What About the Questions You Ask?

By Darrel Fontane

"They can send me to college but they can’t make me think."
- Bumper sticker seen in the College of Engineering parking lot.

Most instructors, including myself, ask questions during lectures. We do this to engage our students, to see if they're paying attention, and to assess their grasp of required concepts and facts. We are hopeful that our questions are answered and when they are not we usually answer them ourselves and move on.

For me, providing the answer and moving on is an automatic process that I really don’t think about. But now that I am thinking about it, it has also occurred to me that I often don’t really think about the types of questions I ask, either, or the time I allow for the answers.

It got me to wondering if my questions are helpful and if there are better ways to ask them. A Web search returned, among other articles, "Six Ways to Discourage Learning," published by the American Astronomical Society (2004). In it, six behaviors instructors should strive to avoid when asking questions are reviewed. Below is a short summary of each.

Insufficient "Wait-Time" refers to students answering questions too quickly—without enough thought—and/or in­structors not waiting long enough for an answer before providing it themselves. The problem here is that students with a reflective learning style need a little more time to think about questions and formulate answers. Among the Web sites I visited, a 5 to 30 second quiet-time was commonly recommended before taking or providing answers.

Rapid-Reward Questions refer to instructors taking and using the first answer offered: If the answer is correct, fine; if it isn't, correcting it with a quick rewordthus rewarding the student who offered it—and moving on. The problem is that slower, more reflective students who are still thinking tend to stop thinking. If you cut them off mid-thought often enough you run the risk of seeing these students frequently defer to quicker thinking first-responders. Worse, the problem compounds itself when not everyone hears the answer. Repeating the first answer and asking for alternatives provides a little extra think-time and encourages the more reflective students to engage in the question/answer process.

Programmed Answers refer to instructors who phrase their questions in such a way as to strongly hint at or flat out provide an answer. For example, suppose I said, "Consider this column of numbers," and then asked: "Shouldn’t the mean be very different from the median because of these two large values?" Most students fig­ure out that the correct, logical course of action is to agree with the in­structor. YES becomes the answer: No thinking is required.

Non-Specific Feedback Questions refer to the classic "Are there any questions?” and "Does everyone understand?” type of inquiries. When no one else is responding, it’s not likely you’re going to find many students wanting to call attention to their own igno­rance. Instructors often erroneously conclude that, in the absence of a response, there really are no questions or, in fact, everyone did understand. This may or may not be the case, however: students may, in fact, be clueless and just too em­barrassed to admit it.

Teacher Ego-Stroking and Classroom Climate refers to questions and/or statements that, by their nature, pose psychological barriers that discourage active student engagement and, in turn, poison what otherwise would be a productive classroom environment. For example, suppose I said: It is obvious that X = 5.7—nobody needs me to explain that again, do they? To a student, the rea­son that X = 5.7 may be a complete mystery, however, since I’ve declared it to be obvious, what student is going to be willing to step forward and admit that it is not.

Fixation at a Low-Level Questioning refers to the level at which ques­tions are being asked. Theoretically, we teach our students along a continuum beginning with factual information and proceeding along through increased levels of analysis, synthesis and assessment requiring increased higher-order critical-thinking skills.

Often, however, our questions remain fixed at the informa­tional level. For example: ”What is the name of the formula used to calculate X force?

There is nothing wrong with this level, however, if more complex questions aren’t in the mix, students aren’t being pushed to think about or engage very deeply with the material at hand. Asking a variety of questions, including those requiring more complex, thought-out answers, helps build criti­cal thinking skills.

Now you know what questions to ask about the question you ask! I won’t reveal how many of these six behav­iors I personally recognized, but there’s sure room for me to make a few adjustments. To read the entire article, please click on Six Ways to Discourage Learning.


Duncan, D., & Southon, A. (2004). Six Ways to Discourage Learning in Astronomy. Retrieved February 13, 2008, from http://aas.org/education/Six_Ways_to_Discourage_Learning.php


Peter Connor - TILT Web Content Writer and Editor