How to Ask Questions

Given that students remember only about five percent of what they hear, I talked way too much in class. I wish I had asked more questions to facilitate the talking of students. But asking good questions is hard.

How can you avoid always calling on the same eager hands and, at the same time, provide safety for students who don’t like to be put on the spot? Here are a couple tips:

When questions are convergent, questions with one right answer:

Divide students into small groups. Tell students: I’m going to ask a question. Write the answer you think is correct on your paper. After everyone has finished, compare your answers. If you all have the same answer, find evidence for your answer. If you have different answers, look for evidence to show which answer is correct.

When questions are divergent, with multiple appropriate answers and meant for wondering and musing:

Tell students: I’m going to ask a question—a question with more than one right answer. I’ll give you some time to think, so jot some notes about the reasons for your answer. Then I’ll call on three or four of you to respond. It will be interesting to hear these different perspectives.

In these scenarios, students do more than answer questions. They discuss, which increases the retention rate to around 50%, and teach others, which increases the retention rate to around 90%. They thinking at deeper levels—comparing and analyzing and evaluating. This kind of purposeful student talk is the foundation for literacy, and this altering of the ratio for student/teacher talk increases learning.

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