Asking Questions (Encouraging students to ask questions)

11 12 2011

Quotes on Questions

Questions are the creative acts of intelligence.

Frank King

If you increase the quantity and quality of the questions you ask by a little bit each day, you can move your life in a new direction.  You can get more of what you want and need. In fact, you can get more out of everything you do when you develop the asking habit.

Dorothy Leeds, The Seven Powers of Questions.


Learning to use a computer isn’t nearly as important as learning how to ask smart questions.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Neil Postman, author and linguist

We think the best way to seem smart is to know all the answers, when in fact the best way to seem smart is to ask the right questions.  People admire others who show that they are willing to learn what they do not know.

Dorothy Leeds, The Seven Powers of Questions.

All the answers we ever get are responses to questions.

Neil Postman


The questions we ask determine what we think about.

Dorothy Leeds, The Seven Powers of Questions.


Successful people do very little talking; they spend most of their time asking questions and listening so that they can gather enough information to make decisions and solve problems.

Dorothy Leeds, The Seven Powers of Questions.


Sometimes the questions you ask are more important than the answers you get.

Rabbi Matthew D. Gewirtz

It is better to know some of the questions than all the answers.

James Thurber

Growing is about learning and learning is about adventure.  Some of the greatest adventures you can ever have are when you know how to ask smart questions.  The joy of understanding can only be derived from smart and sensitive questions and empathetic listening.

Dale Moss, director of sales worldwide, British Airways


No one really becomes a fool until he stops asking questions.

Charles Steinmetz, electrical engineer and inventor


The important thing is not to stop questioning.  Curiosity has its own reason for existing.  One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality.  It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day.  Never lose a holy curiosity.

Albert Einstein


Ways to Encourage Questions

A teacher cannot encourage questions solely by standing at the front of the class and asking, “Are there any questions?” There is so much pressure forcing students NOT to ask questions that it cannot be overcome by this single act.

The only way to encourage questions is to create a complete “question-asking environment” in the classroom. You must encourage questions constantly, using a variety of techniques.

The most important technique that you can use to encourage questions is to always answer questions kindly. Even if you have answered the same question three times already, the fourth answer should be friendly, and should include a new example. The student may have been copying something down, or may have been daydreaming. But normally questions occur multiple times because students cannot understand the language you are speaking. Until the students understand the vocabulary, all of those answers will be completely meaningless. A student asking a question for the fourth time has just come to understand the vocabulary him/herself, and only then can understand the answer when you give it.

Here are some other ways to promote questions:

*    Make students who ask questions feel like they have done you a favor by asking a question. Reward    students for asking a question. Try saying, “That’s a great question” for every new question you get.

*   Leave gaps for questions that are long enough for students to actually formulate questions. Rustle through your notes or drop a pencil or erase the board – leave good sized gaps throughout your lectures.

*   Do not insult students, even subtly, when answering a question. Take a tape recorder to class one day, and then play it back and listen to how you answer questions. How do you come across? Would you like to be talked to in that way? Put yourself in your students’ shoes. Also listen to the answers you give – do you answer the questions?

*   Use questionnaires at the end of class. Ask your students to write down one thing that they don’t understand from that day’s class. Then go over those questions at the beginning of the next class. Once students realize that everyone has questions, they will be more inclined to ask questions vocally during class.

*   Have your students work problems during class. Put a problem on the board and let students work it in their notes. Then show them the right answer. You can do examples all day, but nothing is learned until the students do a problem themselves. It shows them exactly what they don’t understand, and this often leads to questions.

*   Make lists of questions that you get asked during your office hours, and then repeat those questions to everyone during the next class.

*   Give homework assignments that force students to think about and question the material, and make time available in class to answer homework questions. If a homework assignment generates no questions, then it is probably useless.

*   Use tests to find out where you have been unclear, and where questions remain. A well designed and well graded test tells you as much about your teaching as it does about your students.

*   Introduce a difficult concept for 5 minutes at the end of class. Then cover the concept fully during the next class. Students will have a day or two to become familiar with the concept, and will be more inclined to ask questions when they see it again.


Asking questions about the concepts is an important aspect instudent learning (Balzer et al., 1973). Evidence exists linking students’ retention of content to question generation (Davey and McBride, 1986;King, 1989).

Harper et al. (2003) report that students who askdeeper-level questions directed at concepts, their coherence,and their range of application exhibited higher conceptual achievement.Asking effective questions also has been linked to improvement in students’ problem-solving abilities (King, 1991; Dori and Herscovitz, 1999).

Marbach-Ad and Sokolove (2000) note that independent learningis promoted by having students ask questions. Asking meaningful questions requires students to first consider information being presented in a lecture or textbook, determine areas of confusion,and structure a question to help clarify their thinking (Miyake and Norman, 1979).These metacognitive acts demand mental engagement and promotelearning. In addition, the questions that students ask helpthe instructor better understand students’ thinking, thereby making possible instructional decisions that are better tailored to their needs (Heady, 1983; Etkina, 2000; Etkina and Harper, 2002).For example, knowing the difficulties students are having helps an instructor provide analogies, clarification, examples, andquestions that assist students in understanding the content.

Learning to ask effective questions is also crucial for students intent on someday conducting research in the natural sciences.Many scientists and philosophers of science have emphasized that asking questions is at the heart of progress in science.Einstein and Infeld (1938) wrote, “To raise new questions, newpossibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requirescreative imagination and marks real advance in science” (p.93). However, science education too often emphasizes answersand ignores the importance of questions. Barnard et al. (1993)summarize this in the following way: “Asking the right questions in the right way is a fundamental skill in scientific enquiry,yet in itself it receives surprisingly little explicit attention in scientific training” (p. vii). Thus, a crucial focus in biology instruction, and perhaps science instruction generally, should be to teach students how to ask effective questions and to make question asking an integral part of the learning experience.

Student-generated questions are often rare in large-format classes,and they frequently come from a minority of the students. Unfortunately,some instructors find students’ questions in large classes tobe annoying or potentially embarrassing, leading to active discouragementof student questions (Penner, 1984). When students do ask questions,they often address matters not related to deeply understandingscience concepts (e.g., “What will be on the exam?”, “How will the assignment be assessed?”, “Would you repeat that?”).

Given the learning potential inherent in student-generated questions,many postsecondary instructors would like to encourage all studentsto ask effective questions that will aid both teaching and learning.This is evident in literature addressing student questions.For example, Harper et al. (2003) used structured weekly reports to encourage students to pose questions about physics; yet,they relay that 30% of the reports contained no questions. Marbach-Ad and Sokolove (2000)provided a question classification scheme to students in a traditionalinstructional setting and in an active-learning setting. In the active-learning class, students were required to pose two original questions on each of three different assignments. The questions were graded and returned with written comments. Students in the traditional setting were not required to ask questions,and they did not receive individual feedback on how to improve their questions. Marbach-Ad and Sokolove (2000) reported thatstudents in the active-learning setting learned to ask betterquestions. Exley and Dennick (2004) provide a range of useful approaches for making large “lecture” classes more interactive,but they suggest no strategies for stimulating student generationof questions. Penner (1984) emphasizes the importance of encouraging students to ask questions (p. 193) but provides no strategies beyond being “welcoming” of student questions to accomplishthis goal.

Despite some success reported in encouraging and improving student questioning in large-format classes, further efforts are sorely needed. Understandably, limited class time severely curtails the number of questions that can be addressed. However, evenin the Harper et al. (2003) study where students were encouraged to pose questions in weekly reports, almost one third of thereports did not include questions. In the active-learning settingthat Marbach-Ad and Sokolove (2000) studied, time devoted toimproving students’ questions, grading students’ questions,and providing written feedback undoubtedly motivated and helpedstudents ask more research-oriented questions, but it consumesmore time in and out of class than many instructors of large-formatclass settings would be willing to devote.



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