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June 1, 2008
Vol. 65
No. 9

Asking Good Questions

Understanding questioning strategies and practicing with a peer can improve teachers' questioning skills.

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Since the days of Socrates, asking questions to assess student understanding has been a core component of teaching and learning. Today, verbal questioning is so prevalent in education that it's difficult to picture a classroom in which a teacher isn't asking questions. In fact, researchers note that verbal questioning is second only to lecturing as the most common instructional practice (Black, 2001). Teachers ask about 300–400 questions per day and as many as 120 questions per hour.
However, teachers often use verbal questioning merely as an organizational tool—to check students' class work and homework, review and summarize lessons, and evaluate students' learning (Black, 2001; Goodman & Berntson, 2000; Wilen, 1985). But verbal questioning has the potential to do much more. It can motivate students to pay attention and learn, develop students' thinking skills, stimulate students to inquire and investigate on their own, synthesize information and experiences, create a context for exploring ideas, and enhance students' cumulative knowledge base (Black, 2001; Goodman & Berntson, 2000; Hyman, 1974).

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Three Question Taxonomies

Most teachers ask questions that require students to merely recall knowledge or information rather than use higher-order thinking skills (Redfield & Rousseau, 1981; Wilen, 2001). Teachers can improve their ability to ask questions of different cognitive levels by familiarizing themselves with question taxonomies, which classify questions on the basis of the mental activity or intellectual behavior required to formulate an answer (Morgan & Schreiber, 1969). As they answer questions at different cognitive levels—especially higher levels—students develop critical-thinking and communication skills.

Bloom's Taxonomy

The most famous question taxonomy was designed by Benjamin Bloom and his associates in 1956. Called Bloom's Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain, or, more commonly, Bloom's Taxonomy, it comprises six levels of intellectual behavior. Each question level requires a greater amount of mental activity to formulate an answer than the previous level.
  • The first level—Knowledge—asks students to recall information. ("Name the three branches of government.")
  • The second level—Comprehension—asks students to put information in another form. ("Write the chemical equation for water.")
  • The third level—Application—asks students to apply known facts, principles, or generalizations to solve a problem. ("Use the Euclidean algorithm to find the greatest common divisor of 42 and 100.")
  • The fourth level—Analysis—asks students to identify and comprehend elements of a process, communication, or series of events. ("Compare and contrast a capitalist economic system with a socialist economic system.")
  • The fifth level—Synthesis—requires students to engage in original creative thinking. ("Write a script for a television commercial highlighting the dangers of global warming.")
  • The sixth level—Evaluation—asks students to determine how closely a concept or idea is consistent with standards or values. ("After examining criticism of the U.S. immigration system and proposals for change, which proposed change do you think would be the most democratic? Defend your choice.")

The Revised Taxonomy

Developed by some of the same people who created Bloom's Taxonomy, the Revised Taxonomy is, as its title suggests, a revision of the original Bloom's Taxonomy (Krathwohl, 2002). The Revised Taxonomy renamed some of the original categories—Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation—and changed them all to verb forms to reflect their more familiar use as part of education objectives. The revised categories are Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating, and Creating.
The biggest difference between Bloom's Taxonomy and the Revised Taxonomy is in the latter's reliance on subcategories. The subcategories provide greater flexibility and responsiveness to the cognitive complexity of the activity. For example, the category Applying requires greater mental activity than Understanding, but "explaining" is a high subcategory of the Understanding category, and "executing" is a low subcategory of the Applying category even though explaining is a more complex activity than executing.

Gallagher and Ascher's Questioning Taxonomy

In Gallagher and Ascher's hierarchical taxonomy (1963), four different categories describe question levels:
  • A cognitive-memory question requires only simple processes like recognition, rote memory, or selective recall to formulate an answer. ("Name a novel written by Stephen King.")
  • Convergent thinking requires analyzing and integrating data to formulate an answer. There is only one correct answer for questions at this level. ("Which is the better temperature setting for a home freezer: -2° Celsius or -2° Fahrenheit?")
  • Divergent thinking requires a response using independently generated data or a new perspective on a given topic. There is more than one correct answer for such questions. ("Write two different equations for which -5 is the solution. One should be a one-step equation, and the other should be a two-step equation.")
  • Evaluative thinking, the highest question level in this taxonomy, deals with matters of judgment, value, and choice. ("What should be done to improve our health care system? Explain your answer.")

Question Sequencing and Patterns

Just as teachers rarely use the higher-cognitive-level questions in these taxonomies, most teachers rarely use question sequencing, in which each question builds on the answer to the previous question (Wragg & Brown, 2001). Researchers studying teachers' questioning patterns found that 53 percent of the questions that teachers asked stood alone, and 47 percent were part of a sequence of two or more questions. Of this 47 percent, only 10 percent were a part of a sequence having four or more questions (Wragg & Brown, 2001).

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Understanding the following question sequences and patterns provides teachers direction and structure for their questions, helps clarify for students what teachers expect of them, and fosters a climate of meaningful classroom dialogue leading to enhanced thinking and learning.

Extending and Lifting

This questioning pattern involves asking a number of questions at the same cognitive level—or extending—before lifting the questions to the next higher level (Taba, 1971). For example, a mathematics teacher reviewing a chapter on geometric figures might ask the following series of questions: "What are the features of geometric points? What is a geometric line? What is a geometric plane? An angle divides a plane into what two regions? What objects in this classroom could be represented by points, lines, and planes?" The first four questions are all at the same cognitive level (extending); the fifth question requires students to think at a higher level (lifting).

Circular Path

This pattern involves asking a series of questions which eventually lead back to the initial position or question (Brown & Edmondson, 1989). A classic example of this circular path pattern is, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" A classroom example of this might be the question, "Were Hitler's actions against the Jews a manipulation of—or a reaction to—people's prejudice? Explain."

Same Path

This questioning pattern involves asking questions at the same cognitive level (Brown & Edmondson, 1989). For example, a physics teacher questioning students about motion and speed could ask the following: "What is motion? What is speed? What is instantaneous speed? What is constant speed?" This pattern typically uses all lower-level, specific questions.

Narrow to Broad

This pattern involves asking lower-level, specific questions followed by higher-level, general questions (Brown & Edmondson, 1989; Wilen, 2001). For example, a history teacher discussing events leading up to the U.S. Civil War could ask the following narrow-to-broad series of questions: "What is a writ of habeas corpus? Why did Lincoln suspend habeas corpus and order the arrest of Baltimore's mayor, the police chief, and members of the Maryland legislature? Did Lincoln have the right to do this? Why or why not? Describe other scenarios in which you believe that the government should suspend individual civil liberties for the greater good."

Broad to Narrow

The broad-to-narrow—or funneling—question sequence begins with low-level, general questions followed by higher-level, specific questions (Brown & Edmondson, 1989; Wilen, 2001). It is the opposite of the narrow-to-broad questioning pattern.
For example, a teacher could ask the following broad-to-narrow questions about ecology and the environment: "What is ecology? What are ecosystems? What are some ways ecosystems can change due to nature? Explain how 'succession' affects an ecosystem. How did Rachel Carson's Silent Springaffect perceptions about the relationship between environment and ecosystem?"

A Backbone of Questions with Relevant Digressions

In this sequence, the focus is not on the cognitive level of the questions but on how closely they relate to the central theme, issue, or subject of the discussion (Brown & Edmondson, 1989). For example, in a lesson on visual literacy, an English teacher might ask the following sequence of questions about a photograph: "What kinds of people are pictured in the photograph? What do you notice about their facial expressions? About their clothing? Where do you think the photograph was taken? Explain. What mood or feeling does the photograph create? Explain."

The Classroom Observation

Colleague classroom observations can develop and strengthen teachers' verbal questioning skills. Teachers work in pairs observing each other and being observed leading classroom discussions. (See "<XREF TARGET="observing">Observing in the Classroom</XREF>" to learn how two teachers used this process.) To record their observations, teachers should use a classroom observation instrument that accurately depicts the classroom seating configuration (see fig.1).

Figure 1. Classroom Observation Instrument

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Note: An observing teacher uses this form to record questioning practices, noting the type of question(s) each student answered in the square corresponding to that student's seat. A blank pdf version you can print out and use for your own observations is available here.

To facilitate the process, partners should get together for a pre-observation conference. There, the teacher being observed writes out the questions and question sequences—the question script—that he or she will use during the lesson. During the observation, the observing teacher is responsible for keeping track of the number of questions asked, judging the cognitive level of each question, indicating which student answered each question and whether he or she volunteered the answer, and recognizing the question pattern used.
For instance, if the first question asked is a cognitive-memory question that a student volunteers to answer, the observer would write "1CMV" in the space on the instrument that corresponds to the student's seating in the classroom. If the next question asked is a convergent-thinking question answered by a nonvolunteering student, the observer would write "2CTN" in the appropriate space on the chart. Observers also label question sequences. For example, if the first question sequence is narrow to broad, the observer would label it "1NB."
Several strategies can facilitate this activity. At the pre-observation conference, colleagues can agree on a formal observation for a limited number of question sequences, perhaps one or two. This way, the teacher being observed doesn't have to write down all the questions that he or she plans to ask during the observation. In addition, after the observer has taken notes on the agreed-on number of question patterns, he or she can sit back and try to recognize the cognitive levels of questions and question patterns without having to write everything down.
During the post-observation conference, team members should discuss whether the question script helped or hindered them and whether the students were able to follow the questioning pattern. Writing and following a question script is typically a new experience for teachers, who seldom think about questions to ask their students ahead of time. As teams become more familiar with the activity and begin to develop their verbal questioning skills, subsequent post-observation conferences can focus on such topics as pacing questions, transitioning to and from question sequences, and trying new question sequences.

Both Knowledge and Practice

Teachers can develop these skills through a combination of knowledge and practice. Once honed, verbal questioning becomes an efficient formative assessment tool, helps students make connections to prior knowledge, and stimulates cognitive growth.

Black, S. (2001). Ask me a question: How teachers use inquiry in the classroom. American School Board Journal, 188(5), 43–45.

Bloom, B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives, handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay.

Brown, G. A., &amp; Edmondson, R. (1989). Asking questions. In E. C. Wragg (Ed.), Classroom teaching skills (pp. 97–120). New York: Nichols.

Gallagher, J. J., &amp; Ascher, M. J. (1963). A preliminary report on analyses of classroom interaction.Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 9(1), 183–194.

Goodman, L., &amp; Berntson, G. (2000). The art of asking questions: Using directed inquiry in the classroom.The American Biology Teacher, 62(7), 473–476.

Hyman, R. T. (1974). Ways of teaching. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.

Krathwohl, D. R. (2002). A revision of Bloom's taxonomy: An overview. Theory into Practice, 41(4), 212–218.

Morgan, J. C., &amp; Schreiber, J. E. (1969). How to ask questions. Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies. (ERIC Document No. ED033887)

Redfield, D. L., &amp; Rousseau, E. W. (1981). A meta-analysis of experimental research on teacher questioning behavior. Review of Educational Research, 51(1), 237–245.

Taba, H. (1971). Teaching strategies and cognitive function in elementary school children. San Francisco: San Francisco State College.

Wilen, W. W. (1985). Questioning, thinking and effective citizenship. Social Science Record, 22(1), 4–6.

Wilen, W. W. (2001). Exploring myths about teacher questioning in the social studies classroom. The Social Studies, 92(1), 26–32.

Wragg, E. C., &amp; Brown, G. (2001). Questioning in the primary school. London and New York: Routledge Falmer.

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