Research Link / Asking Students the Right Questions - ASCD
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March 1, 1997

Research Link / Asking Students the Right Questions

The Division of Teaching and Learning at Educational Testing Service, known for its leadership in educational testing and research, will each month provide readers of Educational Leadership a short research summary on a topic related to the magazine's theme. This column is the result of a new collaboration between ASCD and ETS to improve the quality of teaching and learning.

It is very easy for us as teachers to recite our own knowledge, get assent at each point from students, but never let the students think even a bit on their own (Morse 1994, p. 277).

One challenge facing teachers is the need to frequently check and respond to their students' level of understanding, while at the same time keeping the students actively engaged in learning. A common strategy, particularly among inexperienced teachers, is to ask students closed questions that have only a single correct answer (Sigel 1990). Yet a recited answer can be a relatively poor indicator of a student's true understanding.

Although such questions may help to keep students on task, they do not necessarily keep them engaged; an on-task student may be passively listening without thinking, whereas an engaged student interacts with the topic and helps to construct his or her own learning, often through active dialogue, not rote responses (Bruner 1996).

No single approach to questioning works best in every classroom. Teachers must consider numerous factors—such as the learning goals for the lesson, the context in which questions are asked, and the strength of the students' responses—and adapt their questioning techniques accordingly (Barden 1995). Thus, the best questioners have a repertoire of techniques to select in response to their ever-changing classroom environment. They use these techniques not only for student assessment, but also to engage students in higher-order thinking, pique their curiosity, and spur them to consider new possibilities (Danielson 1996).

HRASE (History, Relationships, Applications, Speculation, and Explanation) is one potential technique (Penick, Crow, and Bonnstetter 1996). The HRASE technique starts with an easy question to build the student's confidence, then quickly progresses to more thought-provoking questions that require the student to generate ideas. The history question might simply ask the student what happened in a science lab. The relationships question then asks the student to compare the lab experiment to other topics or ideas. Next, the student is asked to apply the knowledge gained from the comparison, then make some thoughtful speculations, and, finally, explain the results of the applications and speculations. In this last step, one variation requires the student to use simple vocabulary; if a student can explain a topic clearly and with detail without resorting to technical terms, he or she likely has a strong grasp of the material.

Effective questioning can also help students to make connections and uncover patterns. Menke and Pressley (1994) identify "elaborative interrogation" as a useful technique for encouraging students to activate prior knowledge. In this model, instead of asking questions with a single right answer, teachers ask "Why?"; rather than ask when the U.S. Civil War was fought, an elaborative interrogation would ask why it occurred. Menke and Pressley cite several research studies showing that this type of question clearly improves students' ability to remember what they have learned.

For example, Wood, Pressley, and Winne (1990) had 4th-8th graders read six-sentence stories about animals while listening to tapes of the stories read aloud. A control group of students was shown just the stories, and an elaborative interrogation group was shown the stories with "Why?" questions posed after each sentence. Following a break to nullify short-term memory effects, the students were asked 54 new questions about the animals in the stories. On average, the control group students answered 26 questions (48 percent) correctly, but the elaborative interrogation students answered 32 (59 percent) correctly.

Asking a truly thought-provoking question can be a learning experience in itself. One alternative to having students explain their understanding is to have them formulate their own questions. In a six-week unit on the Holocaust (Busching and Slesinger 1995), the teacher encouraged students to ask questions by first sharing her own questions on the topic. Over the course of the unit, important student questions were added to a large list. The class then studied the list as a group and discussed which questions they felt were most important in developing a richer understanding of the Holocaust. Not only did the experience lead to thoughtful discussion, but it also generated student interest in designing final projects that addressed the questions.

Perhaps the best questions have no clear-cut answers. The research literature suggests that while no single questioning technique works optimally in all situations, the best techniques focus on stimulating students' (and teachers') thought processes, not on producing an unalienable truth.

Further, the best questions are born of genuine curiosity, not classroom management concerns. Zachlod (1996) cites Paley's example of a man who worked wonders with 5-year-olds. His secret? "He was truly curious about what the children thought and said. His questions had no preconceived answers, allowing him to observe how those 5-year-olds intuitively went about solving problems" (p. 52). Curiosity and learning are contagious. Asking the right questions can go a long way toward helping teachers and students learn from one another.


Barden, L.M. (1995). "Effective Questioning and the Ever-Elusive Higher-Order Question." American Biology Teacher 57, 7: 423-426.

Bruner, J. (1996). The Culture of Education Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Busching, B.A., and B.A. Slesinger (1995). "Authentic Questions: What Do They Look Like? Where Do They Lead?" Language Arts 72 , 5: 341-351.

Danielson, C. (1996). Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD.

Menke, D. J., and M. Pressley (1994). "Elaborative Interrogation: Using 'Why' Questions to Enhance the Learning from Text." Journal of Reading 37, 8: 642-645.

Morse, R.A. (1994). "The Classic Method of Mrs. Socrates." Physics Teacher 32, 5: 276-277.

Penick, J.E., L.W. Crow, and R.J. Bonnstetter (1996). "Questions Are the Answers." Science Teacher 63, 1: 26-29.

Sigel, I.E. (1990). "What Teachers Need to Know About Human Development." In What Teachers Need to Know: The Knowledge, Skills, and Values Essential to Good Teaching, edited by D. D. Dill and Associates. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wood, E., M. Pressley, and P.H. Winne (1990). "Elaborative Interrogation Effects On Children's Learning of Factual Content." Journal of Educational Psychology 82: 741-748.

Zachlod, M.G. (1996). "Room to Grow." Educational Leadership 54, 1: 50-53.

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