Most teachers will have discovered the importance of questioning in their classrooms and probably been introduced to Bloom’s Taxonomy as part of their teacher training or subsequent Inset. This training session translates that into practical tips and advice on using questioning to secure pupil progress and dispels the myth that only higher-level questioning is worth using in the classroom.

Rationale

Research indicates that:

  • training teachers in asking higher cognitive questions is positively related to the achievement of students, particularly those in secondary schools
  • training teachers to build in thinking time after questions are asked is positively related to student achievement
  • training teachers to vary questioning techniques and styles and to use techniques other than questioning during classroom discussions (eg silence, making statements) are positively related to student achievement.

This training session is designed to take 90 minutes and be delivered to a group of teaching staff across all subjects and with varying levels of expertise and experience. The session builds on staff’s existing understanding of the value of good questioning and how to use it effortlessly and subconsciously for good effect.

The session would work equally well in primary or secondary schools; staff will simply apply questioning techniques to appropriate subject matter and use less complex vocabulary for younger pupils.

The activities in detail

Starter: 5 minutes
Ask staff to work in groups of four or five (this session lends itself to working in subject groups) and share the purpose of questioning in the classroom. Ask groups to record the various uses of questioning on Post-it notes and stick them on a flip chart or board. As Post-its are being collected, see if you or a willing volunteer can group the examples into similar categories so these can be shared with the group at the beginning of Task 1 (see below). Expect to find examples such as:

  • ‘To review and summarise previous learning.’
  • ‘To motivate students to become actively involved in lessons.’
  • ‘To assess students’ preparation and check on homework or classwork completion and understanding.’
  • ‘To assess achievement of lesson objectives.’

Also try to draw out suggestions such as:

  • ‘To develop critical thinking skills and inquiring attitudes.’
  • ‘To stimulate students to pursue knowledge on their own.’
  • ‘Questioning students enables the whole class to hear different explanations from other students.’
  • ‘Asking questions helps teachers pace their lessons and moderate student behaviour.’

Introduction: 5 minutes
Explain that the purpose of this training is threefold. First, to identify the various purposes for which questioning may be used in a classroom. Second, to consider the types of questions that can be used. Finally, to suggest to staff there are other techniques that can be used to manage classroom discussions. Suggest this training will add to prior learning about questioning and will focus on the practical application of the theory for questioning in their classrooms.

Task 1: 5 minutes
Show the list of reasons teachers use questions (see above) via the projector and ask them to rate out of 10 (1 being infrequent, 10 being very frequent) the most common purposes for which they have used questions themselves over the past week in their classroom.

Task 2: 10 minutes
Share the information below (taken from www.pgce.soton.ac.uk/IT/Teaching/Questioning/). You could adapt it into a true/false quiz if you prefer.

  • Teachers spend most of their time asking low-level cognitive questions.
  • Low-level cognitive questions concentrate on factual information that can be memorised (for instance: How many wives did Henry Vlll have? Or, who wrote Hard Times?).
  • It is widely believed that low-level cognitive questions can limit students’ ability to acquire a deep, elaborate understanding of the subject matter.
  • High-level cognitive questions can be defined as questions that require students to use higher-order thinking or reasoning skills. By using these skills, students not only assimilate factual knowledge but also use their knowledge to solve problems, analyse and evaluate.
  • It is popularly believed that this type of question reveals the most about whether or not a student has truly grasped a concept. This is because a student needs to have a deep understanding of the topic to answer this type of question. Teachers use high-level cognitive questions less frequently than low-level cognitive questions.
  • Low-level cognitive questions can be used productively to avoid a slow-paced lesson, keep the attention of the students and maintain control of the classroom.

Ask for views, comments and ideas.

Task 3: 30 minutes
Now give groups a text well-suited to the age range of your students and a suitable examination-style question at the end – perhaps a non-fiction text found on the Foundation paper of the English GCSE course or a topical newspaper article on a cross-curricular theme (recent government initiative, natural disaster) for Key Stage 4 students. You could find one suitable for secondary-age students at www.wjec.co.uk/uploads/papers/s07-150-02.pdf

Ask groups to compose a list of low-level cognitive questions to probe students’ understanding. Then ask them to develop around five questions that test students’ ability to evaluate, probe and analyse ideas in the text (question A3 on the linked question paper would provide a steer).

If you consider using English subject tasks too subject-specific, then ask heads of subjects to come prepared with a short text students in their subject would be asked to read at some point and a likely examination/classwork task connected to it. Give each group a chance to feed back with examples of low and higher-level cognitive questions connected to their texts.

Task 4 (optional): 30 minutes
Show this 15-minute video at www.teachers.tv/videos/secondary-assessment-effective-questioning, which charts the successful strategies four different secondary teachers have used in science, history and maths lessons.

Ask groups to spend 10 minutes discussing what they have seen and see if any of the strategies used by those teachers could be used in their classrooms.

Ask subject leaders or second in departments to feed back to the whole staff group to suggest ways that questioning works best in their subject area. Draw out, for example, how questioning probes pupils’ predictions in science experiments, allows pupils to infer and deduce in the English classroom or challenge standard perceptions in history lessons. Draw together views and lead a discussion on how subjects can adopt questioning techniques from each other.

Alternatively, ask a subject leader from a department that has used questioning well in recent lesson observations to lead the plenary by modelling a mini lesson on their subject to demonstrate questioning in action.

Plenary: 5 minutes
Ask each group to consider how they can adapt what they have seen during this session to their own teaching in the following week. Ask them to feed back two ideas they will take forward or trial. Offer to collate responses into a list of questioning tips which you will upload to your VLE.

Suggestions

  • The session could be used as part of your school’s NQT induction programme, staff coaching programme or menu of CPD sessions on specific teaching and learning strategies.

What next?

Read the University of Southampton work www.pgce.soton.ac.uk/IT/Teaching/Questioning/ for further ideas and theory.

Training session: Using effective questioning techniques

Josephine Smith is vice-principal of a Leicestershire secondary school

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