Questioning is one of the commonest things teachers do and apparently teachers ask around 400 questions a day! The key to quality of course is not the number of questions but the type and how they are used. Questions should be planned with a specific purpose and, when posing questions, teachers should have participation at the forefront of their minds. According to the research evidence, the following approaches to questioning are your best bets for helping students learn.

Being clear on the purpose of questions. Teachers use questioning for two main and quite distinct purposes: to promote students’ thinking, and to assess it. To promote students’ thinking questions are likely to be more probing and require expansion. Teachers will prompt students to give explanations and justifications for their answers, to elaborate, to improve an initial response, to describe their thinking processes, and to make connections with other ideas and prior knowledge. It is argued that learning happens when students have to think hard, and as such, these types of questions are key to students’ understanding of new topics. Questions are also commonly used to assess students’ understanding. They focus on recall and checking knowledge and understanding. Asking questions in this way provide clear insight into whether students have grasped the required knowledge and understanding. Well crafted questions discriminate between those students who know and those who don’t yet. They can also reveal mistakes and misconceptions and determine whether ideas need to be revisited or can be developed.

Maximising participation. Ideally, every time a teacher asks a question, all students attempt an answer in their minds. However, it is easy for just a few students to provide answers in the classroom and before long, some students can opt out of thinking about questions posed in the hope they will be left alone. This has obvious negative effects on learning. When a teacher is asking questions to assess students’ understanding, it’s important to have a high participation ratio. Only when we assess all students simultaneously can we be confident that it’s time to move on. Collecting and interpreting answers from every student is hard to do well, but important to aim for. When teachers question students to probe and to stimulate thinking, answers are inevitably longer and so participation from all students from each question is much harder to do. Nonetheless, being aware of participation and ensuring all students are asked more probing questions over the course of a lesson or a series of lessons is important. Less confident students and those from lower socio economic backgrounds may be more likely to avoid answering questions and thus may be at risk of opting out of the important thinking that questioning should cause. Establishing a classroom culture where all students regularly answer questions and their responses are valued, is an important job of the teacher.