Asking and Answering Questions

Being able to ask and answer students' questions is an important part of teaching and learning. Asking questions helps you motivate students' curiosity about the topic and at the same time helps you assess their understanding of the material.
Types of Questions

There are two kinds of questions: closed and open. Closed questions check whether students have learned or remembered specific information. They require a factual answer and leave little or no room for dissent. The answer is either correct or incorrect. Closed questions are important for students, but it is also important that your questioning activities do not stay entirely within the closed question areas. Open-ended questions, on the other hand, require more complex responses and can stimulate lively class discussion because they give students opportunities to express ideas, draw inferences, and contribute their own opinions.

Use closed questions to check the retention of previously learned information and to focus thinking on a particular point or commonly held set of ideas.

Pose questions for which there are a limited number of acceptable responses or right answers.

  • What is the chemical formula for water?
  • What happened when you switched from low to higher power magnification?
  • What are plant cell walls made of?

These are all questions that anticipate certain answers to which students have already been exposed in a lecture, class activity, assigned reading, or some visual aid (video, web site, chart, demonstration).

Try to word closed questions to avoid yes/no answers, unless that's the way you really want students to respond.

Also use closed questions to cause students to classify or pick out similarities and differences, apply previously learned information to a new problem, or make a judgment using standards that have been supplied.

Use open questions to promote discussion or student interaction, stimulate thinking and allow freedom to hypothesize, speculate and share ideas about possible activities.

Open questions anticipate a wide range of acceptable responses rather than one or two right answers. They draw on the students' past experiences, but also cause students to give opinions and their reasons for these opinions, to infer or identify implications, to formulate hypotheses, or to make judgments based on their own values and standards.

These are some examples of open questions:

  • If you were to design a science display, what would you include in the display and why?
  • What do you suppose life on earth might be like with weaker gravity?
  • What should be included in a project to improve the local environment?
  • If you suspected that you were the carrier of some genetic abnormality, would you have children?

Avoid questions that begin Do you think ...? or Should ...? because they encourage a yes or no response. Try instead for a question that might begin What do you think about ...?

Strategies for Asking Questions

How you ask questions will determine the level of participation you get from students.

Ask plenty of questions that are pitched at a level most of the class can handle.
Success is a powerful encouragement to future participation. Vary the intellectual approach of your questions to provide opportunities for different types of students to respond. Include some information questions, some that ask for conclusions, and some that ask for opinions.
Encourage students to use their own reactions, feelings, perceptions, values and life experiences as starting points for discussion.
Ask open-ended (divergent) questions — ones with many equally valid answers — to reduce potential anxiety students may feel about being wrong. Use the brainstorming method whereby you entertain a number of responses to a question and write them on the board before evaluating or moving on. This approach makes differences among students more acceptable and reduces the worry over being judged, which can inhibit participation.
Ask specific questions.
Try to stay away from asking "Are there any questions?" Generally students won't respond to such a broad question — they may not have formulated a question yet or they may be worried about looking dumb. A specific question like "Describe what just happened in this experiment" can tell you whether the students understand the topic.
Learn to really wait after you ask a question.
Too often teachers get anxious and move on too quickly. Waiting is a signal that you really do want students to participate. Give them time to digest the question. Most students will be thinking during the pause.
Give all students adequate time to formulate answers.
Don't call on the first person who raises a hand, and don't immediately approve a correct answer. Following a student contribution, ask if anyone else wants to comment or build on the idea. Encourage students to break the habit of expecting you to speak after every student response.
Be clear and positive in rewarding all participation.
Students will watch what happens to others who speak up, and this expectation affects participation enormously.
Strategies for Answering Students' Questions

Here is some useful advice about handling questions from students:

Repeat the question or paraphrase it.
Doing so focuses the other students' attention on the question and lets the student who asked it check to see that you understood what he/she asked.
Redirect content-related questions to the whole class.
This strategy encourages more student participation.
Answer a question with more questions.
Additional probing questions will get students to focus on the part of the question that is most relevant to the answer.
Promote a discussion among students.
In situations where there is considerable difference of opinion about the answer, this approach involves more than just one or two students in the process of generating an answer.
Don't be afraid to admit you don't know the answer.
Tell students that you will seek the answer and let them know.
Set aside certain times in the class when you deal only with basic questions.
This strategy can help "smoke out" those students afraid to ask about basics or fundamentals they may have missed.