A New Perspective: Asking Questions that Spark Student Engagement

Recently I had the opportunity to observe three teachers working on the same lesson. None of the lessons were outstanding. Nor were any of them horrible. Each teacher had different strengths and weaknesses.  There were strong differences in student engagement, uses of technology and how they positioned themselves in the classroom.  However, the biggest difference was how they questioned.  What the observations turned into was a practice in how to question in a classroom to engage students in learning.

Too often teachers are stuck asking the questions that clearly do not need asking. For example, asking Algebra 2 students “What is 6×8” while working out a more complex problem is probably the most common style of ridiculous questions I see. The math that the teacher is doing is complex, high level, and involves multiple steps yet the question we choose to ask is a math fact they learned in third grade. Many of the teachers, when asked why they chose to ask these questions immediately go to checking for engagement (in this case I think they mean paying attention), confidence, checking for understanding, etc… In every case I can only think “Wrong answer, wrong answer, wrong answer.” Maybe I expect more but then shouldn’t we all?

When asking questions its important to consider why we are questioning in addition to what we are questioning. Are you asking questions to confirm important facts or to engage students into discussion. Each are important but are done in very different manners. In the former, questioning is done as formative assessment. The goal is to probe students to explain concepts they should already know, to reflect on ideas that have already been discussed or to confirm accuracy of a procedure. In contrast, questioning to engage in a discussion is designed to deepen students understanding of a concept and occurs most frequently after the main concepts have been mastered. In all fairness I prefer the engaging questions before the main concepts have been introduced to encourage students to think. Regardless, the goal of a discussion is to encourage students to question their current understandings and consider alternative reasoning.

Questioning is an art form that is harnessed after many years of reflective practice. The connection to Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK) and questioning is direct. This connection can make a clean learning progression to better questioning. If your question leads to a single answer yes/no/correct/incorrect response your classroom is operating at a DOK 1 level or a very basic level of understanding. If your question needs a longer explanation or several students to supply portions of evidence with phrases like “I like how you started but can someone helps us take this farther” we are working in a DOK 2 world.  However, if you can access deep thinking such as asking each student to “choose a method or a position and be prepared to support your position with strong rationale” we are working in the much more rigorous and meaningful world of DOK 3. The key is not prompting students with a correct choice but a series of choices that all may lead to correct options depending on the path they choose.

Peter Sullivan and Pat Lilburn discuss questioning in the math classroom in their book Good Questions for Math Teaching. They present 3 mains features of effective questions. Good questions they require more than remember a fact or reproducing a skill. They allow students to learn by answering the questions, an there may several acceptable answers.  All these options sound a like like DOK 3.  The real issue is making up good questions.  Traditionally, math teachers teach they way we have been taught.  This causes major issues because questioning for decades has been DOK 1.  Sullivan and Lilburn offer a simple 3 step process.

  1. Identify a topic
  2. Think of a typical question you would ask
  3. Adapt it to make a good question (This step can change to create a question based off the answer to your typical question.)

Personally, I believe this is a little simplistic to such a complicated process but in essence it is a workable structure.  If we are simplifying fractions we can always offer a basic fraction and ask, what is the simplified form.  However, going backwards and saying, name several fractions that could simplify to ______.  It switches the mode of thinking and offers students to explore.

How you question in the classroom should not be random nor forced. It should be planned and practiced. It should tie directly with your lesson goals and objectives. Then, your questioning needs to correlate with your levels of thinking. Most importantly, don’t ask questions you already know the answers to.  Students always read right through that.  Ask questions that show you want to know what they are thinking.  Then, you not only get the information and discussions you may want but they get the care they want.



    • Francie Snyder said:

      Questioning might not be a “new” perspective, but it is one that requires both time and practice. It is also one that in my opinion gets too little attention especially those on the higher level of Webb’s Depth of Knowledge or if those questions are asked students are not given the needed time to think. The truth is many of these questions have no right or wrong answer and that makes many educators uncomfortable. Evaluating right or wrong answers is easier to both instruct and evaluate. However, that leaves us with the important questions: What is the best way to evaluate our students? What is the effect on our students engagement, retention, and transference of skills? What is overall best for our students? Sure questioning and the Socratic Method might not be a “new” perspective, but maybe our conversations, implementation and evaluation of our questioning practice could be.

      • Mark Schommer said:

        I couldn’t agree more with this response. Just using a method isn’t enough. There are plenty of teachers who utilize a socratic method but do so in a very basic manner. The main emphasis is simple yet so complex. What question are we asking? Lets stop asking questions that have simple answers and start asking questions that force students to question their thoughts. That is where learning happens.

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