Questioning and Strategies

Questioning is the beginning for understanding the thinking stuff of a brain.


Questioning is the basis for all learning. Questions that students ask or teachers ask students allow students and teachers both to assessment what they know and how to progress toward better and deeper understanding as effective questions lead not only to answers, but to more questions.

Student Questioning

Student involvement is essential for learning and thinking. Students must be curious enough to be motivated to interact, know how to ask questions, collect information, organize the information and sustain involvement until they understand what is happening or a teacher is able to understand what questions, information, and or activity might facilitate their understanding. If the student and/or the student/student and/or the student/teacher interaction can focus and maintain student interest at the students’ cognitive level, then students will create new and possibly deeper understanding. This process can and should be intrinsically motivating; creating a life long desire for learning.

Levels of Student Questions

Student's questions can be categorized similar to questions teachers ask. Different ways are discussed below. However, most important to consider about the questions children ask is the level of understanding they might gain from answers to their questions. Incidental surface knowledge or deeper critical understanding.

Children take answers to their questions and connect them to their present understanding at levels which can be represented as pieces of factual information, as labels for objects or concepts, as properties and characteristics that describe objects or concepts, as information that can act as procedural explanations of how things interact, relate, create a cause effect relationship, and as explanations that lead to models, theories, laws and deeper understanding.

Questioning for Learning

It is the addition of information connected to previous ideas, the reorganization of known ideas, and construction of new ideas that is learning. Questioning allows children and adults to distinguish and structure their understanding of the world according to the questions they deem significant. Variables that affect this learning are identified in learning theories. Some variables include:

Teacher Specific Information for Questioning

The first thing to learn is how to create questions, next seek answers to the questions, and finally how the questions relates to the answers and the meaning expected. This can only be done in an interesting risk free environment with encouragement to practice and perfect questioning at increasingly higher levels. Young children arrive in school as novice active learners. Schools must help them to become expert active learners.

Inquiry starts with play. As students mature play can become more productive if a student’s personal interest or curiosity is sustained so that questioning continues and becomes more skillful. This is difficult for students who wait for the authority (teacher/text) to furnish problems, questions, and solutions. Not being challenged to make meaning, rather to remember the meaning of others. The good thinker realizes that while some information originated from qualified people, much information and meaning is self-generated. Good thinkers function independently, welcoming the challenge of functioning on their own. They embrace problems or the unknown, and are confident they have the skill and ability to collect, organize, and understand information to achieve whatever goal they desire.

One way we demonstrate to students that we value them is to ask them to think, share the processes that they use, and talk about the process. This sends a clear message that their ideas are valuable and if students are to learn with understanding, they must own and value what they do. A professional educator's job is to facilitate reasoning and understanding based on that reasoning, not to be the owner of the information and try to convince or coerce students to value what the teacher says and does.

Questions are at the level of thinking of its creator and it is the level of thinking that determines the level of the question and its answer. If a question is factual the asker wants to recall a specific fact or find a resource with the desired information. If a question is a desire to understand something, the asker must seek and process the information at a higher level depending on the the availability of information, the kind of question, and the level of understanding desired. If the kind of question relates to the level of thought, then it should be possible for teachers to facilitate student growth by monitoring and encouraging different levels of questions and guiding students to be aware of how the kinds of questions they ask relate to the kinds of solutions they can expect. Teachers may do this by having students reflect on their actions for answering particular types of questions. This helps students see a relationship between the type of question asked and the conclusions they draw.

Questioning Assumptions

  1. There is a lack of knowledge.
  2. There is curiosity, a desire to know, a desire to please, a desire to compete, or a desire to help can all motivate a student to ask a question.
  3. There is an answer.
  4. There is a desire for an answer.
  5. There is the ability to answer.
  6. A question must be asked to seek an answer or no answer will be achieved.
  7. A belief there is information and resources to answer the question.
  8. A question can invoke a response which may be one, all, or a combination of a mental image, linguistic or non linguistic information, emotional response, or physical sensation.

Characteristics of a Question

Each question has two basic characteristics. The question is understandable and there is information and knowledge necessary to answer the question.

Example - Question: When did humans land on the moon?

This has the characteristics -1. It is understandable. 2. The question is answerable. Additionally - 3. Humans landed on the moon. 4. Humans had and needed technology to land on the moon. And 5. The answer is public knowledge.

Questions can be classified.

Sample classifications - Convergent (closed) and Divergent (open), Effects the question has on the person being asked, Bloom's Taxonomy, According to the first word or question word, According to the purpose

Characteristics of Asking Questions

Considerations for Asking Questioning During an Activity

Considerations When Asking Questions Before an Activity

Considerations When Asking Questions After an activity

Considerations When Asking Questions During an activity

Considerations on How to Direct Questions

A Question is usually directed at a group or individual and is followed by a variety of actions. Several questions can be chained together to create different question sequence patterns. Discussion for each of these ideas follows.

Four Ways to Direct Questions

1. Overhead: questions directed to an entire class. Used to start a discussion, introduce a topic, or elicit a response from everyone.

2. Direct: question directed to one person or group. Used to elicit responses for information or to increase pupil involvement.

3. Relay: question directed to a different person or group after a response. Used to transfer response from person to person, to get differing opinions, to get more involvement, to get a response, and to avoid giving the teacher's opinion.

4. Reverse or answer a question with a question: when the teacher directs the same question, that has been asked to them, to another person or group. Used to avoid answering a question, to encourage further thinking, to further discussion, and to bring out opinions. Student,

Putting Questions in a Sequence for a Discussion or Inquiry

After a question several responses can be made. If questions follow each other, then a sequence for discussion or inquiry may fit in any of four patterns.

First, think about the possible different sequences of one question leading to another question and so forth until an eventual conclusion is reached, (the process of thinking). Most people think of a linear pattern where question one, leads to question two, which leads to question three, and so forth until a conclusion is reached. However, other progressions are possible and illustrated below.

  1. Top diagram is a linear pattern with one questioning order imagequestion leading to another.
  2. Second pattern starts with a question (Q1) and is followed by four more questions, (Q2, Q3, Q4, Q5) in this example, then returns to the original question (Q1).
  3. This pattern starts with a question (Q1 in the bottom center) and continues along two related tracks with different questions being asked for each track (might be a track - for and a track - against).
  4. This pattern follows a parallel line of questioning with the same questions for two different ideas. Set of questions for book A and same set for book B. Same set of questions for Bloom's Level of analysis and the same set for synthesis.

Responses that Are Not Questions

Responses that are not questions, can be silence, an answer, a statement, a hand signal, or another question.

Silence and Wait Time


Students need time to think. Particularly when they are working on a complicated question or problem. They need plenty of near silent time to focus on what the problem is, what they already know about it, how they might proceed, and time to execute their plans and arrive at a satisfactory solution. It is a good idea to let them know your expectations. Take five minutes to think about ...

This kind of time provided students is sometimes differentiated as halt time reserving the use of wait time as shorter times (in seconds) a teacher waits after a response.

There are two kinds of wait time.

  1. The time a teacher waits after asking a question.
  2. The time a teacher waits after a student responds.

Increasing both wait times increases student response. The amount of wait time should range from three seconds to one minute depending on the level of question being asked. Bloom's Taxonomy can be used as a guide with knowledge questions having 3-5 seconds of wait time, comprehension 3-10 seconds, and all others increasing with the complexity of the question and individual differences in student processing times. The second wait time if increased will increase the quality of the student's answer and the elaboration of their answer. Students have been shown to literally add more to their answers as the teacher waits. The second wait time being from 5-10 seconds depending on the question and depth of answer.

Wait Time 1

Teacher - "John, How long is a year?" .... wait time 1 (3-8 seconds)

Teacher - "Sue, What determines the length of a year?" .... wait time 1 (5-10 seconds)

Teacher - "Class, How would the length of a year change among the planets in the solar system?" ... wait time 1 (5+ seconds if the question is review. If not the teacher may have the students think alone, pair share, look through their notes or books increasing the time to minutes, which as mentioned in the overview is sometimes referred to as halt time.)

Wait Time 2 with Wait Time 1

Teacher - "How long is a year?" .... wait time 1 (2 seconds)
John answers - "365 and one-quarter days." .... wait time 2 (5 seconds)

Teacher - "What determines the length of a year? .... wait time 1 (2 seconds)
Sue answers - "The Earth and the Sun." ... wait time 2.
After 4 seconds Sue says.
"It's the time the Earth goes around the sun." ... wait time 2
Again, after 2 seconds Sue adds.

"It is the time that it takes the Earth to go around the sun once". ... wait time 2.
Waits 5 seconds to see if it's the final answer.

Teacher - "Class, How would the length of a year change among the planets in the solar system?" .... wait time 1 (2 seconds)

Students' response - "Other planets are closer and farther from the Sun than the earth. .... wait time 2 (5 seconds)
Teacher - "So if they are closer that should cause years to be .... wait time 1 (2 seconds)

Students' response - "Faster." .... wait time 2 (2 seconds)

Students' response - "Shorter." .... wait time 2 (2 seconds)

Teacher - "and if they are farther .... wait time 1 - 3-5 seconds

Students' response - "they will be longer." .... wait time 2 (2 seconds)

Student response - "WOW! Pluto must have a long year." .... wait time 2 - 3-5 seconds

Teacher - "So what is the relationship between the orbit of a planet and the length of a year?" .... wait time 1 (10+ seconds)

Student 1 - "The farther from the Sun the longer the year." .... wait time 2 - 3-5 seconds.

Student 2 - "The farther from the Sun the longer the orbit of the planet and the longer it will take to travel around the sun, therefore a year will be longer, because a year is the time it takes to orbit the Sun once." .... wait time 2 - 3-5 seconds.

Teacher - "What are the two variables that you combined to create the relationship?" .... wait time 1 - 3-5 seconds.


Whenever wait time is used for the first time students may wonder what the teacher is waiting for. A simple response that he or she is providing time for them to think is usually sufficient.

Another problem is getting students involved. If students have not had opportunities to engage in conversations or discussions. It may take some time for them to become comfortable with it. For example, if you are sitting in a lecture hall listening to a lecture for 15 - 20 minutes and then all of a sudden the lecturer begins to have an interactive conversation, you may not be interested or motivated to join the discussion. Students get used to a pattern and the more comfortable it is, the less likely they are willing to change from it. It can often be more comfortable listening than engaging in mind altering discussions. Be aware of change and select a strategy to ease or motivate a student from a less passive role to a more involved role. One strategy to transition students from listening to discussion is pair share. Then when the group is brought back together the sharing of the pairs can usually be a good transition from less interactivity to more interactivity.

Hand signals

Any response can be accompanied with a hand signal. Silence and an opened up palm outstretched to accept students’ answers is effective and an open palm out facing students, as stop, is effective in stopping student’s responses.


Repeating Students' Answers - Don't

Repeating Students' Answers Can Be Habitual

Reasons given have been:

  1. it was modeled in teacher's previous schooling,
  2. it has became an automatic behavior,
  3. it is a response that requires no thinking and therefore gives the teacher time to think before proceeding,
  4. it is based on a belief that hearing something twice increases learning and retention,
  5. it makes students "feel good" because it validates their answers as correct.

Reasons Given for Repeating Answers

Routinely Repeating Answers Can Result in Undesirable Outcomes

When teachers repeat answers, students learn not to listen to each other, but only to the teacher, because the teacher is the one who will say what is important. We should continually try to encourage students to listen to each other, learn from each other, and to build on and benefit from others’ contributions. Listening is one of our most underdeveloped and important skills. We scientifically extinguish students listening to students when students can expect the teacher to repeat whenever something important is stated. In reality, we are teaching students they don’t need to listen to other students; because only what the teacher says is important. From this students might conclude that students’ answers and ideas are not as important as adults’ ideas and answers.

When teachers repeat answers, shy students are continually reinforced to withdraw and not communicate to other students. Shy students are given the crutch that someone else will say it for them. Also, when teachers repeat their answers, shy students are denied the opportunity to learn to communicate to the group.

Encourage them with, "You are absolutely right. Your answer is so important, say it again so everyone understands it." can increase their interactions with other students. Emphasis needs to be placed on value and importance, not on decibels. Most students, given such encouragement, reassurance of correctness, and feeling of the importance of their contribution, will say it again with increased volume. Should the student "withdraw," the teacher can quickly intervene with, "What I meant was that your answer of __________ (repeating the answer) was so well stated (important, critical to our understanding, insightful), that everyone needs to hear it." If the student continually withdraws the teacher needs to make the appropriate referrals.

When teachers repeat answers, students are motivated to please the teacher. They learn that the teacher is expecting a particular answer so to please the teacher, their goal becomes to find what the teacher wants as an answer and not "why" the answer is correct. The answers become important only because the teacher wants them. Some of the students are extrinsically motivated by the teacher’s praise and reward system. Students which are motivated by grades and pleasing adults will initially please their teachers and parents. This will not insure that they discover relevance in their learning, develop an intrinsic motivation for learning, learn how to learn, or discover personal interests for lifelong enjoyment. Students who enter school motivated by their personal curiosity must be continually provided with experiences to sustain and increase this curiosity or they will become bored with school and loose their love of learning.

However, there are times when a student's answer should be repeated, but for none of the above reasons.

Valid reasons for repeating answers

To clarify or extend the answer.

"You’re right. A whale is a mammal. What characteristics do whales have that other mammals have?"

"Yes, you would multiply, because you repeatedly added five groups of four. Can anyone illustrate this?"

Teachers also repeat correct answers if they wish to model a more accurate pronunciation. Biome. BI Om.

Another reason for repeating a student’s response is to dignify an incorrect answer by putting it with the question to which it correctly belongs, and then teaching the correct answer to the original question.

"2 X 3 is six 2 + 3 is five."

"Whales do live in the water, but they breathe oxygen from the air, are warm blooded, have hair, and nurse their young. What class of animals are they?"

"You could get the answer by adding. What other operation could be used?"

A third reason for repeating the student’s answer is to encourage a shy learner with initial responses. To ask him/her to repeat could result in that student’s never again volunteering an answer. Note the word initial. If the student continues to answer so softly it is not possible for the rest of the class to hear, some teaching or counseling needs to be done.

For an initial barely audible answer, the following repetitions of the answer could be productive:

"Yes. The answer is ...."

"Yes, a whale is a mammal."

"Good thinking, multiplication

Or a student near the student could be asked to repeat the student’s answer.


Redirect the question to other students

Can be used when there are a number of possible responses.

Dignify incorrect answers

When students answer incorrectly it is sometimes good to acknowledge that they are thinking and putting forth effort. This can be done when the teacher believes they see the strategy the student was using to answer the question.


After students respond the teacher or listener may desire more information. A probing question can help to gain additional background information, assess student understanding, clarify a response, provide more elaboration for a more extended answer, provide elaboration as to other applications, and elaborate on value judgments.

Creating a Risk Free Environment


The classroom atmosphere must be conducive to thinking and problem solving. Students must feel comfortable that if they take a risk they will not be put-down. Teachers must provide support for students to achieve this scholarly atmosphere.

Teachers Create a Risk Free Environment when they

Validate student's feelings with statements like.

Give students credit for learning and
encourage them to reflect on the strategies and habits of mind they used.

Give statements of information.

Use reflective summaries to clarify what students say or mean.

It's not only important for the teacher to ask questions. It is important that students learn how to ask questions to learn how to learn. You can teach the techniques that you know about questioning to your students so they can learn the power of good questions. If students are the key performers they will see how the questions you ask improve learning and learn how to question.

Students who only see teachers question to evaluate them are robbed of experiences of learning how to form their own questions to use to discover and hence will not experience the pleasure of the quest for answers and the satori (joy) of discovery.

To achieve this teachers must accept the responsibilities associated with the following guidelines.

Teacher Guidelines for Questioning

Dr. Robert Sweetland's Notes ©