Types of Questions

The teacher's/mentor's greatest weapon is the question. Below are some different types of questions to use with your students, as well as some reflection on their use.

The clarifying question is used to gain more information from a student to help the teacher better understand a student's ideas, feelings, and thought processes. Often, asking a student to elaborate on an initial response will lead her to think more deeply, restructure her thinking, and while doing so, discover a fallacy in the original response. Examples of clarifying questions are "What I hear you saying is that you would rather work alone than in your group. Is that correct?" "So, Patrick, you think the poem is a sad one, is that right?" Research has shown a strong positive correlation between student learning and development of metacognitive skills and the teacher's use of questions that ask for clarification. In addition, by seeking clarification, the teacher is likely to be demonstrating an interest in the student and his thinking.

Convergent-thinking questions, also called narrow questions, are low-order thinking questions that have a single correct answer (such as recall questions). Examples of convergent-thinking questions are "How would you classify the word spelled c-l-o-s-e, as a homophone or homograph?" "If the radius of a circle is 20 meters, what is the circle's circumference?" "What is the name of the first battle of the Civil War?"

If you ask a question to which, after sufficient wait-time (longer than two seconds and as long as nine), no students respond or to which their inadequate responses indicate they need more information, then you can ask a question that cues the answer or response you are seeking. In essence, you are going backward in your questioning sequence to cue the students. For example, as an introduction to a lesson on the study of prefixes, a teacher asks her students, "How many legs do crayfish, lobsters, and shrimp have?," and there is no accurate response. She might then cue the answer with the following information and question, "The class to which those animals belong is class Decapoda. Does that give you a clue about the number of legs they have?" If that clue is not enough, then she might ask, "What is a decathlon?" and so on.

Divergent-thinking questions (also known as broad, reflective, or thought questions) are open-ended (i.e., usually having no singulariy correct answer), high-order thinking questions (requiring analysis, synthesis, or evaluation). These questions require students to think creatively by leaving the comfortable confines of the known and reaching out into the unknown. Examples of questions that require divergent thinking are "What measures could be taken to improve the effectiveness of crime prevention in our city?" and "What measures could be taken to improve the trash problem after lunch on our school grounds?"

Some questions, whether convergent or divergent, require students to place a value on something; these are referred to as evaluative questions. If the teacher and the students all agree on certain premises, then the evaluative question would also be a convergent question. If original assumptions differ, then the response to the evaluative question would be more subjective, and therefore that evaluative question would be divergent. Examples of evaluative questions are "Should the United States allow clear-cutting in its national forests?" and "Should women be allowed to choose to have abortions?"

This is any question that is designed to focus student thinking. For example, the first question of the preceding paragraph is a focus question when the teacher asking it is attempting to focus student attention on the economic issues involved in clear-cutting.

Similar to a clarifying question, the probing question requires student thinking to go beyond superficial first-answer or single-word responses. Examples of probing questions are "Why, Siobhan, do you think it to be the case that every citizen has the right to have a gun?" and "Could you give us an example?"

Socratic Questioning

In the fifth century B.C., the great Athenian teacher Socrates used the art of questioning so successfully that to this day we still hear of the Socratic method. What, exactly, is the Socratic method?

Socrates' strategy was to ask his students a series of leading questions that gradually snarled them up to the point where they had to look carefully at their own ideas and to think rigorously for themselves. Socratic discussions were informal dialogues taking place in a natural, pleasant environment. Although Socrates sometimes had to go to considerable lengths to ignite his students' intrinsic interest, their response was natural and spontaneous. In his dialogues, Socrates tried to aid students in developing ideas. He did not impose his own notions on the students. Rather, he encouraged them to develop their own conclusions and draw their own inferences. Of course, Socrates may have had preconceived notions about what the final learning should be and carefully aimed his questions so that the students would arrive at the desired conclusions. Still, his questions were open-ended, causing divergent rather than convergent thinking. The students were free to go wherever the facts and their thinking led them.

Throughout history, teachers have tried to adapt the methods of Socrates to the classroom. In some situations, they have been quite successful. However, we must remember that Socrates used this method in the context of a one-to-one relationship between the student and himself. Some teachers have adapted it for whole-class direct instruction by asking questions first of one student and then of another, moving slowly about the class. This technique may work, but it is difficult because the essence of the Socratic technique is to build question on question in a logical fashion so that each question leads the student a step further toward the understanding sought. When you spread the questions around the classroom, you may find it difficult to build up the desired sequence and to keep all the students involved in the discussion. Sometimes you may be able to use the Socratic method by directing all the questions at one student, at least for several minutes, while the other students look on and listen in. This is the way Socrates did it. When the topic is interesting enough, this technique can be quite successful and even exciting, but in the long run, the Socratic method works best when the teacher is working in one-on-one coaching situations or with small groups of students, such as those who may be working on a group inquiry, rather than in whole-class direct instruction.

When Socratic questioning is being used, the focus is on the questions, not answers, and thinking is valued as the quintessential activity. In essence, to conduct Socratic questioning, identify a problem (either student- or teacher-posed) and then ask the students a series of probing questions designed to cause them to examine critically the problem and potential solutions to it. The main thrust of the questioning and the key questions must be planned in advance so that the questioning will proceed logically. To think of quality probing questions on the spur of the moment is too difficult.

Levels of Cognitive Questions and Student Thinking

Questions teachers pose are cues to their students to the level of thinking expected of them, ranging from the lowest level of mental operation, requiring simple recall of knowledge (convergent thinking), to the highest, requiring divergent thought and application of that thought. It is important that one is aware of the levels of thinking, understand the importance of attending to student thinking from low to higher levels of operation, and realize that what for one student may be a matter of simple recall of information may for another require a higher-order mental activity, such as figuring something out by deduction.

One should structure and sequence one's questions (and assist students in developing their own skill in structuring and sequencing their questions) in a way that is designed to guide students to higher levels of thinking.

  • 1. Lowest level (data input phase): Gathering and recalling information. At this level questions are designed to solicit from students concepts, information, feelings, or experiences that were gained in the past and stored in memory. Sample key words and desired behaviours are "complete, count, define, describe, identify, list, match, name, observe, recall, recite, and select."

  • 2. Intermediate level (data processing phase): Processing information. At this level questions are designed to draw relationships of cause and effect, to synthesize, analyze, summarize, compare, contrast, or classify data. Sample key words and desired behaviours are "analyze, classify, compare, contrast, distinguish, explain, group, infer, make an analogy, organize, plan, and synthesize."

  • 3. Highest level (data output phase): Applying and evaluating in new situations. Questions at this level encourage students to think intuitively, creatively, and hypothetically; to use their imaginations; to expose a value system; or to make a judgment. Sample key words and desired behaviours are "apply a principle, build a model, evaluate, extrapolate, forecast, generalize, hypothesize, imagine, judge, predict, and speculate."

A teacher should use the type of question that is best suited for their purposes and a variety of levels of questions. One must structure questions in a way intended to move student thinking to higher levels. When teachers use higher-level questions, their students tend to score higher on tests of critical thinking and on standardized tests of achievement.

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