What was the question?

A couple of years ago I attended a Teaching & Learning conference which included a session by Geoff Petty, author of “Evidence-Based Teaching” and “Teaching Today”, pretty much one of the bibles of ITT and which also should really be on the shelf of every Hattie fan. His session gave me an enormous amount of food for thought as it outlined a number of questioning strategies but it also encouraged us to analyse how effective each one might be.

The precise questioning strategies you adopt can make a huge difference to the proportion of students that participate, both mentally and verbally, in your lessons. There are lots of brilliant blog posts around at the moment detailing the power of the question. As @Headteacherguru maintains in this post, skilled teachers will use teacher-talk time to use their questioning to develop understanding, accelerate learning and promote inclusivity.

The work I’ve been involved with in the past few years on narrowing the gap with FSM and PP students has shown me just how important questioning can be in developing engagement with those students who lack confidence and actively avoid engagement, one of the key factors in the gap in attainment between FSM and non-FSM students.

With questioning, what’s not to love? They are ready-made strategies that cost nothing and can be used immediately with any class in any subject. But perhaps before you get going, you might want to take a little time to reflect on which methods are most effective at any one time and which might have a positive – or negative – impact on your students.

A great – and quick – CPD exercise is for teachers to work in pairs or threes and work through these definitions and then attempt an exercise suggested below. Discussing each method will clarify just what is involved in each one, often the best way to come to realisations about things you might be taking for granted in your teaching repertoire, and also immensely useful when supporting colleagues who might be a bit stuck in their ways

So here are some questioning strategies that you may well be using already.

This process will allow you to reflect and analyse. Each example of a questioning strategy is accompanied with a brief summary of what each one involves, taken mostly from Petty’s own definitions.  If you used this in CPD, you might want to add some of your own. Discussing each method first is essential if you are going to analyse their effectiveness afterwards.

1        Question and answer: volunteers answer

  • Usually done with hands up or students calling out answers
  • Teacher chooses if there is more than one volunteer
  • Thinking time is usually less than 1 second (0.7 average!)
  • Low participation rate: students learn that if they don’t answer they won’t be asked to contribute
  • Students calling out reduces the thinking time of others

2        Question and answer: nominees answer

  • Students nominated by teacher answer questions asked by teacher
  • “Pose, Pause, Pounce”
  • See also “Pose, Pause, Pounce, Bounce” which passes responses round; encourages better answers and promotes inclusivity, detailed brilliantly here by @Teachertoolkit
  • Can be used to focus students who do not appear to be engaged

3        Buzz Groups: volunteers answer

  • Teacher asks each group in turn to contribute part of the answer, e.g. “Can you give me one advantage of this method? …Can another group give us another?…” etc.
  • A volunteer answers for each group
  • Called ‘buzz groups’ because of the buzz of conversation created while they work

4        Buzz Groups: nominees answer

  • As before, but teacher nominates a student in each group who will contribute the group’s answers
  • Teacher only chooses which student will give answer after the group discussion
  • Therefore, all group members are more likely to engage, listen and try to understand, as any of them might
    be required to explain
  • Again, teacher can choose student they think has least engaged!

5        Assertive Questioning

  • Buzz groups work on a thought-provoking question
  • Teacher asks individuals to give the group’s answer
  • Individuals usually nominated by teacher but could be volunteers from the group
  • Teacher gets a number of answers without giving correct answer away
  • Whole class is encouraged to discuss the various answers and agree – and justify – a ‘class answer’
  • Minority views are allowed but the aim is consensus
  • Only when the class has agreed its answer does the teacher ‘give away’ the correct answer

6        Pair checking

  • Pairs then compare answers
  • Each individual says something positive about their partner’s answer and one thing that would improve it
  • Teacher then gives correct answer
  • Pairs can then join into fours and suggest further improvements to one another’s answers (Think – Pair – Share)
  • Teacher listens to students conversations as s/he circulates

7        Mini whiteboards

  • Students have A4 whiteboards /laminated cards and dry-wipe pens
  • Teacher asks question, students all write their answers
  • Teacher waits until all students have an answer; optionally students check their neighbours’ answers
  • Teacher asks students to hold answers up all at the same time. Students look round to see what classmates
    have written
  • Teacher surveys all of the boards
  • Teacher clarifies any misunderstandings

Evaluating these methods
Before using any of the strategies outlined, or before developing your own, consider these very important characteristics and decide which questioning methods deliver the most effect.

Participation Rate

  • How high is the proportion of students who are engaged in trying to answer the question?
  • How many ‘passengers’ might this method allow?

Teacher’s feedback

  • To what extent does the teacher get representative feedback on the quality of students’ reasoning and understanding in the class?

Students’ feedback

  • What kind of feedback are the students getting about the quality of their understanding?
  • Ideally, students should be able to improve their understanding as a result of this questioning strategy.

Thinking time

  • How much time does a student have to think productively about the question, and then the quality of their answer?

Student comfort

  • This is a big one for the FSM students and your other under-achievers.
  • How ‘on the spot’ do students feel using this type of questioning?
  • How likely are they to feel humiliated and/or uncomfortable by the teacher or by others in the class?
  • What can be done to create a ‘safe’/ ‘no blame’ environment?

Of course, you can adapt and change the questioning methods you are most keen on using, but always useful to include the ‘hands up’ type strategies too as it spells out in no uncertain terms what impact can be expected if this is the primary method used. The rating system we used is based on our reporting symbols, substituting Satisfactory for Weak in this case (* = Outstanding; G = Good; W = Weak; P = Poor). You can use any of course, but best to have 4 ratings rather than 3 as there is likelihood of the middle ground constantly being opted for.

Participation Rate Teacher’s Feedback Students’ Feedback Thinking Time Student Comfort
Q&A – Volunteers answer
Q&A – Nominees answer
Buzz Groups – Volunteers answer
Buzz Groups
Assertive Questioning
Pair- Checking
Mini Whiteboards

This exercise isn’t designed to give conclusive and absolute answers: it gives instead an excellent opportunity for teachers to evaluate teaching strategies and open up a dialogue about teaching and learning, which is always a brilliant place to start.

The really interesting part about this method is that you will find that some methods, the ones that we’d expect to score highly across the board simply don’t, when it comes to student comfort.
These methods are designed to include all and to promote progress, and many of your under-achievers will find that very hard to stomach. The key here then, as with any strategy I guess, if that you need to put some effort into making it work and to creating an environment where it’s OK to fail and learn from mistakes.

“Teaching Today” Geoff Petty (2009)

“Evidence Based Teaching” Geoff
Petty (2009) 4th ed.


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