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why do we ask questions in class

Why Do We Ask Questions?

It makes me cringe when I ask a question and a student responds with, “I’m not sure if this is the answer you want, but…”

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[dropcap]It[/dropcap] makes me cringe when I ask a question and a student responds with, “I’m not sure if this is the answer you want, but…” Somehow students have the impression that our sole purpose for asking a question is to find someone to give us the answer, the one we are looking for. This perception can be the result of the overuse of the IRE (Initiation, Response, Evaluation) questioning format (Mehan, 1979) in which the teacher asks a question (I), the student responds (R), and the teacher provides evaluative feedback (E). With this questioning structure students can come to believe that all questions are a test of their understanding, and as a result, many students choose not to volunteer an answer because they aren’t sure that they have the right answer. I ask my students at the start of every semester how their instructors respond when a student gives a wrong answer and always among the first responses I receive is that the instructor calls on someone else until someone gives the right answer. This practice reinforces the perception that we are asking questions only to evaluate student understanding and thus only someone who knows the correct answer should raise a hand to volunteer to respond. When we call on someone else immediately after an incorrect response we also communicate to the student who gave the wrong answer that we don’t believe she is capable of providing the right answer. Calling on someone else not only sends the message that students need to have the right answer, but that they need to have it now. During his junior year in college my son told me that he wished he had known in high school what he later learned in college about answering questions. “If you don’t know the answer right away and then you think about it awhile,” he said, “sometimes you can figure it out.”  As a teacher and a college professor a little part of me died inside because he had gone through 15 years of school before he realized this. What messages do we want to communicate to our students about why we are asking questions, and how they should think about and respond to them? It’s likely we want them to understand that: How can we pose questions and respond to students’ answers to our questions in ways that communicate those messages? One thing we can do is tell students the purpose for the questions we ask. There are a variety of purposes for asking questions, for example, to review information, to help bring students to understanding, to give students the opportunity to make connections between existing knowledge and what they are learning, and to pique their interest in what is going to be taught. It’s also important for students to understand that sometimes there isn’t just one “right” answer. When we explain these purposes explicitly prior to asking questions students are more aware of how to think about and respond to our questions. We can tell them upfront that we aren’t just asking a question to find someone who can give the answer. Explicitly confront this misconception. Explain why the person who isn’t 100 percent sure she has the right answer, assuming there is one right answer, should raise her hand. How else will she get the necessary feedback to learn? Plus, chances are if she isn’t sure of the answer there are others in the class who aren’t sure either. Tainio and Laine (2015) noted that incorrect answers aren’t always welcomed by teachers or other students and can be potentially embarrassing for the speaker if they are not welcome. We need to let students know that wrong answers are an important part of the learning process and we welcome those incorrect responses. We can tell students that we are giving them time to think about the question before anyone will be called on to answer. If we want them to think, we must communicate that through our behavior. Calling on the person who instantly raises a hand or responding to the first person who calls out an answer—or even allowing students to call out answers—does not set the expectation that we want them to think. The value of wait time, waiting 3-5 seconds after asking a question before a response is given, is highlighted in the research on questioning (Sanders, 1990; Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014; Tobin, 1987). But don’t expect students to be in the habit of knowing that they should think before raising a hand or responding.  We need to communicate this expectation to them at the start, and then remind them of this expectation consistently until it becomes a learned behavior. How do we respond when a student gives an incorrect or partially correct response in a way that communicates the messages we want to send, that we want students to answer even if they aren’t sure they have the right answer, and that we are asking the question because we want them to think? When a student gives an incorrect or only partially correct response he has communicated a lack of understanding. Now we get to do what we are passionate about and teach him something! We could tell the student the correct answer, but this doesn’t communicate the message we want. It doesn’t get students to do the thinking, and they also learn that if they don’t respond that we will just give them the answer. One option is to tell the student to “think about it some more”, move on to another question, then come back to the student. “I know you can get this. Take a few minutes to (insert whatever may help bring the student to understanding such as ‘review your notes’ or ‘review the section of the reading on…’) and then raise your hand once you’ve got it.” This response communicates to the student that he can come to understanding through thinking and seeking additional information, and that he may take the time to do that.  After a minute or two, if the student hasn’t raised his hand, check in with him and ask if he is figuring it out. If not, some more explicit types of support to bring the student to understanding may be warranted. Another response is to ask another question that can help bring the student to understanding.  For example, let’s say the question asked was, “Why is the use of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) not necessarily a good indicator of a country’s overall economic success?” The student responds that there are better indicators of economic success, but she can’t provide any examples.  A good follow-up question might be, “What does GDP tell us about how well individuals in the country are doing economically?” “Are there any other indicators that could let us know that?” The goal is to ask questions that lead students to reason using key concepts to come to a better understanding of important ideas. Celebrate those instances when a student who isn’t sure of the answer volunteers in class anyway. Point out that, by volunteering to answer, the student has now come to a new level of understanding, and the entire class has benefitted from the additional clarifying questions. We can make the questions we ask valuable teaching tools when we pose questions and respond to student answers in ways that communicate that we want students to think, that thinking takes time, and that it is through thinking that they will come to understand. References Mehan, H. (1979). Learning lessons. Social organization in the classroom. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Sanders, R. E.  (1990). The art of questioning.  In M. W. Galbraith (Ed.), Adult learning methods.  (pp. 119-129).  Malabar, FL:  Krieger. Svinicki, M., & McKeachie, W. J.  (2014). McKeachie’s teaching tips:  Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (4th ed.).  Belmont, CA:  Wadsworth. Tainio, L., & Laine, A. (2015). Emotion work and affective stance in the mathematics classroom: the case of IRE sequences in Finnish classroom interaction. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 89, 67-87. Tobin, K. G. (1987).  The role of wait time in higher cognitive level learning.  Review of Educational Research, 57, 69-95. Julie Schrock is co-director of faculty development and a professor in the Education Department at Meredith College. She is also the president of the International Society for Exploring Teaching and Learning (ISETL). She has more than 15 years of college teaching experience and has developed and taught a variety of courses on effective teaching at both the undergraduate and graduate level.