Teaching by Questioning

Posted by @BillByers on March 16, 2014, 8:54 p.m.

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Although questioning is usually associated with assessment it can also be very effective at stimulating learning, and is probably the simplest and most flexible approach to increasing student input into lectures. Carefully selected and focused questions, interspersed in a lecture format can facilitate active involvement of the learner and are therefore likely to enhance the quantity and particularly the quality of learning. Such questions can contribute positively in at least four ways:

  1. They can promote both more active student involvement and variety in to the presentation of a lecture. Introducing question breaks provides contrast to the routine information transfer characteristic of many lectures. In general, learners tend to display decreasing attention to the lecture as time increases. However, questions that intervene can help learners to maintain higher levels of attention.
  2. They can help students to identify what is particularly important for them to concentrate on.
  3. They can stimulate learning by relating new information to what a student already knows.
  4. They can serve to indicate to students where gaps occur in their current knowledge and understanding and by generating disequilibrium in the minds of the learners can help to stimulate thought.

Questions can be helpful whether provided before or after the associated learning material. Questions presented prior to the learning material can serve to focus the mind of the learner on key concepts that are about to be developed, while post questioning provides opportunities to practice recall and retrieval and provide feedback about information already learned. Benefits of such retrieval practice appear to be greater where learners can correctly answer most of the questions as students quickly become disillusioned where success rates are low. Questions can be posed at the end of a lecture to try to stimulate thought prior to the next session.
Questions are most effective when they appear relevant to the students. Irrelevant questions are in fact likely to impede learning by distracting from the important concepts. Learning will only be improved, however, where students pay attention to the questions and attempt to answer them. Wait time, the time the lecturer leaves for students to answer before providing input is crucial. If this is too small, students will often wait for the teacher’s answer, rather than try to determine the answer themselves.
Post questions are likely to be most effective when they require students to retrieve information from long term memory in the same manner that is likely to be required for future performance in, for example, examinations or the workplace. Open-ended questions are therefore preferable to multiple choice questions where recognition rather than recall and retrieval is being tested. Questions that focus on higher order concepts rather than minutiae are also likely to promote more significant learning.
There is little doubt that questioning has great potential to promote learning within a lecture format, but there are also disadvantages. Questioning, and the use of adequate wait time, undoubtedly require time so the lecturer must balance the improved learning against the decreased coverage. A second major problem arises because of the reluctance of students to appear stupid in front of their peers by giving wrong answers. This is likely to be avoided by using audience response systems to collect the answers. However such systems tend to use multiple choice questions and hence test recognition rather than recall.

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