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Instructional Methods: Asking Questions


Why Question? The purposes of questioning

Teachers ask questions for a number of reasons, the most common of which are

  • to interest, engage and challenge students
  • to check on prior knowledge and understanding
  • to stimulate recall, mobilizing existing knowledge and experience in order to create new understanding and meaning
  • to focus students’ thinking on key concepts and issues
  • to help students to extend their thinking from the concrete and factual to the analytical and evaluative
  • to lead students through a planned sequence which progressively establishes key understandings
  • to promote reasoning, problem solving, evaluation and the formulation of hypotheses
  • to promote students’ thinking about the way they have learned

The kind of question asked will depend on the reason for asking it. Questions are often referred to as ‘open’ or ‘closed’.

Closed questions, which have one clear answer, are useful to check understanding during explanations and in recap sessions. If you want to check recall, then you are likely to ask a fairly closed question, for example ‘What is the grid reference for Great Malvern?’ or ‘What do we call this type of text?’

On the other hand, if you want to help students develop higher-order thinking skills, you will need to ask more open questions that allow students to give a variety of acceptable responses. During class discussions and debriefings, it is useful to ask open questions, for example ‘Which of these four sources were most useful in helping with this inquiry?’, ‘Given all the conflicting arguments, where would you build the new superstore?’, ‘What do you think might affect the size of the current in this circuit?’

Effective questioning: Summary of research

Research evidence suggests that effective teachers use a greater number of open questions than less effective teachers. The mix of open and closed questions will, of course, depend on what is being taught and the objectives of the lesson. However, teachers who ask no open questions in a lesson may be providing insufficient cognitive challenges for students.

Questioning is one of the most extensively researched areas of teaching and learning. This is because of its central importance in the teaching and learning process. The research falls into three broad categories:

  • What is effective questioning?
  • How do questions engage students and promote responses?
  • How do questions develop students’ cognitive abilities?

Questioning is effective when it allows students to engage with the learning process by actively composing responses. Research (Borich 1996; Muijs and Reynolds 2001; Morgan and Saxton 1994; Wragg and Brown 2001) suggests that lessons where questioning is effective are likely to have the following characteristics:

  • Questions are planned and closely linked to the objectives of the lesson.
  • The learning of basic skills is enhanced by frequent questions following the exposition of new content that has been broken down into small steps. Each step should be followed by guided practice that provides opportunities for students to consolidate what they have learned and that allows teachers to check understanding.
  • Closed questions are used to check factual understanding and recall.
  • Open questions predominate.
  • Sequences of questions are planned so that the cognitive level increases as the questions go on. This ensures that students are led to answer questions which demand increasingly higher-order thinking skills, but are supported on the way by questions which require less sophisticated thinking skills.
  • Students have opportunities to ask their own questions and seek their own answers. They are encouraged to provide feedback to each other.
  • The classroom climate is one where students feel secure enough to take risks, be tentative and make mistakes.

The research emphasizes the importance of using open, higher-level questions to develop students’ higher-order thinking skills. Clearly there needs to be a balance between open and closed questions, depending on the topic and objectives for the lesson. A closed question, such as ‘What is the next number in the sequence?’, can be extended by a follow-up question, such as ‘How did you work that out?’

Overall, the research shows that effective teachers use a greater number of higher- order questions and open questions than less effective teachers.However, the research also demonstrates that most of the questions asked by both effective and less effective teachers are lower order and closed. It is estimated that 70–80 percent of all learning-focused questions require a simple factual response, whereas only 20–30 percent lead students to explain, clarify, expand, generalize or infer. In other words, only a minority of questions demand that students use higher-order thinking skills.

It doesn’t matter how good and well-structured your questions are if your students do not respond. This can be a problem with shy students or older students who are not used to highly interactive teaching. It can also be a problem with students who are not very interested in school or engaged with learning. The research identifies a number of strategies which are helpful in encouraging student response. (See Borich 1996; Muijs and Reynolds 2001; Morgan and Saxton 1994; Wragg and Brown 2001; Rowe 1986; Black and Harrison 2001; Black et al. 2002.)

Student response is enhanced where:

  • there is a classroom climate in which students feel safe and know they will not be criticized or ridiculed if they give a wrong answer
  • prompts are provided to give students confidence to try an answer
  • there is a ‘no-hands’ approach to answering, where you choose the respondent rather than have them volunteer
  • ‘wait time’ is provided before an answer is required. The research suggests that 3 seconds is about right for most questions, with the proviso that more complex questions may need a longer wait time. Research shows that the average wait time in classrooms is about 1 second (Rowe 1986; Borich 1996)

Lower-level questions usually demand factual, descriptive answers that are relatively easy to give. Higher-level questions require more sophisticated thinking from students; they are more complex and more difficult to answer. Higher-level questions are central to students’ cognitive development, and research evidence suggests that students’ levels of achievement can be increased by regular access to higher-order thinking. (See Borich 1996; Muijs and Reynolds 2001; Morgan and Saxton 1994; Wragg and Brown 2001; Black and Harrison 2001.)

When you are planning higher-level questions, you will find it useful to use Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives (Bloom and Krathwohl 1956) to help structure questions that will require higher-level thinking. Bloom’s taxonomy is a classification of levels of intellectual behavior important in learning. The taxonomy classifies cognitive learning into six levels of complexity and abstraction.

Bloom researched thousands of questions routinely asked by teachers and categorized them. His research, and that of others, suggests that most learning- focused questions asked in classrooms fall into the first two categories, with few questions falling into the other categories which relate to higher-order thinking skills.


Effective question strategies capture students' attention, foster student involvement, and facilitate a positive, active learning environment. The following strategies for asking questions, responding to questions, and listening can help instructors get students to answer the questions asked in class in ways that promote learning. 

Asking questions

Establish expectations early

Start asking questions early in the course term to set the tone for an active learning environment.

Make it clear on the first day that you will be posing lots of questions and that you want the students to interact with you during a lecture. Let them know that you are interested in their ideas and that you encourage questions and comments throughout the class.

Let students know who will be called on and why

Will you wait for volunteers to answer questions? Or will you call on students — a practice sometimes referred to as "cold calling"? A study by Dallimore, Hertenstein, and Platt (2012) suggests that more students respond to questions voluntarily in classes with high cold-calling. If you plan to call on individuals, give students reasonable opt-out opportunities. Whatever your approach, let students know early in the term how questions and answers will be handled in class, and why. Be transparent about the learning outcomes you hope to foster through your question style.

Prepare meaningful questions in advance

Think about different questions that you can ask your students as well as different ways to ask them. The types of questions you ask should capture students' attention, arouse their curiosity, reinforce important material, and foster an active learning environment.

Consider drawing from Andrews' (1980) [PDF] model for effective questions. Questions that are high-level, divergent, structured, and single can generate student engagement:

  • High-level questions require analysis, synthesis, or evaluation and often begin with "why" or "how." Low-level questions, or questions that require rote memory or restating course content, can help you assess whether or not students understand the material, but high-level questions are more engaging.
  • Divergent questions have multiple plausible responses, which make them "safer" to answer. They also encourage high-level thinking (e.g., "What are some...?). Convergent questions only have one correct answer and are "riskier" (e.g., "What is the...?).
  • Structured questions point students toward a context or frame within which they can formulate an answer (e.g., "What are some of the chemical structures at work in this solution according to our model?)" Unstructured questions (e.g., "What's at work in this solution?") are wide open and as a result, can feel riskier to answer or can elicit responses outside of the relevant area. 
  • Single questions clearly let students know what you are asking them (e.g., "How can this principle clarify the problem for practitioners?"). Ask just one question at a time and refrain from adding others to qualify or clarify what you're trying to express. Asking multiple questions in a row (e.g., How can the application of this principle clarify the problem? What about the principle is useful to practitioners? Why would practitioners in the field turn to this principle?) can leave students uncertain of which direction to move in.

Asking "how" and "why" questions, avoiding questions with one correct answer (including yes/no questions), making sure your question is sufficiently specific, and asking only one question at a time will help foster high-level thinking and engagement in your classes.

Be cautious of asking "Are there any questions?"

This question and others like it (e.g., "Do you understand?") are often viewed by students as a "ritualistic" exercise on the instructor's part and are often met with silence. When asking the above, be sure that your question is genuine and has a clear purpose. If the question is met with no response, be prepared to use follow-up probing questions: "That means that if I were to ask you on an exam whether…, you would know how to answer?" This can elicit questions and concerns from students.

Responding to questions

Wait for the answer

Instructors often don't give students enough "wait time," or the amount of time an instructor waits after asking a question before giving the answer or moving on (Rowe, 1986). Waiting at least five seconds after asking a question can result in deeper student learning and a more dynamic classroom environment. Summarizing the research on wait times, Rumohr (2013) explains that "as the use of wait-time increases, so do:

  • The number of student responses.
  • The number of unsolicited but appropriate responses.
  • The use of higher levels of logical thinking.
  • The incidence of speculative thinking.
  • The number of questions students ask.
  • Students supporting their answers with evidence, logic, and details. 
  • Student-to-student communication and exchanges.
  • The number of positive responses.
  • The students’ confidence in their ability to construct explanations."  

Although the silence of wait times might seem awkward and uncomfortable, smile, wait patiently, scan the room, and endure at least a five to ten-second wait between your question and student responses.

Reach non-responsive students with wait times

Do the same students tend to respond to your questions? When the first person to raise their hand is always chosen to give an answer, it can communicate to students that the fastest answer is the best answer. In fact, we might prefer to encourage answers that take time to formulate — thoughtful, logical, or analytical answers. To avoid this, consider explaining to your students that you want everyone in the class to reflect on your question for a set period of time (between 20-60 seconds) and that you will then open the floor to answers. This strategy has the added benefit of giving less extroverted students and students with learning disabilities more time to prepare to participate. If this isn't a feasible strategy to use with all questions, consider using it once a class instead.

Encourage student-to-student interaction

Try to structure your comments to encourage students to interact with one another, "Mark, that's a good point. Could you relate that to what Sally said earlier?" Be prepared to facilitate recall of Sally's comment. When students are required to respond to one another, they become more attentive.

Admit when you don't know the answer

You'll lose more credibility by trying to fake an answer than by stating that you don't know. If you don't know the answer to a student's question, say so, "That's a good question. I'm not sure about that." Then follow up in one of the following ways:

  • ask the class if anyone knows the answer (be sure to verify any responses)
  • suggest resources that would enable the student to find the answer
  • volunteer to find the answer yourself and report back at the next class

Listening actively

Repeat questions/comments to the whole class

Repeating student questions or comments to the whole class ensures that everyone can hear the information. You may need to paraphrase a long or complex question/comment. When responding to student questions or comments, be sure to look around the room to include all students in your comments. A general rule of thumb is to respond by focusing 25 percent of your eye contact on the questioner and 75 percent on the rest of the class - this is the 25/75 rule.

Give clear signals to students that you are listening

Avoid interrupting a student's answer, even if you think the student is heading toward an incorrect answer. Also, be sure to maintain eye contact and use non-verbal gestures such as smiling and head nodding to indicate your attention and interest in the student's response.

Acknowledge all student contributions

Thank or praise the student for having asked a question or expressed a view with comments such as "Good question" and "Thank you for sharing that with us." Such comments reinforce the behavior of asking questions and volunteering information during class. Be sure, however, that you vary your reactions to students to avoid overusing the same comments. You can vary your responses in the following ways:

  • Restate what the speaker has said to reinforce the point.
  • Invite the student to elaborate: "Tell us more about that."
  • Ask for clarification: "What do you mean by that?"
  • Expand the student's contribution: "That's right, and to follow up on that point…"
  • Acknowledge the originality of the response: "That's a good point. I hadn't thought of that."
  • Connect the students' responses with other students' comments.



Andrews, John DW. "The verbal structure of teacher questions: Its impact on class discussion." POD Quarterly: The Journal of the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education. Paper 32. (1980).

Black, Paul. Testing: Friend or foe?: Theory and practice of assessment and testing. Routledge, 2002.

Black, Paul, and Christine Harrison. "Feedback in questioning and marking: The science teacher's role in formative assessment." School science review 82, no. 301 (2001): 55-61.

Muijs, Daniel, and David Reynolds. "Being or doing: The role of teacher behaviors and beliefs in school and teacher effectiveness in mathematics, a SEM analysis." In annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Seattle, WA, pp. 10-14. 2001.

Dallimore, Elise J., Julie H. Hertenstein, and Marjorie B. Platt. "Impact of cold-calling on student voluntary participation." Journal of Management Education 37, no. 3 (2013): 305-341.

Rowe, Mary Budd. "Wait time: Slowing down may be a way of speeding up!." Journal of teacher education 37, no. 1 (1986): 43-50.

Rumohr, Floyd. "Reflection and inquiry in stages of learning practice." Teaching Artist Journal 11, no. 4 (2013): 224-233.

Saxton, Juliana. Asking Better Questions: Teaching and Learning for a Changing World. Third edition. Markham, Ontario: Pembroke Publishers Limited, 2018.

Wragg, Edward Conrad, and George Brown. Questioning in the secondary school. London:, 2001.

Additional Reading

Almeida, Patrícia Albergaria. "Can I ask a question? The importance of classroom questioning." Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences 31 (2012): 634-638.

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