Questioning is Your Friend

Presenters: Carol Bryant and Carl Reynolds, University of Wyoming




Questioning is one of the most natural ways to stimulate inquiry, inquisitiveness, and critical thinking about a problem or situation. Starting as soon as babies begin to talk, they drive their parents crazy and tickle their grandparents with the multitude of questions they ask. Unfortunately, through the formal schooling process, students lose much of that natural inquisitiveness with which they were born and develop the repetitive habit of rote recitation of facts, figures, and monosyllabic responses. By refining our questioning techniques and strategies, we, as instructors, can stimulate learners to inquire more deeply, think creatively of alternative solutions, and move into a higher mode of critical thinking and problem solving. Purposeful classroom questioning on the part of both instructors and students leads to more reflective oral and written classroom responses. Because college students are enculturated in a system that rewards correct responses to very low level questions, they often become unwilling to risk an expanded response to a question. That reluctance is reflected in their writing.

Both instructors and students need to play a role in elevating thought in the classroom. While low-level questions get a conversation started, higher-level questions provide opportunities for an extended response. A "who" or "what" question begs a one-word response, while a "what might", "what could", or "what if" question demands that students explore multiple possibilities. It is from the exploration of multiple possibilities that meaningful writing emerges. For an instructor to guide this process, it is necessary to develop purposeful questioning techniques, such as planning questions or teaching students to formulate higher level questions. Cooperative Learning & Critical Thinking: The Question Matrix (1991), published by Kagan Cooperative Learning, is a particularly helpful resource in promoting more thoughtful questioning.

Students also need to engage in the process of questioning. Through questioning, they are able to draw from past experience and knowledge to think of new ways to respond to or plan for future occurrences. Converting information from facts to questions requires different thought processes. It provides a means of manipulating information that enables students to write more critically about what they have learned.

Students derive many benefits from increasingly challenging questions. When they practice higher orders of questioning, students can improve their


  • speaking and listening skills,
  • critical thinking,
  • thinking framework,
  • understanding,
  • teamwork,
  • sensitivity/politeness,
  • honesty/integrity,
  • ability to accept criticism,
  • responsibility and initiative,
  • desire for learning,
  • scholarly writing,
  • and knowledge of how to learn.

It is also important for you as an instructor to plan how questions will be used in your classroom. While questioning is often used to further explore students' responses or to generate a classroom discussion, the deliberate planning and use of increasingly complex questions makes instruction more purposeful. An evaluation of the effectiveness of your questions might be made by tape-recording a class session or two, then analyzing the complexity of the questions actually asked, as well as how much class time was devoted to questions.

Questions with more than one right answer or follow-up questions to a student's initial response generate far deeper thinking than "yes-no" questions or rote-memory responses. Such questions require more thought on the part of students; it is, therefore, a good idea to allow at least 5-10 seconds of "wait time" so that students can first consider the question, then formulate a response. Trick questions intended to entrap students or to catch them off guard dishonor both the learners and the instructor. Far better for the sake of learning to have groups of students generate questions or share possible responses with one another. Your positive responses and reflective consideration of student responses will help them take more risks as learners.

Writing is a scary process to many people, students included. Just as time and the teaching of good questioning are necessary to improve student responses, so too are time and instructor acceptance critical in encouraging thoughtful student writing. Your students may be more accustomed to instructors' criticism of their writing, including mechanics, than they are to thoughtful responses to the ideas they have expressed. Letting students know what you expect in each paper by providing model papers and rubrics relieves them of having to guess your expectations. Far from generating a series of copy-cat papers, two or three examples of exceptional papers frees the students from worries about form and length and lets them concentrate their energies on content. As their confidence and trust level increases, you may find that responding to their ideas with your own, as well as with additional questions may deepen student understanding and the meaningfulness of your course.

There are a number of ways beyond standard papers to increase students' ability to ask and answer questions in both oral and written forms. One easy solution is to have students periodically respond in short written exercises to a given question. The process of writing deepens their responses and may provide a basis for improved class dialogue. Periodically collecting these responses also lets you evaluate what course material the students understand well and what might need to be revisited. An interactive dialogue journal in which students and instructors respond to one another in written form develops trust and lets the students express concerns or ask questions they might not otherwise share. The time spent responding to such journals might well be rewarded in terms of greater student learning and more enjoyable teaching. Finally, most of us like a good story. When possible, letting students combine course content and research with personal experience strengthens learning, involvement, and, often, student writing.

Questioning does serve an important role in a writing course. To write our way to understanding is a skill we value as instructors and a gift we can offer our students.

Contact Information:
Carol J. Bryant
University of Wyoming
Secondary Education
McWhinnie Hall 201
Laramie, WY 82071