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September 2015 | Volume 73 | Number 1
Questioning for Learning
Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein
In his book 10% Happier (2014), Dan Harris observes that the little voice in our heads, our internal narrator, can sometimes be "creative, generous, or funny" and can at other times be a "malicious puppeteer," destroying our self-confidence (p. viii). The key to happiness, he argues, is redirecting this voice to become more encouraging and focused.
The same might be said for students: Helping them tame the voice in their heads while learning can make all the difference. Although teacher questioning techniques are important to student success, a large body of research suggests that good questions are even more important within the private world of students' minds.
The concept of self-questioning while learning has been around for quite some time. Self-questioning is considered a metacognitive strategy. It's the voice in our heads that assesses where we are with our learning. It says things like, Wait, I don't get this.
Generating this voice is something effective learners appear to do naturally. For example, if you're watching a science show on TV and hear an astronomer explain that much of the starlight in the night sky emanates from stars that may no longer exist, a little voice in your head might say, Wait, I don't get that as you grab the remote and back up the program.
Metacognitive self-questions help us connect what we're learning with our prior knowledge (Oh, now I remember—starlight travels at the speed of light), the process at the heart of all learning. They can also help us look for big ideas that guide our learning and connect it back to ourselves (The universe is unfathomably large and ever-expanding; I feel really small now). And they can lead to other questions that further guide learning (How exactly do astronomers measure the distance of faraway stars?).
In 1991, Alison King set out to see whether self-questioning, which had been demonstrated to effectively support reading comprehension, could have equally powerful effects on student comprehension of oral lectures. She wondered whether it would be too distracting for students to ask themselves questions while listening to a lecture. She also wondered whether students could internalize the strategy.
King trained a class of 9th graders to ask themselves higher-order comparison-contrast questions (like, How are Shintoism and Buddhism alike?); causal-relationship questions (How did the rise of the Shogun affect Japanese development and culture?); and analysis questions (Which king was best for England?) while listening to history lectures. She also gave them "question starters" to model the sort of questions they could ask themselves during lectures and taught them about metacognition, including how to ask themselves questions like, What do I still not understand about this?
After these students listened to a series of lectures, one group of trained students used the questions they had generated in cooperative-learning groups; another used the questions for individual self-reflection. A third group, the control group, had received no instruction on self-questioning before the lectures. They simply reviewed the lecture material independently or in unstructured peer groups.
All students were tested on comprehension and retention of the material immediately following their review period. The results were striking. Students who'd been taught to use self-questioning techniques answered an average of 88.7 percent questions correctly if they reviewed in a group and 81.7 percent if they reviewed independently. This compared with average scores of 72.8 and 64.2, respectively, for untrained students who had reviewed in groups or independently.
King's positive findings have been replicated with many other groups of students. Pate and Miller (2011), for example, applied King's ideas with high school vocational students and found training in self-questioning boosted student scores on a test about electrical circuits by, on average, 10 percentage points. A synthesis of 20 years of research on strategies for teaching 4th and 5th graders with learning disabilities found that teaching self-questioning was one of the most effective techniques (Wanzek, Wexler, Vaughn, & Ciullo, 2010).
One such approach, called TWA (Think before reading, think While reading, think After reading) had a positive effect size of .99 on students' abilities to assess main ideas, summarize, and retell narratives—an almost unheard-of result in education research (Mason, Snyder, Sukhram, & Kedem, 2006). Similarly, in Spain, an experiment that taught students with learning disabilities to engage in self-questioning to activate prior knowledge, clarify new words, and identify main ideas helped them outperform a control group by an effect size of 3.46 (Miranda, Villaescusa, & Vidal-Abarca, 1997)—another tremendous effect size.
Of seven strategies that the National Reading Panel's 2000 review of studies on reading comprehension identified as effective, two reflected student self-questioning—"comprehension monitoring, where readers learn how to be aware of their understanding of the material" and "question generation, where readers ask themselves questions about the various aspects of the story" (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000, p. 15).
One striking aspect of these studies is the limited training time required to produce large, lasting results. In King's study, for example, the intervention lasted 90 minutes. In Pate and Miller's study, students viewed a self-regulatory checklist, learned how to use it, and practiced using it with assistance from the teacher—a small investment of time to boost achievement by 10 percent (a full letter grade). Self-questioning techniques also appear to support knowledge retention.
Even more striking, perhaps, the technique itself seems to stick with students. In a second round of King's experiment, a teacher delivered a lecture with no prompts about self-questioning. Students who were taught the self-questioning technique demonstrated higher levels of comprehension on a test of this new material. Similarly, the TWA and Spanish studies found that the positive effects persisted for three weeks and two months, respectively, after the initial intervention.
In short, once students learned how to actively engage in self-questioning, they appeared to internalize the strategy—which might begin a virtuous circle. As students become better learners, they begin to see themselves as better learners, which, in turn, inspires greater confidence and engagement. As they begin to focus the voice in their heads, they replace self-doubt, distraction, and anxiety with a calm, reassuring voice that says, I can do this.
Harris, D. (2014). 10% happier: How I tamed the voice in my head, reduced stress without losing my edge, and found self-help that actually works—A true story. New York: HarperCollins.
King, A. (1991). Improving lecture comprehension: Effects of a meta-cognitive strategy. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 5(4), 331–346.
Mason, L. H., Snyder, K. H., Sukhram, D. P., & Kedem, Y. (2006). TWA + PLANS strategies for expository reading and writing: Effects for nine fourth-grade students. Exceptional Children, 73(1), 69–89.
Miranda, A., Villaescusa, M., & Vidal-Abarca, E. (1997). Is attribution retraining necessary? Use of self-regulation procedures for enhancing the reading comprehension strategies of children with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 30(5), 503–512.
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, DC: Author.
Pate, M. L., & Miller, G. (2011). Effects of regulatory self-questioning on secondary-level students' problem-solving performance. Journal of Agricultural Education, 52(1), 72–84.
Wanzek, J., Wexler, J., Vaughn, S., & Ciullo, S. (2010). Reading interventions for struggling readers in the upper elementary grades: A synthesis of 20 years of research. Reading and Writing, 23(8), 889–912.
Bryan Goodwin is president and CEO of McREL, Denver, Colorado. He is the author of The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day (ASCD, 2013). Heather Hein is a communications consultant at McREL.
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