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9.2: How to question

  • Page ID
    87517
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    Why Question?

    The purposes of questioning

    Teachers ask questions for a number of reasons, the most common of which are

    • to interest, engage and challenge students
    • to check on prior knowledge and understanding
    • to stimulate recall, mobilizing existing knowledge and experience in order to create new understanding and meaning
    • to focus students’ thinking on key concepts and issues
    • to help students to extend their thinking from the concrete and factual to the analytical and evaluative
    • to lead students through a planned sequence which progressively establishes key understandings
    • to promote reasoning, problem solving, evaluation and the formulation of hypotheses
    • to promote students’ thinking about the way they have learned

    Teachers ask questions for a number of reasons, the most common of which are

    Closed questions, which have one clear answer, are useful to check understanding during explanations and in recap sessions. If you want to check recall, then you are likely to ask a fairly closed question, for example ‘What is the grid reference for Great Malvern?’ or ‘What do we call this type of text?’

    On the other hand, if you want to help students develop higher-order thinking skills, you will need to ask more open questions that allow students to give a variety of acceptable responses. During class discussions and debriefings, it is useful to ask open questions, for example ‘Which of these four sources were most useful in helping with this inquiry?’, ‘Given all the conflicting arguments, where would you build the new superstore?’, ‘What do you think might affect the size of the current in this circuit?’

    Questioning is sometimes used to bring a student’s attention back to the task in hand, for example ‘What do you think about that, Peter?’ or ‘Do you agree?’ (Adapted from Types Of Question, section Why).

    2.1 A Common Classroom Sequence

    A striking insight provided by classroom research is that much talk between teachers and their students has the following pattern: a teacher’s question, a student’s response, and then an evaluative comment by the teacher. This is described as an Initiation-Response-Feedback exchange, or IRF. Here’s an example

    I – Teacher – What’s the capital city of Argentina?

    R – Pupil – Buenos Aires

    F – Teacher – Yes, well done

    This pattern was first pointed out in the 1970s by the British researchers Sinclair and Coulthard. Their original research was reported in: Sinclair, J. and Coulthard, M. (1975) Towards an Analysis of Discourse: the English used by Teachers and Pupils. London: Oxford University Press.

    Sinclair and Coulthard’s research has been the basis for extended debates about whether or not teachers should ask so many questions to which they already know the answer; and further debate about the range of uses and purposes of IRF in working classrooms. Despite all this, it seems that many teachers (even those who have qualified in recent decades) have not heard of it. Is this because their training did not include any examination of the structures of classroom talk – or because even if it did, the practical value of such an examination was not made clear?

    A teacher’s professional development (and, indeed, the development of members of any profession) should involve the gaining of critical insights into professional practice – to learn to see behind the ordinary, the taken for granted, and to question the effectiveness of what is normally done. Recognizing the inherent structure of teacher-student talk is a valuable step in that direction. Student teachers need to see how they almost inevitably converge on other teachers’ style and generate the conventional patterns of classroom talk.

    By noting this, they can begin to consider what effects this has on student participation in class. There is nothing wrong with the use of IRFs by teachers, but question-and-answer routines can be used both productively and unproductively. (Adapted from The Importance of Speaking and Listening, section IRF). (ORBIT)


    Professor Robyn Gillies, from The University of Queensland, explores some questioning techniques and strategies that can support deep learning.

    Example questions that promote dialogical discourse include things like:

    • On one hand you’re telling me this, but on the other hand you’re saying something quite different.
    • I wonder how these two positions could be reconciled?
    • Can you explain that another way?
    • Tell us again what you meant by …?
    • Have you considered looking at it this way What might this or that type of person think about that?

    These kinds of questions are designed to challenge students’ thinking and encourage them to think about things in different ways. By creating a state of cognitive dissonance in students, they have to reconsider their thinking.

    Questions that scaffold students thinking might include things like:

    • Have you considered using different descriptors in your search for the information you need?
    • Have you thought about using some of this information to help you develop your ideas?
    • Why don’t you try brainstorming some of the problems and how could you solve them?

    Both types of questions are used interchangeably to help students clarify their thoughts and think more deeply about issues.

    (UQx:LEARNx Deep Learning Through Transformative Pedagogy)


    In this next video Professor John Hattie, from the University of Melbourne, elaborates on our understanding of why questions are an essential component of developing self-regulated learners.

    Click here to watch video (4:43 minutes)

    (UQx:LEARNx Deep Learning Through Transformative Pedagogy)


    9.2: How to question is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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