Questions are at the heart of assessment but how you ask them, the types of questions you ask and the way you ask them can actually get overlooked. There are all sorts of ways that you subvert traditional questioning to change dynamics, get a better idea of who has grasped something and who hasn’t and to actually segment, structure and push lectures or seminars forward. Some things to think about:
1. The big question. A session or even a topic could be driven by a single question. Notions of Enquiry and Problem-Based Learning (EBL/ PBL) exploit well designed problems or questions that require students to resolve. These cannot of course be ‘Google-able’ set response type questions but require research, evidence gathering, rationalisation and so on. This reflects core components of constructivist learning theory.
2. The question is your answer. Challenging students to come up with questions based on current areas of study can be a very effective way of gauging the depth to which they have engaged with the topic. What they select and what they avoid is often a way of getting insights into where they are most and least comfortable.
3. Wait time. Did you know that the average time lapse between a a question being asked and a student response is typically one second? In effect, the sharpest students (the usual suspects you might see them as) get in quick. The lack of even momentary additional processing time means that a significant proportion (perhaps the majority) have not had time to mentally articulate a response. Mental articulation goes some way to challenging cognitive overload so, even where people don’t get a chance to respond the thinking time still helps (formatively). There are other benefits to building in wait time too. This finding by Rowe (1974)* is long ago enough for us to have done something about it. It’s easy to see why we may not have done though…I ask a question; I get a satisfyingly quick and correct response…I can move on. But instilling a culture of ‘wait time’ can have a profound effect on the progress of the whole group. Such a strategy will often need to be accompanied by….
4. Targetting. One of the things we often notice when observing colleagues ‘in action’ is that questions are very often thrown out to a whole group. The result is either a response from the lightning usual suspect or, with easier questions, a sort of choral chant. These sorts of questions have their place. They signify the important. They can demarcate one section from another. But are they a genuine measurement of comprehension? And what are the consequences of allowing some (or many) never to have to answer if they don’t want to? Many lecturers will baulk at the thought of targeting individuals by name but why not by section? by row? by table? “someone from the back row tell me….”
5. Higher order questions. Think about the verbal questions you asked in your last teaching session. How many presented a real challenge? How many were at the top end of Bloom’s taxonomy and required analysis, synthesis, evaluation? Contrast to the number that required (or could only have) a single correct response. The latter are much easier to come up with so, naturally, we ask more of them. If framing the higher order questions is tough on the spot, maybe jot a few ahead of the lecture.
6. What is your purpose? thinking about why you are asking questions is actually a useful self analysis tool. Are you diagnosing (i.e. seeing what they know already); encouraging speculation; seeking exemplification? Very often what you are teaching- the pure concepts are the things that are neglected in questioning. For a nice worked example see here: https://jackdawltc.org/2015/10/29/concept-checking-a-valuable-technique-for-any-educator/
7. Technology as a question not the answer. Though they may seem gimmicky (and you have to be careful that you don’t subvert your pedagogy for colour and excitement) there are a number of in- lecture tools that can be used. Tools like polleverywhere, socrative, slido, direct poll, Kahoot, Mentimeter all enable different sorts of questions to be answered (and asked in the case of slido).
Finally, this straightforward guide to asking questions (and responding) is worth a quick read. I’ll question you on it later…. https://teachingcenter.wustl.edu/resources/refining-teaching-methods/asking-questions-to-improve-learning/
And this has an interesting section of advice on responding to student questions and what to do if they don’t! https://citl.illinois.edu/citl-101/teaching-learning/resources/teaching-strategies/questioning-strategies
*Rowe, M. B. (1974). Wait‐time and rewards as instructional variables, their influence on language, logic, and fate control: Part one‐wait‐time. Journal of research in science teaching, 11(2), 81-94. (though this original study was on elementary teaching situations the principles are applicable to HE settings)
Martin Compton (Educational Development Unit- University of Greenwich)