Educational Inquiry: How Questions Enhance Learning

When you were studying to be a teacher, no doubt you imagined day-to-day classroom life. And if you’re like me, this included the “nightmare” scenarios. When I envisioned my personal lions, tigers, and bears, one thing I worried about was student questions. What if they ask me something I don’t know? What if they find out I’m not an expert in everything? I’ll be found out! They’ll chase me out of the school wielding pitchforks and blazing torches!

 

The truth is, questions should be a regular part of your day. Questions give students a sense of proprietorship in their learning and increase overall understanding. In fact, if they’re not asking questions, it could be a red flag that they are not with you at all.

 

You should also be incorporating good questions throughout your lessons to keep them on their toes. So let’s dig in to the world of educational inquiry.

 

pastel papers with question marksQuestions from your students


Turns out, questions from students weren’t the big bad wolf I thought they would be. Students should feel the freedom to ask questions in your classroom, and you should be encouraging them and handling them in a manner that maintains a culture of curiosity. 

 

  • But first… the annoying questions. They say there are no stupid questions. While that’s up for debate, there certainly are annoying questions. 

 

Frequent scenario: You’ve just spent a solid five minutes explaining an activity. A few students have asked for clarification, which you’ve happily given to the entire class. You’re just about to set them loose, and a student blurts, “Wait, what are we doing?” Sigh.

 

Ignore the impulse to roll your eyes, bang your head on the wall, or turn in your resignation. Instead, throw it back to the class: “Can someone please explain the instructions to so-and-so?” Give that student some grace; we’ve all spaced out at some point and missed valuable information. (If it’s a pattern in a particular student, definitely address it and get to the root, but not in front of the entire class.)

 

This strategy also works well for general student understanding of your content. If you’ve exhausted all ideas of presenting the info, and someone is still confused, allow a student to give it a shot. They’ll surprise you with some great ideas!

 

  • Questions that challenge your knowledge. This was the big fear I mentioned earlier. I remember early in my career when a particularly bright girl asked me a question to which I had no answer. And I froze. My pride got the better of me. I clumsily offered a side-stepped answer that she (maybe?) accepted, and I moved on.

 

Later I realized that it’s ok to not know everything. Actually, it’s the perfect opportunity to model solid inquiry behavior. Openly admit it: “You know what? I don’t have a great answer to that. Here’s what I think, based on ___, but maybe we can find out more.” Then, if there’s time, have them hypothesize. Or do a quick Google search right on the spot. Or assign it as bonus homework. Bottom line: embrace it. Students love to stump the teacher; imagine how it makes them feel when they’ve led you (a grown-up!) to learn something new. And, BONUS: you’ve modeled for them how to be curious grown-ups!

 

  • Watch your pride. Most students aren’t trying to challenge you. They’re naturally curious creatures. If you do suspect a student is trying to trap you into something, this is an opportunity to model mature debating behavior (a dying art in our world). And don’t forget: you’re the authority figure. If it’s an issue of disrespect, shut it down.

 

question marked on stack of sticky notesQuestions for your students


Start simply – ask them to repeat what you’ve just taught.

Ex: All sentences have a subject, a predicate, and a complete thought. All sentences should have a subject, predicate, and a what?

 

As you progress, throw some challenges at them to stretch what you’ve taught.

Ex: Can you write something on your whiteboard that has a subject and a predicate, but is NOT a complete sentence?

 

More questioning tips:

  • Cold call on your kiddos. Otherwise, those same hands will shoot up, often before you even finish the question, and sometimes lifting the student straight out of her seat. Here are some great ideas and apps to help. 
  • Give them time to think. Preface a question by saying, “Don’t answer out loud. I want to see how many hands can go up in 15 seconds.” (Be consistent and actually wait that long!)
  • Let students think individually and then “turn and talk” to each other before calling on someone. You’d be amazed at how much confidence that can build in your shy students.
  • If a student asks a great question, keep it in your back pocket. (I jot them down in my teaching notes after class.) Listen out for a similar question the next time you teach the same subject. If it doesn’t come up naturally, toss it out to your students and see if they can answer!
  • At the end of class, use exit tickets (on whiteboards, index cards, sticky notes, or apps), play a lightning round review game or even give a pop quiz to check classwide understanding.

 

Bottom line: questioning is a valuable tool that should be used frequently in your classroom. So ask away, and encourage your students to do the same!


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