Although questions are the most common form of interaction between teachers and students, it is fair to say that questions are not always well judged or productive for learning. This section identifies some common pitfalls of questioning and suggests some ways to avoid them.
Not being clear about why you are asking the question: You will need to reflect on the kind of lesson you are planning. Is it one where you are mainly focusing on facts, rules and sequences of actions? If that is the case, you will be more likely to ask closed questions which relate to knowledge. Or is it a lesson where you are focusing mainly on comprehension, concepts and abstractions? In that case you will be more likely to use open questions which relate to analysis, synthesis and evaluation.
Asking too many closed questions that need only a short answer: It helps if you plan open questions in advance. Another strategy is to establish an optimum length of response by saying something like ‘I don’t want an answer of less than 15 words.’
Asking too many questions at once: Asking about a complex issue can often lead to complex questions. Since these questions are oral rather than written, students may find it difficult to understand what is required and they become confused. When you are dealing with a complex subject, you need to tease out the issues for yourself first and focus each question on one idea only. It also helps to use direct, concrete language and as few words as possible.
Asking difficult questions without building up to them: This happens when there isn’t a planned sequence of questions of increasing difficulty. Sequencing questions is necessary to help students to move to the higher levels of thinking.
Asking superficial questions: It is possible to ask lots of questions but not get to the center of the issue. You can avoid this problem by planning probing questions in advance. They can often be built in as follow-up questions to extend an answer.
Asking a question then answering it yourself: What’s the point? This pitfall is often linked to another problem: not giving students time to think before they answer. Build in ‘wait time’ to give students a chance to respond. You could say ‘Think about your answer for 3 seconds, then I will ask.’ You could also provide prompts to help.
Asking bogus ‘guess what’s in my head’ questions: Sometimes teachers ask an open question but expect a closed response. If you have a very clear idea of the response you want, it is probably better to tell students by explaining it to them rather than trying to get there through this kind of questioning. Remember, if you ask open questions you must expect to get a range of answers. Acknowledge all responses. This can easily be done by saying ‘thank you’.
Focusing on a small number of students and not involving the whole class: One way of avoiding this is to get the whole class to write their answers to closed questions and then show them to you together. Some teachers use small whiteboards for this. Another possibility, which may be more effective for more open questions, is to use the ‘no-hands’ strategy, where you pick the respondent rather than having them volunteer. One advantage of this is that you can ask students questions of appropriate levels of difficulty. This is a good way of differentiating to ensure inclusion.
Dealing ineffectively with wrong answers or misconceptions: Teachers sometimes worry that they risk damaging students’ self-esteem by correcting them. There are ways of handling this positively, such as providing prompts and scaffolds to help students correct their mistakes. It is important that you correct errors sensitively or, better still, get other students to correct them.
Not treating students’ answers seriously: Sometimes teachers simply ignore answers that are a bit off-beam. They can also fail to see the implications of these answers and miss opportunities to build on them. You could ask students why they have given that answer or if there is anything they would like to add. You could also ask other students to extend the answer. It is important not to cut students off and move on too quickly if they have given a wrong answer.