Great questioning in the classroom (and beyond) promotes deep thinking, helping students connect and elaborate on ideas. Great questioning to assess thinking helps teachers plan and adapt their teaching to respond to what assessment tells them.
Teachers ask questions every lesson, every day. It is essential to ensure that teachers and students are asking the right questions to move learning forward. It is important that teachers carefully consider the questions they ask in the classroom and regularly reflect on the various questioning techniques used. As questioning plays such an integral role in teaching and learning, across all subjects, key stages and ages, time must be dedicated to understanding effective question design to ensure questioning maximises opportunities for learning.
The first key point to consider with questioning design is how questions are communicated and presented to students. Questions can be challenging and encourage students to think hard, but the challenge should not be linked to understanding what the question is asking. The question itself should be clear. Every student, regardless of whether they know the correct answer or not, should understand what the question is asking. What is the teacher trying to find out? What are the requirements of the question?
It also helps if students understand why particular questions are being asked and discussed in a lesson. This is a key skill the teacher can continually develop. Questioning can be improved through regular reflection, feedback from colleagues, or using self-reflection tools such as video software. In doing so, teachers should observe and listen to questions asked in a lesson with a focus on evaluating the effectiveness and impact of the questions being asked.
Every teacher has unique knowledge, insight and understanding of the curriculum content they are teaching—not to mention unique knowledge of the students in their classroom. This information can and should be used to ensure the questions asked in a lesson are “desirably difficult”. This is a term coined by Robert Bjork and Elizabeth Bjork, referring to a task or question that students can overcome with increased effort (1994). Questions can be designed and scaffolded to ensure the level of challenge is appropriate and encourages students to reflect, think hard, and articulate a carefully considered answer. The level of challenge can gradually be increased as teachers begin to check for understanding; they can then use further questions to probe, encourage elaboration, explanation and possibly promote debate and discussion. When questions are too easy, students are not being challenged or required to invest effort, focus and concentration. When questions are too difficult, students can feel overwhelmed and frustrated, potentially knocking their overall confidence, motivation, and morale. Neither situation is conducive for learning to take place.
Questioning is a versatile classroom strategy. In its most obvious purpose, it can serve to check for understanding. But it can also allow students to express their opinions and views—or act as an opportunity to recall information from long term memory. It may be tempting to rely on one specific type or format of question, but there are pros and cons to the different styles of questions. Having a variety of types of questions in a teacher’s “toolbox” (and knowledge of their advantages), is crucial.
For example, multiple-choice questions are a great way of quickly covering a lot of content; they can also quickly be self- or peer-assessed, or marked online by a quizzing app or website. However, there is potential for students guessing and there are limitations to multiple-choice questions. For example, they do not allow students to elaborate or extend their answers. (You can read more about the pros and cons of multiple choice questions here). Alternatively, short answer questions are ideal for checking for understanding or low-stakes quizzing, but again students will need opportunities to develop their responses. Free recall questions allow for extended answers and are great for elaborative exercises, but more lesson time will be required.
Ultimately, reliance on a single form of questioning is not unleashing the full potential of effective questioning.
To find out more about effective question design—including clear communication, desirable difficulties, and varieties of question formats—you can complete our online Questioning course as part of The Great Teaching Toolkit. This course provides an evidence-based overview of why and how effective questioning helps promote and assess thinking, and what great teachers do to use it effectively for these different purposes. You will explore how these principles can be applied in the classroom, before practising selecting and adapting individual teaching strategies for different contexts to prepare for the next steps of your personalised professional development.
Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2014). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. In M. A. Gernsbacher & J. Pomerantz (Eds.), Psychology and the real world: Essay illustrating fundamental contributions to soceity (2nd ed., pp. 59–68). Worth Publishing.