How Can We Make the 63,000 Questions We Ask in a Year Better?

How can we make the 63,000 questions we ask in a year better? We ask our students a lot of questions. Questioning is the most widely used teaching strategy behind the classic lecture. (See my previous blog post about the debate over lecturing in social studies.) Research tells us we ask 300-400 questions a day, and as many as 120 an hour. Average that out at 350 per day, for 180 days of instruction, and we’re at 63,000 in an academic year.

I’ve read different statistics over the years on the breakdown of all these questions. I took a Skillful Teaching course several years ago, and “80% are basic recall” stuck with me. This article says 60%, but another 20% are procedural, so my 80% still seems valid.

Basic recall questions like “What year did World War II begin?” are not inherently evil. Students need background knowledge to make skills-based instruction accessible. If we expect our students to think critically, to sharpen historical thinking skills, they need factual information. How can a student contextualize, a higher order skill, without knowing some basic information about a time period?

The issue is are we using basic recall questions as a stepping stone to higher order questions? We should be. And how we ask those higher order questions is just as important as the questions themselves.

Let’s take a higher order question like, “Did the New Deal dismantle or preserve the American market-based economy?” Quite the hefty question, which forces students to make claims supported by evidence. Sometimes we ask these hefty questions and then answer them ourselves. As I stated in my blog post about lecturing, we should be facilitating our students’ learning, not showcasing our own learning. Or we ask the question, and immediately allow the smarty-pants kid to answer it while the other students passively listen, or not. Even if we use an equitable calling strategy, research tells us the question is usually answered in 1-2 seconds, which does not allow enough processing time for all the students to think about the question and answer. We should allow 3-5 seconds before allowing a student to answer, referred to as “wait time 1,” and then another 2 seconds or so after it’s answered for more processing, referred to as “wait time 2.” Wait time as a teaching strategy has been around for decades, and is time and time again linked to positive outcomes:

  • The length and correctness of responses increase.
  • The number of “I don’t know” and no answer responses decreases.
  • The number of volunteered, appropriate answers by larger numbers of students greatly increases.
  • The scores of students on academic achievement tests tend to increase.

An even better approach, to prevent passive learning, is to “pair share” or “stop and jot” where ALL students engage in answering in a limited context before sharing broadly. I usually use these strategies to ensure that students do not have the option of hearing a question and thinking – I am not going to think about this because I am not going to answer. Thinking shouldn’t be voluntary in a lesson.

So if we should be asking basic recall and higher order questions, with wait time, and with equity, what else?

Questioning should be planned, and purposeful. Units and daily lessons should be framed around essential questions. Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, experts on essential questions, say an essential question

  1. Is open-ended; that is, it typically will not have a single, final, and correct answer.
  2. Is thought-provoking and intellectually engaging, often sparking discussion and debate.
  3. Calls for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction. It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone.
  4. Points toward important, transferable ideas within (and sometimes across) disciplines.
  5. Raises additional questions and sparks further inquiry.
  6. Requires support and justification, not just an answer.
  7. Recurs over time; that is, the question can and should be revisited again and again.

Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbook is organized around essential questions. The Great Depression chapter has an essential question, and each chapter segment and lesson is framed by an essential question. These questions communicate a learning objective for students, and the question should be answerable by the end of the unit, chapter, lesson, etc. Answering these questions also serve as a formative assessment of student learning.

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The essential question, and other higher order questions embedded in a lesson, also help drive what I think is the main goal of social studies instruction: inquiry. In the Great Depression chapter of Social Studies Techbook, students are asked to complete an investigation of the causes of the Great Depression. They corroborate multiple data sources framed around a “big picture” question. Lessons like these are carefully planned and executed, and the questions are not “on the fly,” which may lead to less effective questioning.

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Because I believe the best classroom questions are pre-planned, purposeful, and lead to skill development, I try to embed them in my presentations. All high school social studies classrooms in my district have Chromebooks for student use during lessons. So if I’m displaying a PowerPoint or Google Slide presentation, I can shoot it out to my students’ Chromebooks. Each individual student can not only view it, they can interact with it. So I can ask a really great question on the slide, and students can use the presenter note function to answer it, then share it back with me electronically. Not only did I ask a powerful, pre-planned question, I engaged every single student, and gathered formative assessment data to guide my instruction and provide feedback to students. Bingo!

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Check out Discovery Education’s “Spotlight on Strategies” series for even more tips on questioning and other effective instructional practices.


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  1. Sylvia Kopasz said:

    This is an awesome article! As I review my plans this new year, I will keep these universal ideas in mind when I plan my unit lessons.

    • Phil Sewall said:

      Totally agree Sylvia. Hope you’re enjoying your summer!

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