Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Questioning Students for Academic Purposes

Recently, there seems to be a lot of talk about questioning students and the role it plays in quality instruction. Questioning techniques, such as calling on students randomly, are being hailed as excellent ways to improve student achievement. As a science teacher, I think the variety and complexity of questions that I ask in my classroom ultimately determine how well my students understand the curriculum. As in all aspects of instruction, questioning plays an important role in guiding student thinking and making them accountable for the curriculum. As researchers sing the praises of randomly asking questions, and the impact it has on student achievement, I would like to discuss some other methods of questioning teachers might explore in the classroom.
If we look beyond the foundational reasons we ask questions described above, we see a new purpose or role for questioning in classroom instruction. Group work and the push for students to learn how to collaborate and work together may require new ways of questioning students. The demand for more critical thinking by students also requires that we expand the kinds of questions we ask and the amount of time we afford students to think about the answers. Perhaps the best way to explore the role of questioning is to look at why we question students in the first place. Often teachers ask questions as part of their instruction without really asking themselves a simple question: What is the purpose of asking this question? By exploring the purpose of questioning we might gain some insight into the important role of questioning in student learning
. When we look at academic questioning, we can broadly put all questions into three groups based on the purpose and complexity.
Accountability and Diagnostic Questions - Who Did the Homework?
When you ask teachers why they question students most of the time you will get a fairly simple answer: Questioning and the subsequent answers provides the teacher with feedback on how well the class is getting the lesson. If the teacher asks individuals the questions, it also creates accountability and provides some measure of how well the student understands the content of a lesson. This type of question is recognized as a crucial component of effective instruction. The seminal research on interactive direct instruction clearly indicates the importance of questioning during instruction and its impact on student achievement. When a teacher asks questions during instruction they gain valuable information about how well the students are understanding the content which in turn can be used to adjust the pace and complexity of the content delivery.
We can broadly categorize these questions as accountability and diagnostic. They provide the teacher with feedback as well as engage the class. Asking students randomly is by far the preferred method of questioning for two important reasons. First, all students must listen and follow along with the teacher so they are trying to answer all the questions. Second, the teacher gets a random cross section of the class, giving her an indication of the range of understanding among the students. These types of questions are often very content specific and knowledge level types of questions. They have convergent specific answers and require less wait time than other types of questions. Questioning for the purpose of accountability and feedback is a crucial aspect of quality instruction and assessment. And when people talk about questioning in the classroom this is by far the most common reason most teachers ask questions. If we look at other purposes for asking questions, the complexity and method of questioning will change to suit the particular purpose.
Reflective Questions – Describe the steps you followed to do the homework?
Asking questions to promote student reflection is a key aspect of developing metacognitive skills in students. These kinds of questions are a crucial aspect of formative assessment and help students learn to monitor their own learning. Reflective questions require more wait time so students can look at the information they have to generate answers. These types of questions can be answered by all students in the class and often involve collaborating with other students. Research has demonstrated the value of reflection in memory and learning. Teaching students to reflect and to refine the information they learn is a huge step in developing what might be referred to as ownership of learning. When we look at the purposes for asking reflective questions it is clear that these types of questions play a crucial role in learning.
Formative assessment has been recognized as a key factor in effective classroom instruction. The work of Popham and others has clearly shown the importance of formative assessment in learning. Questioning, imbedded in quality curriculum delivery, is crucial to understanding. Students must be challenged to think about what they are learning and share their comprehension and ideas with others. Reflective questions help students see holes they have in their learning, as well helping them see the level of understanding in the class as a whole. For example, I could be having students draw a pot of boiling water to illustrate fundamental concepts in thermal energy transfer. I ask students to compare their drawing with a group of four. Each person checks their drawing to see if it is as complete and neat as all the others in the group. These kinds of questions allow students to reflect and refine their understanding. They also learn to be more honest about their personal abilities and needs. Formative assessment questions ultimately develop metacognitive skills and ultimately teach the students how to regulate their own learning.
Reflective questions can also be used to help students think about their thinking. We can ask questions like: Why did you select those materials for your solar oven? How did you decide what to do first when you started construction? These kinds of questions help students think about problem solving and the processes they use to make decisions. Affording time for students to reflect teaches them the value of processing information and thinking about options and choices. Research has demonstrated the value of having students explain the steps they follow to answer a question or problem. Articulation questions require much more wait time than questions that demand a simple answer. These questions also provide valuable information about thinking and creativity.
Higher–level Thinking Questions – Does homework really support student learning?
Schools across the country have adopted rigorous new standards that demand students demonstrate critical thinking skills and problem solving abilities. This kind of thinking creates a new purpose for questioning students. Questions that demand prior knowledge and analysis of information are fundamentally different than short answer accountably questions. When students are challenged to think it requires more wait time. Since these questions often require creativity and background knowledge, it is helpful to have students in groups so they can collaborate and share information. In science, I spend time teaching students the kinds of questions we ask and the different ways to structure the answers. A short list of higher-level thinking questions we use in teaching include: Application of knowledge, Compare and contrast, Thinking questions, ​​Ordering evidence, Inferring from an argument, Data, ​​​Predicting, ​Cause and ​​effect, and Generating models.
When students are challenged with these kinds of questions it helps to put students in small groups. The background knowledge and skills needed to answer these kinds of questions requires more than one person. Additionally, there is courage in numbers. Many students do not have the academic efficacy to take on complex questions themselves, yet when grouped with other students they will try more difficult tasks. There are so many benefits to having students work collaboratively to generate answers, perhaps the most important is listening and learning to use information from other people.
Aside from the academic reasons for questioning students, there are a variety of other skills that students develop when they work together. By organizing the classroom into small groups, teachers can help students think together and share information. Important skills such as collaboration, communication, and critical thinking can all be developed by having students work together to answer questions. In science we play a question game called “Geek Pictionary”. Students work in pairs with white boards. I pose a question and they must draw the answer on the white board. When they are done the groups grade each others’ drawings and provide feedback. This interaction promotes collaboration as students share ideas and ways to communicate information. When we ask students to work in groups they develop a variety of social skills as well as learning content and thinking strategies from each other.
The role of questioning in education appears to be evolving with the demands of new standards and higher academic expectations. 20 years ago we were satisfied to have students recite lower-level facts to us as evidence of learning. Today, the kinds of questions students are challenged to answer requires more thinking and processing. The wait time and method of asking questions needs to reflect the complexity of these kinds of questions and answers. The important role questioning plays in teaching and learning is even more important in the complex world of today’s classrooms.
It is important to note that I have only discussed questions related to academic growth and content knowledge acquisition. Teachers ask questions for a variety of social and personal reasons that have more to do with building a positive classroom climate than teaching curriculum. Do not think that these questions are any less important in creating an environment where learning.

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