How to ask good questions

Instead of making a statement, Ask a question.

Asking questions is fundamental to teaching. It is much more important to ask questions and to encourage students to ask questions than it is to give answers. Students can be encouraged to find their own answers by observing, analysing, sharing knowledge with each other, logically reasoning things out, reading books, doing research, doing experiments, and discussing with other people - in addition to listening to their teachers.

Before making a statement to the class, ask yourself whether you can instead ask a question that will result in a student making the same (or similar) statement. Check to see if some student in the class already knows what you are about to state.

Often the best answer to a student’s question is another question that might get the student to think of the answer themselves.

Knowing how to ask good questions is also important for assessment, or evaluation. Assessment is formally done through tests and examinations, but can also be a continuous, informal process. Teaching and assessment should go hand in hand.

Assessment can be used for students, teachers, and parents to find out how much a student has learned, which areas they need to concentrate on, what skills they need to improve, what misunderstandings they may have, and what skills and areas they are good at. Assessment lets teachers and parents know how effective their teaching is – it can guide the choice of methods as well as content. Assessment should be encouraging, not discouraging.

Try to think of questions that will require the students to think at higher levels - to understand, apply, compare, classify, analyse, synthesize, evaluate, predict, make judgements, be creative, and have fun and become more interested in the subject.

The questions that you ask will depend on the students’ prior knowledge and experience, and the approach that you have taken in class.

Why should a teacher ask questions that go beyond memory?

For example, consider the question: Does the Ganga flow from Allahabad to Patna, or from Patna to Allahabad?

You could just tell students the answer to this question and ask them to remember it. Or you could let them learn through activities. Ask them to make model mountains, rivers, and seas with sand and water, to understand how water flows from mountains towards the sea. Then look on a map to find the mountains that the Ganga flows from, the sea that it flows to, the positions of Allahabad and Patna (the elevations of each city - for higher classes), and figure out the answer.

The second approach will require a lot more time and energy. But it is likely to:

(1) enthuse the students about geography;

(2) lead them to understand a useful principle (that rivers flow from higher mountains towards lower seas) that will help them solve many questions;

(3) lead them to ask additional questions and find their own answers;

(4) lead them to think more deeply;

(5) lead them to remember the answer.

Understand rather than just remember

If you ask a question that the students already answered before or have already been told the answer to, you are only asking them to remember something. Try instead to ask completely new questions that the students may not have thought about. The same question could be either a memory question or a question requiring higher levels of thinking, depending on what the students have already been told. For example, suppose you ask the question, “Why do you think some people, ev en today, do not farm and get all their food by gathering and hunting?” This would just require memory if you had previously told the class that some people do not need to farm because they have plenty of food available in the forests they live in. But if the class had previously just discussed how hunter/gatherers live, and how farmers live, without discussing why, then the students will have to remember and analyse what they remember to think of reasons.

Compare

Compare physical and political aspects of different parts of the world. Compare different periods and places throughout history. Compare different political systems. Compare different people’s points of view.

Classify

Use the maps in your atlas to find out which countries are mostly desert (or mostly mountainous, or primarily agricultural, etc.) Use the maps in your atlas to find out in which states cotton and soybeans are grown. Use the maps in your book to find out which present day states were once a part of the Gupta Empire.

Analyse

Use certain skills in an application to a new problem. For example:

(1) Use knowledge of the multiplication table to calculate the product of two large numbers;

(2) Measure these objects;

(3) Find the latitude and longitude of this city using this map;

(4) Find the area of a particular state using graph paper;

(5) Why do you think so many different languages are spoken in India?

Why?

Ask why an answer is correct, or why something happens or happened. For example:

(1) Why is (7x6)+3 less than 7x(6+3)?

(2) Why did Ashoka decide to stop fighting wars?

(3) Why can turtles run faster than snails?

(4) Why are trees shorter higher up on mountains?

(5) Why is .5 the same as .50?

(6) Why are some trees very tall and others not so tall?

(7) Why are there rich and poor people?

(8) Why do some people believe in a god?

Explain your answer

Instead of just asking students for an opinion or an answer that they may just answer yes or no, be sure to ask for an explanation as well. What’s the use of learning something?

(1) Why should you learn what a gas is?

(2) Why do you need to know the multiplication table?

(3) What’s the use of studying about the Indus Valley Civilisation?

The purpose of asking this kind of question is not only so that the students realise what the use of learning these things is, but also that you can tell whether they understand the truth of the statement well enough to analyse it’s usefulness.

Can you prove it?

It is not enough just to remember the answer – students should also understand why an answer is correct or incorrect. They should get practice supporting their arguments, giving examples, and justifying their opinions. Even emotional responses can be understood through reasoning.

Explain with a picture or diagram

Make a diagram to show examples of the social, economic, political, religious, and cultural aspects of life in present day Chandigarh (or in Agra 20 years ago).

Make a graph - Use a graph

Look at the following graph and tell what are the main exports of Venezuela.

Make a graph to show how the female/male ratio changed over the last 80 years.

Does the following graph tell you whether India or Pakistan has more Muslims?

Make an outline

Make an outline of this chapter (avoid using any complete sentences). Before you write a page in answer to the following question, write an outline of the main points you will write about.

Summarise

Write one sentence to summarize the third paragraph in the chapter.

Or: Read the following paragraph and summarise it in one sentence. [Give an entire paragraph in the exam itself - a paragraph none of them have previously read.]

What if......

What if people were covered with fur like some other animals – how would this have changed the course of history? What if India still had not gained independence from Britain, how would your life be different?

Predict

Make a prediction based on past experience, established laws, or theories. Explain the reasons for your prediction. [When feasible, students can also do experiments to test their predictions.]

(1) What will happen to a page of your notebook if you immerse it in a container of water?

(2) What will tomorrow’s weather be like?

(3) What will your mother say if you tell her that you had a fight at school?

(4) What will happen if the Women’s Reservation Bill is passed in Parliament?

Use maps

Instead of just memorising or copying maps, use maps to answer questions and find information.

Invent

(1) Invent a way to tell a young child to how clean some utensils without using words.

(2) Invent a way to make your enemy your friend.

(3) Design a machine to automatically turn off a tap when a tank is full.

(4) Invent a computer program to put names in alphabetical order.

Observe

Carefully observe – draw and describe what you observe

(1) Carefully look at this leaf and draw exactly what it looks like.

(2) Build a model town with blocks, and draw a map of it as you look at it from above.

(3) Look at this picture and tell what the people are doing (or wearing, or what tools they are using, or what kinds of houses they live in, or how much money you think they have, etc.)

Ask questions

Ask the students to ask questions.

(1) Ask five questions about Akbar - questions for which you do not know the answers.

(2) If you could ask Ashoka 3 questions, what would you ask him?

(3) If you could ask a child living 500 years ago in Indore five questions, what would you ask?

Question answers

Even if you think an answer to a question is correct, question it. Think more deeply about it. Encourage students to question answers. Question your own answers. Keep asking why. Ask open-ended questions Ask questions that have more than one correct answer, or that don’t have any correct answer. Let students know that you don’t know the answers to many questions. This will make the subject seem more interesting to them.

Atlas based questions

Most questions that require students to refer to their atlas will require more than just memory, and will be more interesting.

Open book questions

An easy way to avoid asking questions that are just memory questions is to let students refer to their books and notes when they answer questions. The aim should not just be to make them search for the ready-made answer in the text. Think of questions that do not have ready-made answers in the text. ... read more from here. (excerpted Teaching Ideas)

Karen Haydock, PhD

(image: Homi Bhaba Centre for Science Education)


Karen Haydock has been working in India since 1985 as a researcher, educationist, scientist, teacher and artist, after completing her PhD and postdoctoral studies in biophysics in the USA. In all her efforts, her concern is for the oppressed sections of society, using both art and science education for social change. More information and recent publications can be found on her website: www.khaydock.com.

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