Fall 2003


A Good Question?

Fred Hartline

Everyone does it. It's entirely natural, and almost everyone enjoys both the giving and the receiving if it's consensual rather than coercive. Some professors even have a reputation for being very good at it. What is it? Asking and answering questions!

Besides the fun, questioning can be a powerful educational tool in classes from 5 to 500, especially if it is used to spark interest, and engage the learner to grapple with and think out unfamiliar concepts or problems. I once asked a physics teacher colleague of mine to enumerate his reasons for asking questions in class. Months later, he brought me a list some 30 distinct purposes for the questions he asked!

All teachers use questions to check students' recall of previously dispensed information or problem solving techniques. Fewer teachers appreciate and fully take advantage of in-class questioning to motivate learning and build a cooperative, intellectually exciting learning environment, while at the same time receiving invaluable feedback about what and how well the students are learning. Most likely you already have a style of in-class questioning that you find comfortable and useful for you and your students, but just possibly there are a few tricks that you haven't tried which might add some sparkle to your teaching.

As one of the co-developers of the Classtalk® classroom response system, used for interactive questioning at more than 70 high schools, colleges and universities in its heyday, I have had the good fortune to sit in on quite a spectrum of physics lectures and classes over the past decade. What I report here isn't careful research, but rather an assemblage of tips, tricks and generalizations that are based on my own experiences and field observations.

What is an "effective" question? Everyone has slightly different criteria, but here are a few that I think are particularly important. A good question sparks student interest, and makes them think. It leads them to confront their preconceptions, starts productive discussions or debates among peers, helps refine understanding, boosts familiarity and confidence, and generates even more questions in the students' minds. Open-ended questions, and questions with more than one correct answer can be very stimulating, since real-world situations often have more than one workable solution, although such questions may be a bit more difficult to use in large classes.

What makes questioning particularly effective? Here are a few thoughts to consider:

Get every student to answer-- no "fence sitting" allowed

At the races, who gets the most involved-- someone who has placed a bet on a horse, or a passive observer with nothing invested in the outcome? In class, you want EVERY student to commit to an answer or answers, before the "truth" is unequivocally established. When only one student is called upon to answer, everyone else can play "wait-and-see." Students are great at ex post facto rationalization-- if you allow them to sit on the fence they'll think "I knew that" when the answer(s) emerge, and continue to believe "I know that" until a similar question on the next exam proves that they don't. In contrast, if they've actually "voted" on a choice, say by holding up a card, they'll remember their vote and whether or not they "got it right."

Preserve apparent anonymity-- no public humiliation

Students are very sensitive about appearing too dumb or too smart to their peers. If you want them to participate freely and voluntarily, take steps to make sure that their responses are at least quasi anonymous. It's OK to have a few students help count an ocean of responses, but you will get much better participation and a spirit of cooperation if you're careful not to expose individual answers. When only one person gets it wrong, he/she knows it without your pointing it out, and will try very hard not to be "the only one" in the future.

Give credit for any answer-- a bit more for getting it right

Sometimes you may have a class for which "credit" doesn't seem to matter, but for many students, credit means "it's worth doing." You want them ALL to answer, and to really think things through. It doesn't take much credit to motivate healthy participation, but without it you may have 10-20% of the class riding along with minimal commitment and effort.

Use intriguing questions and humorous scenarios

If a question seems important, interesting, funny, or even wacky, students are much more likely to relate to it. Work these ingredients into your questions-- hot topics, campus intrigue, fictional scenarios featuring classmates or people they know. Get beyond the bare facts of the question with entertaining unessential spice. Most young folks go for sugar frosted cereal in bright boxes!

Make the questions neither too hard nor too easy, ∼40-60% of your students should get it

This isn't a hard and fast rule. On occasion you'll want to stun them with a question that everyone gets wrong, or reward them with one that everyone gets right. But to start a good discussion in class and move all students forward in their understanding, it's best that the question be a bit of a stretch for most of them, but not so difficult that only a few are successful (or lucky) enough to answer it correctly. See below for the value of splitting the class!

Split the class? Should there be at least two popular answers?

There are great lessons in near unanimity, right or wrong, but people are naturally captivated by controversy and a close race. Which of the following is more likely to spark a lively in-class discussion and airing of student preconceptions: 1) a question that produces an undeniable dichotomy of opinion, or 2) a question with an overwhelming majority? What do you think?

Experiment with small group collaboration prior to answering

We discovered the benefits of small groups serendipitously, when we couldn’t afford enough response units for every student. It's marvelous for esprit. Despite occasional dysfunctional groups, most students really enjoy and learn from hashing out their options in a small group. Let them vote individually if they can't agree. The whole atmosphere of the classroom/lecture hall changes when the students get accustomed to brainstorming in small groups.

Use questions often enough that it's familiar and comfortable for the students

Two or three thought-provoking questions in a 45 minute period is plenty. In contrast if you only ask questions on Fridays, you may miss the near magical transformation of your class.

Never give away the answer before they’ve figured it out for themselves!
These days students are trained to memorize answers, rather than think. You have a precious "teachable moment" before they know the correct answer(s) for sure. Make the best of it. Once they know the accepted answers many will stop listening.

Inventing great questions is the supreme challenge. It also helps if the students understand why you keep asking them instead of just lecturing. They’ll really appreciate your Socratic forays when you show that you're listening by reteaching something they really didn't understand!

A few relevant references

Mazur, E. Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual, Prentice Hall, (1997).

Dufresne, R.J., W. J. Gerace, W. J. Leonard, J. P. Mestre, L. Wenk "Classtalk: A Classroom Communication System for Active Learning" J. Computing in Higher Education, 7, (1996)

Fred Hartline is a program leader in the Division of Educational Programs at Argonne National Laboratory, IL.