Effective questioning in teaching

Adele Sewell, Bishop Burton College

How can effective classroom questioning improve teaching and advance student outcomes?

What is teacher questioning?

One issue that teachers face when using questions is that they do not use them to assess and stretch students within a classroom. Often they fail to engage students as questions do not utilize HOTs (higher order thinking).

Bloom's (1956) taxonomy of cognitive skills is a useful tool to revisit when we reflect on our questioning. According to the revised version of Bloom's Taxonomy, there are six cognitive learning levels, each conceptually different. Over the years, classification taxonomies have been developed to guide teacher questioning (see Krathwohl (1964); Wilen (1986) and Morgan and Saxton (1991) as early examples). Hannel and Hannel (2005) show how teacher questions promote student engagement, whilst Dekker-Groen (2015) talked about how sequences of teacher and student questions influence classroom engagement. Whilst these ideas are useful to our practice, they should be applied with caution as each classroom situation is unique, and therefore it may not be applicable to have questions at multiple levels for some students. 

Using Schons's (1983) model of reflection, key questions for teachers are, do I ask mostly remembering questions? Do I enable students to show or apply their understanding? , and finally, do we use questions to apply to understand, analyze and evaluate the content and create new meaning? Being able to categorize questions both in the classroom and out of the classroom is a starting point to improving practice.  

As questioning is a skill that is an integral part of classroom life and essential to every teacher’s pedagogical repertoire, it is important that HOTs are employed in the classroom. Questions should be  one of the elements of effective formative assessment,  but are often used to check on facts, and are not effectively employed as a  tool for the teacher to know what each learner knows and understands about subject content. Black et al.(, 2003) stated that using higher order probing and challenging questions will enable the teacher to be better informed about student progress, which will have an impact of more individualized and differentiated tasks and support  Questions that probe for deeper meaning, foster critical thinking skills and higher-order capabilities such as problem-solving, encourage the types of flexible learners and critical thinkers needed in the 21st century.

How does teacher questioning promote student learning?

Questioning helps students learn because it forces them to think critically about the material being taught. Students who are asked questions often respond with answers that are not memorized. They must process information and come up with solutions themselves.

When teachers ask questions, they're actually asking for feedback. Feedback is valuable because it allows teachers to determine whether their teaching methods are effective.

Feedback is especially important when teaching math. Math problems can sometimes be solved through trial and error. This means that students figure out the correct answer on their own. Instead of just telling them the right answer, teachers should give them multiple choices and let them pick the one that works.

This type of questioning is called open-ended questioning. Open-ended questioning requires students to use critical thinking skills and problem-solving abilities to solve the question.

Open-ended questioning is used in many different types of lessons, including science, social studies, and language arts.

develop questioning approaches using the thinking framework
develop questioning approaches using the thinking framework



Choosing the right type of question

Creating good cognitive questions is easier than it sounds. Some classrooms have question walls that provide a reference point for quick fire thinking. If you want to create a divergent range of questions then you might want to explore the matrix feature below. This tool kit can be used to create questioning strategies 'in the moment' or in advance of the lesson. This simple grid format can be used as an assessment for learning strategy or a straightforward responsive teaching activity. The key to eliciting a comprehensive student response is to focus on creating effective questioning strategies from the bottom right-hand corner, for example: Why did...? or How might...? This method of questioning produces answers that require a detailed student explanation. In other words, these complex questions require more student thinking than a simple yes-no answer. In a recent blog post, Tom Sherrington entertains the idea that the depth of knowledge can be shown by the ability to explain something. This type of deep learning can only be demonstrated with sophisticated student responses that can be both nurtured and articulated through a well-designed cognitive question.

Quality questioning
Quality questioning doesn't always require a lot of time

Creating effective questioning techniques

Within the Universal Thinking Framework, we have categorised Socratic questioning according to the desired learning outcome. In other words, we are encouraging educators to think about the learning experience and consider how they want their learners to think. The type of cognitive response we want to nurture will have a corresponding way of talking. This dialogic approach can be described as 'learning through talk' (as opposed to learning to talk). The thinking framework includes a range of responses that equip teachers with talking stems to make this type of approach easier to facilitate in the classroom. We call it planning for understanding. The student responses that we cultivate enable children to put their thoughts into words. These types of methods act as a springboard toward better writing. Creating classroom cultures of deep learning will require adequate thinking time for the students as we aim to slow the process down and cause more deliberate and meaningful cognitive responses.

Provide adequate thinking time
Provide adequate thinking time


Purpose of teacher questioning

Questioning can serve many purposes; when used effectively, it engages students in the learning process and provides opportunities for students to ask questions themselves. Too often as teachers, we pose the questions and wait for a response but forget to pause, allowing students to think, pounce to target the question to learners based on ability and understanding, and then bounce the question to another learner to enable more than one response and perspective to be given.

Extending questioning by asking students to compose questions to ask each other on a subject area, as part of a recap or adequate wait time in a teaching session, we begin to challenge levels of thinking and start to inform both the student and teacher if students are ready to progress with their learning.  This simple recap tool uses consolidation and active learning techniques to foster metacognition

Questioning is a crucial pedagogical skill, but one that requires practiced application (Cavanaugh and Warwick, 2001). Paramore (2017) identifies an imbalance of questions often found in teaching, saying there is a dominance of teacher talk and an over-reliance on closed questions to check learning or verify everyday activities, providing only limited assessment for learning. Too often, questions from teachers are organizational, such as ‘What do we always put at the top of our page to begin with?’ or instructional in nature, such as ‘Who can tell me what an adjective is?’ and have low cognitive involvement and result in limited answers such as ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. 

Foster deeper learning with higher-order questioning
Foster deeper learning with higher-order questioning



Research on classroom questioning

Wragg (1993) found teachers commonly use types of questions that are management-related, e.g. ‘Has everyone finished this piece of work now? or information recall-related, e.g. ‘How many sides does a quadrilateral have?, rather than using higher-order questions, e.g. ‘What evidence do you have for saying that?’ It must be remembered that open or divergent questions encourage greater expansion in answers and promote better classroom dialogue and understanding (Tofade, Elsner and Haines, 2013). Often as teachers, we are wanting to move swiftly through content and deliver knowledge that we forget to support students to reflect, consolidate and make new connections in meaning (Vygotsky 1978).

Too often, students become disengaged with teacher questioning, leading to low self-esteem. how often do the same students answer questions? Do we ever stop to consider why?  Petty (2014)  states that the volunteer approach of hands up, you choose a volunteer and then comment on the answer, fosters disengagement by students and gives the teacher only an overview of how one student thinks. If we are wanting to engage, generate motivation and foster problem-solving skills with students, a more active learning approach is needed.     

Lightbody (2011) advocates that the way we question our students is supported by the ability to have pedagogical content knowledge (Shulman 1986) . This involves the teacher being aware of the structure of their subject and being able to identify areas in which students struggle and therefore identify key questions to support understanding.An effective teacher will then be able to stretch students through a hinge (what do you know about? and probe questions ( so tell me why you have come to that conclusion?)   (Horsman 2020)

Getting started with questioning strategies in teaching

By identifying and listing on planning documents or session plans, key questions that explore the what, how, if or when of a subject will support teachers to better question students. Thus supporting the teacher to think about questions they will ask students before the session rather than during the session. Scripting questions support teachers in identifying key areas of learning and ensure that all subject content is assessed. Boyd (2015)  talks about how teachers can support talk and thinking if they are willing to listen and then use questions to support student ideas, purposes, and lines of reasoning. By scripting questions prior to the session, key ideas can be explored in more detail.   

Another useful technique to use is when one question is posed, follow it up with why do you think that? Or how have you come to that conclusion? Using a double-barrelled questioning technique is a simple tool that supports flexible thinking. 

Low-level questioning aimed at recall and fundamental-level comprehension will plateau classroom learning quickly. Higher-level questions can produce deeper learning and thinking. However, with higher order questioning, the teacher must have the support mechanisms in place to allow learners to fail. Too often, teachers will use questions that give safe answers and not allow students to trial different responses. It is important, therefore to generate a classroom culture of there being no wrong answer, but rather half an answer or partial answer that can be collectively answered through multiple students' responses. Using simple techniques such as 'think pair share', call a friend or pass the question on can help and support students' resilience and support higher order thinking.

To summarise, some effective techniques that support higher-order thinking skills are:-

  • Recap
  • Students reflect on their learning by summarizing content to a peer
  • Think pair share of ideas and questions 
  • Cold calling, whereby students ask questions to others in the room 
  • Student-generated quiz questions to peers
  • Phone a friend to pass a question to a peer