Center for Faculty Excellence

Tips for Teaching

Questioning as a Pedagogical Tool

Summary of Discussion

In addition to the points we discussed on the handouts, the following points were discussed:

  • COL Forsythe raised the issue of always trying to ask "real" questions, those being ones for which the instructor does not know the answer.

For example, commonly instructors focus on the content and ask, "What is positive reinforcement?"

The "real" question is, "How would you define positive reinforcement?"

The value of the real question is to focus instructor attention on student understanding; that is, the "correct" answer is less important than the cadets' understanding of the concept.

  • Questioning in class should focus on the opportunity to both create and review shared understanding. When questions are used to foster a "right answer only" atmosphere in class, they will not focus student thinking about what has been read, nor will they prompt the processes by which students construct knowledge from text material. Instead they make the response--the correct answer--the all-important concern. Moreover, usually a small number of sudents regularly respond because we actively (even if unconsciously) seek responses from students who will give us what we want to hear--the right answer--and the rest of the students remain passive and uninvolved.
  • This leads to a second important point that was discussed in all three sessions--the climate of the class to encourage student risk-taking. The instructor as questioner must be supportive and able to create a classroom climate in which cadets can feel comfortable both asking and answering questions. If questioning becomes "interrogation," the technique becomes a weapon rather than a tool for learning. The instructor must be able to ask and answer questions within a relaxed environment that elicits student interaction.
  • LTC Steve Ressler pointed out a valuable purpose for asking questions that is rarely cited--helping students make linkages in the content, helping them connect related concepts from previous class sessions. The "probing question" technique listed on the handout is a version of this technique, but it waits for the student question. Instead, the instructor, knowing that it is important for students to connect course material, uses questions to help them discover those connections.
  • Dr. Snider mentioned that in getting cadets to respond, especially to higher order questions involving analysis or evaluation, he has found it helpful to have them get into groups of 3 or 4 to briefly discuss the response among themselves.
  • Another reminder is that when students are unresponsive, one possibility is that they don't understand the question. If this seems to be a problem, a good practice is to re-phrase the question to ask it differently.
Asking, Answering, and NOT Answering Questions in Class

Pedagogy should reflect instructional goals. The key is the nature of the learning we're trying to develop in a course. The reason for "discussion" (as opposed to lecture) is to develop higher order thinking skills. Hence, questioning methods that limit the focus to the basic knowledge level are counter-productive.

Asking Questions
  • Ask open-ended, not just close-ended questions:

Instructor A: Is Lear a good monarch?

Instructor B: From Shakespeare's perspective, is Lear a good monarch?

Instructor C: What qualities of a monarch does Lear reflect in this play?

  • Ask divergent as well as convergent questions. (DON'T use convergent questions if you want to develop divergent thinking!)

Instructor A: According to our textbook, in what ways does the present welfare system solve the problems of poverty?

Instructor B: What are some of the ways in which the welfare system addresses the problems of poverty?

Instructor C: What are some ways in which our country might solve the problems of poverty?

  • WAIT! Give students time to think. To cue students that the pause is appropriate, the instructor could comment — "It's a complex question, so take a few minutes to organize your thoughts." Or, after a pause, the instructor can re-phrase the question, or ask a follow-up question that might focus students' thoughts better. Better still, the instructor might use one of the following tried and true active-learning techniques that gets ALL the students involved in responding: Give the students a few minutes to WRITE OUT a response to the question (often it's helpful to give them a limit, e.g., Instructor C [above] could say, "Take a few minutes to list at least three ways that occur to you, and we'll share these ideas." An instructor can also have students consult with classmates in groups of two or three to come up with a response. In this case, Instructor C might say, "In the next two minutes, see how many ideas your group can come up with."
NOT Answering Questions

What reason might an instructor have for NOT answering a student's question? Some things to do instead of answering the question. . .

  • Repeat the question, paraphrasing it:

EXAMPLE: (Introductory Psychology)

Cadet Jones: Sir, you've said that learning is defined as changes in behavior that result from experience, but can't people learn without any change being apparent?

Instructor: You're questioning whether learning must be tied to observable change, is that right, CDT Jones?

Cadet Jones: Yes, although now I see that given our definition of psychology, I guess it would have to be perceivable in some way.

  • Redirect the question:

Instructor: Cadet Jones raises an interesting question. What do the rest of you think about the need for observable change?

  • Ask probing questions:

EXAMPLE: (Constitutional Law class)

Cadet Smith: Ma'am, I don't understand how the Federal government can be working on national standards for education when we've learned that education is the province of the individual states.

Instructor: That's a very good question, Cadet Smith. Think about what we discussed last week relative to the drinking age? Cadet Smith: Oh, I see, Ma'am. Congress will have to use one of its established powers to make a case for national standards, just like it used the Commerce clause to regulate the drinking age.

  • Promote a discussion among students:

EXAMPLE: (Freshman Composition)

Cadet Jones: Sir, I don't understand why this article in Newsweek says that the internet is such a great thing. There's all kinds of junk out there, including pornography. And haven't there been bases where kids were contacted by sexual predators through the internet?

Cadet Smith: That's like saying the telephone isn't a good invention because people can make abusing and harassing phone calls. Come on! The internet is one of the greatest advances of the century.

Instructor: (as other cadets seem eager to enter the discussion) Hold on a minute! You've all got strong opinions on this, so we should spend some time in discussion. To begin, get in groups of three and spend the next ten minutes coming up with your own group's pro and con list on value of the internet. Then we'll discuss your ideas.

Answering Questions
  • You should answer a question directly when the nature of the question is such that it is relevant to the course material but not something that students would benefit from trying to discover themselves.

EXAMPLE: (Introduction to Literature; class is reading a 19th century novel)

Cadet Jones: Sir, who wrote the first novel in English?
Instructor: The form developed rather gradually in the 18th century, but most experts consider Samuel Richardson to be the first modern English novelist. He wrote Pamela in 1740.

  • Avoid postponing the response, but, if you must, be SURE make alternative arrangements.

EXAMPLE: (Composition class)

Cadet Smith: Ma'am, I'm really not sure when to use the semi-colon. Can we go over that again?
Instructor: That's an important concept, Cadet Smith, but it takes a while to review, and we're running out of time today. All of you who'd like to get a review of the semi-colon, see me after class to arrange an AI session.

  • Discourage inappropriate questions.

Students ask inappropriate questions for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it's natural curiosity about something tangentially related to the course, and sometimes it can be an effort to get the instructor side-tracked. But even if you're sure that it's the latter, it's never wise to turn a student down abruptly because it can discourage other students from asking any questions (i.e., it creates a negative learning environment). So practice deflecting inappropriate questions.

EXAMPLE: (Physics class)

Instructor: Any questions about the homework problems?
Cadet Jones: Ma'am, I don't have a question about the homework, but I was reading about a physicist who has a theory about racial inferiority, and I don't see what right a physicist has to teaching something like that outside his field.
Instructor: That's a legitimate question, since this is an introductory physics class, but it takes us pretty far afield from vectors and forces. Why don't you see me after class to set up a time when we can get together and discuss this.

  • Admit when you do not know an answer.

It's impossible to prepare for every relevant question a student might ask, and it is never wise to "fake it" when you're not sure of the answer. However, you should always research the question and get back to the cadets either at the next class meeting or earlier via e-mail.