Questioning Techniques For Essays

Matthew Capdevielle, Director of the Writing Center, University of Notre Dame

By Matthew Capdevielle, Director of the Writing Center, University of Notre Dame

“So, what are you working on today?”
“When is your paper due?”
“Are you concerned about anything in particular in this draft?”

In the writing center that I direct at the University of Notre Dame, we spend a good deal of time asking questions.  We pose questions about practical parameters of assignments—length, due date, assignment requirements, etc.  We pose questions about writers’ goals, their concerns, and their hopes for their work.  Most importantly, we pose questions with writers to help them discover and articulate their own ideas.

This approach is common in writing center pedagogy.  As a tutor in the UW-Madison Writing Center while in graduate school, I learned so much about the value of asking good questions from my colleagues and mentors—but most of all from the writers I worked with at the tables on the 6th floor of Helen C. White Hall.

It’s sort of a commonplace in the writing center community to describe this method of teaching as a Socratic method, and in fact, more than once in the literature, Socrates himself has been invoked as a kind of proto writing center tutor, having conversations with people about their ideas and helping them to develop a clearer understanding of things by asking good questions.  Most notably, Stephen North in the “Idea of a Writing Center” back in 1984, described Socrates as a tutor who “set up the same kind of shop” in the agora offering, as he puts it, “a continuous dialectic that is, finally, its own end.”

This comparison rings true on a number of levels, especially in terms of North’s formulation that the process itself, the process of engaged dialogue, is not just a means of attaining insight—it is actually its own end.  Our primary purpose in the Writing Center is to engage writers in conversation.  And this is not just a means of achieving something through the session—it is in fact the goal.  More than anything else, the tutors are working to encourage writers to talk about their writing.

Collaboration in the Writing Center

It’s a special kind of talk that takes place in this environment—Muriel Harris has called this exploratory talk, contrasting it with presentational talk, which is how we tend to speak when we think we’re being evaluated.  Exploratory talk is generative in ways that presentational talk is not. Given that, as North suggests, this is an end in itself, we would do well to attend very closely to what constitutes the exploratory character of effective writing center talk.  I think that the question is an important part of this.  For Socrates, the engine of dialectical inquiry is the question.  The Socratic Method is question driven.  Likewise, I would suggest, exploratory talk is question driven as well.

But what makes a good question—that is to say an effective or productive or generative question that can help us engage in collaborative and truly exploratory talk with writers?  This is something I wrestle with continually in my work in the Writing Center.

Socrates himself didn’t always ask the right question.  In fact, one might say that it was asking the wrong questions that got him into trouble.  But his method of questioning was not a monolithic pedagogy.  It had important variations.  The Socrates we see in the Gorgias gets himself in deep trouble by asking questions, primarily because he’s not really asking questions at all.  Rather, he’s badgering Gorgias and Callicles, and he ultimately fails to persuade them of anything.  In spite of Socrates’ claim that what he’s doing is posing genuine questions to help his interlocutor “work out his ideas,” he ends up engaging in a sort of caricature of the method.  The form of questioning and dialogue remains but the exchange is actually monologic, devolving into a lecture that Socrates gives at the end to Callicles—Callicles who has simply given up and offers only perfunctory and sarcastic rejoinders, like, “Oh most certainly, Socrates” and “Whatever you say, Socrates,” and who basically says, “Why don’t you just finish up the conversation by yourself?”  At another point in the dialogue, Socrates even tells his interlocutor what his response should be.  He says, “Ask me what kind of craft pastry baking is, Polus.” When Polus obliges, Socrates answers his own question and then tells Polus what to ask next.  He is clearly talking to himself at this point in the dialogue. The method has failed here as Socrates ends up lecturing the person he might have persuaded.

Tutors' Question of the Week in the Notre Dame Writing Center: If you could have anyone as a Writing Center tutor, who would it be?

Now there’s certainly much to consider in this rich text, but one thing that strikes me is how similar this derailed dialogue looks to the transcript of a writing center tutorial that’s gone off track.  If you’ve ever looked at a transcript of a writing tutorial that has gone awry—or, like me, experienced a tutorial gone awry—you might immediately note the similarities. There are interrogative statements to be sure—questions—but they are of the sort that accomplish just the opposite of what we might hope would come out in the exchange. In particular, we see questions that are not genuine attempts to engage in and foster exploratory talk but are rather leading questions that close off the dialogue and that constrain the field of possible ideas.  Once a writer gets wise to this or senses that the questions are “What have I got in my pocket?” sorts of questions, then the writer very quickly defers authority to the tutor and waits to be told what to do, kind of like Callicles in the Gorgias. This is the opposite of shared inquiry or collaborative learning.  This is appropriation of authority under the guise of the Socratic Method of engagement.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, we see a very different sort of interaction between teacher and student.  I would say that if we can find a writing center appointment anywhere in Plato, it’s in the Phaedrus.  Here, Phaedrus and Socrates sit down side by side to talk about a text together.  They’re far outside the agora, the marketplace, outside the site of performance.  Phaedrus has a copy of a draft with him.  Socrates has him read it out loud, just as he would in the Writing Center.  They talk about it, with Socrates asking lots of questions.  And they get somewhere, moving from playful banter to deeply engaged collaborative conversation.  I’d argue that what we witness here is a Socratic method that is much more exploratory than the version of the method that we see in the Gorgias.  Phaedrus’s comments definitively shape the dialogue. The direction of the dialogue changes as a result of his lengthy responses.  And in his responsive engagement with Phaedrus’ concerns, Socrates enacts his argument for a form of writing that doesn’t kill the spirit of dialectic, moving forward in pursuit of a philosophical insight that can be reached only via interaction with another person.

Now, what does this have to do with questions and exploratory talk in the writing center?

I would say that the question in the tutorial environment dramatizes a key feature of any rhetorical enterprise—it dramatizes the encounter between two people in the shared project of understanding their world.

In the barest practical terms, we could talk about this in terms of “audience awareness.”  This is one easy way of explaining to others why we do what we do in the Writing Center—and why it works.  We often say that when writers come into the writing center with a draft, they are compelled to respond to the questions and concerns of a real flesh-and-blood reader.  This process helps hold them accountable, keeps them honest in their writing.  And ultimately, it helps them internalize a more mature understanding of audience, of their readership. Understanding their readers, we claim, makes them better writers.  This is all true, I think.

But when we sit down together, as writers and readers, we might find that more is at stake, that it’s not merely a matter of gaining practice responding to an actual reader.  The process of engaging face-to-face with a reader allows for a more direct experience of the deeply ethical character of writing. Writing–writing anything–involves us with other people in a way that holds the potential to change us, that bears upon our understanding of who we are. It is a subtly ethical encounter.

Coleman Morse Center, Home of the Writing Irish

The tutorial interaction is the experience of the ethical encounter of writing writ large, so to speak, and it highlights the transformative potential of rhetorical engagement. Writer and reader must face the wholly spontaneous and utterly unpredictable other person at the table, and they have to negotiate with one another. The locus of that negotiation is the question. The question is the rhetorical vehicle for this encounter, eliciting response.  And because writer and reader are face-to-face, the imperative to respond is mutual and carries a special immediacy.

The Socratic Method of the Phaedrus, then, might indeed be seen to lie at the heart of the writing tutorial, especially when the questions we ask are genuine questions that open us up to the possibility of, in Socrates’ words, “a writing on the soul” that permanently alters the participants in the exchange.  The question in the tutorial represents this possibility, this opening up of the reader and writer to the potential for transformation. The question is an invitation to a truly collaborative exploration in a more properly shared inquiry.

So what does a transcript of this kind of session look like?  I’m not sure.  I’d like to see it myself!  While there’s no easy formula for generating this kind of question, I think it’s useful to consider the ethical weight of the opportunity that our conversations in the writing center provide.

Certainly, these thoughts toward a theory of the question are only a beginning, but I’m interested in collecting something of a natural history of the question as it appears in our study and practice of writing.

How about you?  How do you use questions—either as a writer or as a tutor?

Questioning techniques are a heavily used, and thus widely researched, teaching strategy. Research indicates that asking questions is second only to lecturing. Teachers typically spend anywhere from 35 to 50 percent of their instructional time asking questions. But are these questions effective in raising student achievement? How can teachers ask better questions of their students? How can current educational research inform practice?

WHY ASK QUESTIONS?

Teachers ask questions for a variety of purposes, including:

  • To actively involve students in the lesson
  • To increase motivation or interest
  • To evaluate students’ preparation
  • To check on completion of work
  • To develop critical thinking skills
  • To review previous lessons
  • To nurture insights
  • To assess achievement or mastery of goals and objectives
  • To stimulate independent learning

A teacher may vary his or her purpose in asking questions during a single lesson, or a single question may have more than one purpose.

In general, research shows that instruction involving questioning is more effective than instruction without questioning. Questioning is one of the nine research-based strategies presented in Classroom Instruction That Works (Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock 2001).

One important finding is that questions that focus student attention on important elements of a lesson result in better comprehension than those that focus on unusual or interesting elements. Questions should also be structured so that most elicit correct responses.


TYPES OF QUESTIONS

Educators have traditionally classified questions according to Bloom’s Taxonomy, a hierarchy of increasingly complex intellectual skills. Bloom’s Taxonomy includes six categories:

  • Knowledge – recall data or information
  • Comprehension – understand meaning
  • Application – use a concept in a new situation
  • Analysis – separate concepts into parts; distinguish between facts and inferences
  • Synthesis – combine parts to form new meaning
  • Evaluation – make judgments about the value of ideas or products

Some researchers have simplified classification of questions into lower and higher cognitive questions. Lower cognitive questions (fact, closed, direct, recall, and knowledge questions) involve the recall of information. Higher cognitive questions (open-ended, interpretive, evaluative, inquiry, inferential, and synthesis questions) involve the mental manipulation of information to produce or support an answer.

Regardless of the classification, traditional wisdom holds that the higher cognitive questions lead to higher-quality answers and increased learning and achievement. However, the research has mixed conclusions in this area. Some studies found that higher level questions did indeed produce deeper learning, while others found that not to be the case.

According to some studies, lower cognitive questions (knowledge and comprehension on Bloom’s Taxonomy) may be most beneficial for primary students. Lower cognitive questions are also more effective when the goal is to impart factual knowledge and commit it to memory.

This finding does not mean that primary teachers should avoid all higher cognitive questions. Certainly, primary students need to have chances to speculate, imagine, and manipulate the information being presented. Some research, however, suggests that for these youngest students, these questions should be used more sparingly.

Higher cognitive questions (application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation) should make up a higher percentage of questions asked above the primary grades. Studies show that a combination of lower and higher questions is more effective than the exclusive use of one or the other. Increasing the use of higher cognitive questions can produce superior learning gains for older students, particularly those in secondary school, and does not reduce student performance on lower cognitive questions.

It is important to note, though, that simply asking these kinds of questions does not guarantee higher responses or greater learning gains. Students need explicit instruction in answering these types of questions, including making inferences. This instruction, in conjunction with the use of higher cognitive questions, can positively impact student achievement.

The use of a high frequency (50 percent or more) of higher cognitive questions with older students is positively related to increases in on-task behavior, length of student responses, the number of relevant contributions, the number of student-to-student interactions, student use of complete sentences, speculative thinking, and relevant questions posed by students.


HOW MANY QUESTIONS? WHEN?

How many questions should a teacher ask? And at what point during the lesson? Frequent questioning has been shown to be positively related to learning facts, but simply asking a greater number of questions does not facilitate the learning of more complex material. Just as with higher cognitive questions, it may be necessary to include explicit instruction to promote student learning of complicated concepts.

Teachers often pose questions prior to reading. Research shows that while this strategy is effective for older students, those with high ability, and those interested in the subject matter, it is not as effective for younger students and poor readers, who tend to focus only on the material that will help them answer the questions.


WAIT-TIME

Wait-time is another crucial factor in questioning techniques. Wait-time can be defined as the amount of time a teacher allows to elapse after he or she has posed a question. (A less frequently used and researched definition is the amount of time that a teacher allows to elapse before responding after a student stops speaking.) While traditional wisdom advocates a brisk pace of instruction to maintain interest and cover more material, research shows that slowing slightly to include more wait-time promotes achievement.

In the classrooms studied, the average wait-time after a question was posed was one second or less. Students perceived as slow or poor learners were afforded less wait-time than students viewed as more capable. This amount of wait-time is not sufficient for students, particularly for those that experience difficulty.

Studies show that for lower cognitive questions, a wait-time of three seconds is most effective in terms of achievement. Shorter or longer times were less positively correlated with student success.

For higher cognitive questions, no wait-time threshold was observed. Researchers noted that students seemed to become more engaged and successful the longer the teacher waited (within reason, of course).

Increased wait-time is related to a number of student outcomes, including improved achievement and retention, greater numbers of higher cognitive responses, longer responses, decreases in interruptions, and increased student-student interactions. These outcomes are quite similar to those observed with an increased frequency of higher cognitive questions. In fact, researchers believe that a causal relationship may exist between the two: higher cognitive questions require more wait-time, and more wait-time allows for the implementation of higher cognitive discussions.


FEEDBACK: REDIRECTING, PROBING, AND RESPONDING

A teacher’s response to students’ answers is just as important as the question asked. A response may redirect students when an incorrect answer is given or students misinterpret the question. Teachers may probe for further explanation when a partial answer is given. Finally, teachers may validate a correct response.

Research in this area shows that redirection and probing are effective when they are explicitly focused on student responses. Vague or critical feedback (such as “That’s not right, try again”) has been shown to be unrelated to achievement.

Acknowledging correct responses is necessary and effective. Praise that is used sparingly, is directly related to the response, and is sincere and credible is also positively related to student achievement.


IN CONCLUSION

How can teachers make use of these findings? Teachers often have little or no training in questioning techniques, so being familiar with the research is a good place to start. Improving in this area requires a reflective and metacognitive approach. For example, teachers may choose to:

  • Plan and write out the questions to be used in a lesson. How many are lower cognitive questions? Higher cognitive questions? Is the percentage appropriate for the age and ability level of your students?
  • Anticipate possible student responses, especially partially correct or incorrect ones. How will you probe for further information or redirect?
  • Ask a colleague to observe a lesson, paying particular attention to the types of questions and student responses. Meet to discuss the observations and plan for improvement.
  • Videotape yourself teaching a lesson. When you watch, record your wait-time for each question. Also note if you provide longer wait-times to certain students. Or examine your feedback. Are you specific and focused on the students’ responses?
  • Seek out resources and professional development that can help you improve your questioning techniques. If possible, start a study group with colleagues.

RESOURCES FOR QUESTIONING TECHNIQUES

The following print and online resources can help you learn more about effective questioning techniques and implement them in your practice.

School Improvement Research Series: Classroom Questioning
This document from the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory summarizes research findings on questioning techniques.

Effective Questioning Techniques
A list of 15 techniques for asking questions.

Applying Bloom’s Taxonomy
This page provides verbs, sample question stems, and potential activities and products for each category of Bloom’s Taxonomy. A great reference for planning or reflecting on a lesson.

The Right Way to Ask Questions in the Classroom
This blog post discussing effective questioning techniques.

Asking Better Questions in the Classroom: Part 1

A 2:28 video discussing the difference between open-ended and close-ended questions. Includes examples.

Asking Better Questions: Part 2

In this follow-up video (2:11), learn about the difference between convergent and divergent questions.

Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement

In this book, the authors, Robert Marzano, Debra Pickering, and Jane Pollock, examine and summarize decades of research findings and distill the results into nine broad teaching strategies (including Cues, Questions, and Advance Organizers). Classroom examples, rubrics, organizers, and charts help teachers plan and implement the strategies into their own practice. View the table of contents, read a sample chapter, or purchase this book from the ASCD web site.

A Handbook for Classroom Instruction That Works

A companion to Classroom Instruction That Works, this handbook provides a review of the research base and strategies along with exercises, rubrics, and worksheets that help you begin using the nine strategies immediately. View the table of contents, read a sample chapter, or purchase this book from the ASCD web site.


REFERENCES

Cotton, K. 1989. Classroom questioning. School Improvement Research Series. Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. http://www.nwrel.org/scpd/sirs/3/cu5.html.

Marzano, R., D. Pickering, and J. Pollock. 2001. Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Jessica at beyondpenguins@msteacher.org.

Copyright October 2008 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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