Hundreds of Questions—But, What’s the Point?

I recently read that in the average classroom, a question is asked once every minute—all day long. That’s a ton of questions! Questions from both teachers and students are part of this total.

As a STEM teacher specialist, it was part of my role to coach first-year science teachers in their classrooms while they were engaged in their instructional practices. When trying to decide where to focus, I would observe several class sessions to get a feel for student engagement. I would watch for students who interacted with the teacher and with each other.

One of the things I noticed was that teachers do ask many questions; and when asking a question, I noticed they consistently began by calling a student’s name. The reasons for the questions soon became apparent after the first dozen. The questions were easily answered without much thinking, and they were asked in some of the following ways: with the intent to keep the pace of the class moving (“Are you finished with that yet?”), to stop disruptive behaviors (“John, what do you think you are doing?”), to bring back the attention of students who seemed to have mentally wandered (“Asim, what do you think about that?”), to determine if a student was paying attention (“Jennifer, what did Asim just say?”), or to have students recite the words that were just spoken (“Jorge, what did I just say?”).

Students, too, ask many questions: Did I do this right? Is this for a grade? How were we supposed to do that? We numbered off—what’s my number? Is this due tomorrow?

We know the goal of every classroom teacher is to master the art of effective questioning and to encourage students to ask questions that are based on curiosity and critical thinking.  Teachers want to use questioning strategies that dig deeper into what a student knows and has pieced together with new understandings, but how does that happen? Is it a natural progression for teachers as they gain more experience in the classroom and become more masterful in managing the behaviors of their students?

There has been quite a bit of research conducted about quality questioning in the classroom, and all of it points to putting systems in place to diminish using questions to manage behaviors and clarify procedural expectations, and to start using questions to increase higher forms of thinking and responding beyond the obvious and concrete.

The research of Dr. Benjamin Bloom is often quoted and used when talking about quality questions. The use of Bloom’s Taxonomy is designed to increase the amount of analyzing and evaluating being done in the classroom and to decrease the stale and low-level practice of reciting facts. Teacher observation tools all suggest that the quality of instruction is mirrored in the quality of the questions being asked, but just asking more rigorous questions will not get the responses most teachers want. In a new teacher’s classroom, it is common to see students waiting for someone else’s hand to go up. When none do, the silence is deafening and the teacher answers the question and moves on.

If you were a mentor to this teacher, what would you do?  Are there things that you would suggest that could change the type of questions asked by both the teacher and the students? What are your ideas on using questions as an invitation to get engaged in the lesson or to foster student responses that reflect a deeper understanding?

Share your ideas and experiences with us by commenting on the blog this month! My desire for the blog is for it to be a place where you and others can share your thinking about being a STEM teacher. I want it to also be a place where you can comment and ask questions about what others find to be highly effective strategies for teaching in STEM content fields.

This month, Talley’s Take is focusing on Quality Questions. Check out the STEM-ify It video. It showcases how using questions in the science classroom stimulates student thinking, critical observations, and thoughtful responses among students. I look forward to your comments!


Terry Talley, Ed.D.

STEMcoach in Action!

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