 30 and 60 per cent) are procedural.

  • After teaching for around 14-and-a-half years, a teacher is likely to have asked a million questions.

  • Teachers frequently call on volunteers to answer their questions and these volunteers often constitute a select group of students. That is, not all students are accountable to respond to all questions.

  • Teachers typically wait less than one second after asking a question before calling on a student to answer. They wait even less time (often 0 seconds) before speaking after a student has answered.

  • Teachers often accept incorrect answers without probing; as well, they frequently answer their own questions.

  • Students in turn ask teachers very few content-related questions.

Questions serve many purposes. They can help pupils to reflect on information and commit it to memory. They can develop thinking skills, encourage discussion and stimulate new ideas. Questions allow teachers to determine how much a class understands and enable them to pitch lessons at an appropriate level. They are an important tool for managing the classroom, helping to draw individuals into the lesson and keeping them interested and alert. And questions have a symbolic value - sending a clear message that pupils are expected to be active participants in the learning process.

(Hastings, 2003)

Implications for classroom teaching

Research findings about questioning can provide insights into how to establish a classroom environment where questioning has a focus on promoting student learning.

  • As much as possible, teachers should try to plan their questions before asking to ensure a closer match between questioning and the lesson’s instructional objectives. A few carefully prepared questions are preferable to large numbers of questions.

  • As well, teachers need to plan and ask questions that require students to engage in higher-level thinking. This may mean that, teachers need to also help students become familiar with the kind of thinking required by higher order questions.

  • In general, teachers, not students, need to decide who will answer questions using strategies that give all students an opportunity to respond. As well, they need to establish classroom norms indicating that every student deserves an opportunity to answer questions and that all students’ answers are important. This will assist more verbal students to monitor their own talking and allow other students an opportunity to respond.

  • Silence can be golden! Both the wait time after asking a question before calling on a student to answer and the wait time before speaking after a student has answered will help promote student thinking and encourage more students to formulate answers to more questions.

  • In classrooms where the norm is that every student is capable of giving complete and correct answers, teachers provide prompts, when necessary, to help students give correct answers. When students give either incomplete or incorrect responses, teachers should seek to understand those answers more completely by gently guiding student thinking with appropriate probes.

  • Teachers who are focussed on the quality of their questioning, both verbal and written, will also value and encourage students’ questions. These teachers understand that student questions are essential to deep engagement with and learning of particular content. As well, these teachers help students learn to formulate good questions and they make time for student questions.

(Walsh & Sattes, 2005)

Effective teacher questioning

Redfield and Rousseau (1981) (as cited in Hattie, 2009) found that:

lower level questions are more effective when aiming at surface level information, and a mixture of lower and higher level questions are more effective when aiming at deeper information and understanding.

Effective questioning:

  • involves all students

  • engages students in thinking for themselves

  • reinforces and revisits learning objectives/goals

  • shows connections between previous and new learning

  • gives the teacher immediate feedback on students’ understanding, which they can then use to modify teaching

  • includes ‘staging’ questions to draw students towards key understanding or to increase the level of challenge in a lesson as it proceeds

  • helps students develop their thinking from the lower order concrete and factual recall type to the higher order analytical, conceptual and evaluative which promote deeper understanding

  • promotes justification and reasoning

  • encourages students to speculate and hypothesise

  • can support students to draw inferences

  • keeps students focussed on the salient elements in a lesson and not on extraneous matters

  • encourages students to ask as well as to ‘receive’ questions

  • encourages students to listen and respond to each other as well as to the teacher

  • creates an atmosphere of trust where students’ opinions and ideas are valued and where teacher praise can be connected directly to their responses.

Planning for effective questioning

As a teacher, developing really effective questioning isn’t something that just happens. Effective questioning is an aspect of a teacher’s professional practice that needs to be developed and honed throughout a teacher’s career.

Teachers need to: critically reflect on their practice in relation to questioning; observe the questioning practice of others; have others observe them; work with colleagues to track and evaluate the frequency and types of questions they ask and then plan ways to sharpen and improve these practices.

More specifically, when planning to incorporate effective questioning into teaching practice teachers need to:

  • examine and reflect upon questioning practices

  • establish expectations

  • establish student accountability

  • build essential questions into lesson plans

  • ask more open questions

  • use questions to promote collaboration

  • involve students in forming and asking questions.

The above considerations are explained in more detail in

Icon: Link to PDF Planning for effective questioning
Planning for effective questioning (.pdf 203kB).

The Curriculum Corporation’s Assessment for Learning website includes a useful section on Reflection, practice and evaluation processes.

Key questioning strategies

It is important for teachers to be able to design different questions to meet different cognitive demands.

Designing questions involves determining the purpose and then selecting the most appropriate type/s of questions for that purpose, such as to determine students’ knowledge and recall of facts or to extend thinking.

Four key questioning strategies are now explained in more detail, including:

  1. Designing higher cognitive questions

  2. Developing a sequence of questions

  3. Increasing wait time

  4. Responding to answers – redirecting, probing, reinforcing.

Designing higher cognitive questions

Higher cognitive questions are also called open-ended, interpretive, evaluative, inquiry, inferential, and synthesis questions. For example, asking students to manipulate bits of information previously learned to create an answer or to support an answer with logically reasoned evidence.

Lower cognitive questions are also called fact, closed, direct, recall, and knowledge questions. For example, asking students to recall verbatim or in their own words, material previously read or taught by the teacher.

There are several frameworks and tools available to assist the process of designing higher cognitive questions including:

Wiederhold's Question matrix comprises 36 question starters asking what, where, when, which, who, why and how. These questions are asked in present, past and future tenses, ranging from simple recall through to predictions and imagination or single questions depending on the task.

The Questioning toolkit comprehensive range of question types based McTigh & Wiggins’ essential questions McTigh & Wiggin's essential questions.

Thinker's keys is a strategy to develop creative and critical thinking designed by Tony Ryan, a consultant for Gifted and Talented Programs in Queensland. Each of the 20 keys is a different question which challenges the reader to compose his or her own questions and come up with responses.

Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning, Teaching and Assessing organises questions into six categories according to whether they involve knowledge, comprehension, analysis, application, synthesis or evaluation.

De Bono's Six thinking hats encourage students to look at a topic or problem or idea from more than one perspective. Each hat represents a different kind of thinking and therefore different kinds of questions.

Developing a sequence of questions

Consideration could also be given to planning a sequence of questions in a lesson or for lessons over a period of time to ensure there are a range of questions that make increasingly challenging cognitive demands on students.

For further information about how to develop a sequence of questions, read

Icon: Developing a sequence of questions
Developing a sequence of questions (.pdf 109kB).

Increase wait time

Research has found that increasing the wait time after questioning improves the number and quality of the responses - three seconds for a lower-order question and as much as 10 seconds or more for a higher-order question. Pausing (wait time) - before and after asking, and after response, encourages students to extend their answers.

Responding to answers – redirection/probing/reinforcement

A positive response to any answer is essential. Responding falls into two broad categories:

  • extending responses through follow on questions

  • responding to incorrect/inappropriate answers.

For further information about increasing wait time, responding, probing and reinforcement read

Icon: link to PDF Wait time responding
Wait time responding (.pdf 172kB).

Further questioning ideas and tactics that have been gathered from a range of sources can be found in

Icon: link to PDF Questioning ideas and tactics
Questioning ideas and tactics (.pdf 188kB).

Finally, it is important to be aware of getting so tied up in the ideas/tactics that you forget why they’re being used. The quality of the questions asked is more important than the idea/tactic.

Try to be creative with these ideas and tactics - adapt, re-organise and modify them to suit your purposes.

Most importantly, remember that the question is more important than the idea or tactic.