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Questions Can Be Powerful

Researchers have identified effective questioning as a tool for building students' basic and higher-

Asking questions is one of the most commonly used instructional strategies in K12 classrooms. Researchers have identified effective questioning as a tool for building students' basic and higher-level skills. Here is what is known and what's new about using questions.

In summarizing research on effective schooling, researcher Kathleen Cotton (1999) identified several ways teachers can ask questions to promote learning:

1. Use questions to engage students and monitor their understanding.

2. Structure questions to focus students' attention on key ideas.

3. Pose questions for students to consider as they read or hear new content.

4. Ask a combination of factual and open ended questions during class.

5. Ask higher-cognitive (e.g., open-ended and interpretive) questions at least half of the time, when teaching students above the primary grades.

6. After asking a question, wait for at least three seconds to give students time to think about their answers.

7. When student responses are incorrect or incomplete, follow up with prompts and probes.

8. Give all learners opportunities to respond to higher-level questions.

In their 2005 book Quality Questioning Research-Based Practice to Engage Every Learner, professional developers Jackie Walsh and Beth Sattes offer insights gleaned from research literature. For example, teachers generally ask one to three questions a minute; only about one in five questions require higher-level thinking (Gall, 1984). "The research that links the cognitive level of teacher questions to student achievement is mixed," say Walsh and Sattes, but "most researchers conclude that higher-level questions promote the development of thinking skills" such as those required by today's high-stakes tests.

Target Students and Silent Teachers

Teachers also tend to call on the same volunteers for responses. In one study of students in grades 4-8, the most frequently called-on students, also called "target students," talked more than three times as much as their classmates, while a fourth of their classmates never spoke during class (Sadker & Sadker, 1985). Some research suggests that in traditional classrooms, students seated in the front and middle rows get the most teacher attention (Adams & Biddle, 1970; Sauer, Popp, & Isaacs, 1984). Students who are not engaged could be missing out. Strother (1989) found in his studies that "students who regularly asked and answered questions did better on subsequent achievement tests than students who did not."

A frequently overlooked aspect of asking questions is the value of teachers' silence. Research conducted by Mary Budd Rowe (1986) shows that most teachers give students less than a second to respond to a question. Low-performing students get less time (Stahl, 1994). Once a student responds, teachers generally wait less than a second before speaking again. What happens when teachers allow three to five seconds at each of these junctures? According to Rowe's research, students usually give responses that are longer and more complex, and they provide evidence to support their ideas. Students are also more likely to ask questions of their own, to listen to one another, and to increase classroom participation.

Learning from Questions

Recent studies on questioning underscore the important role effective questioning can play in learning. For example, a 2006 article in the Journal of Literacy Research reports on a study of the relationship between student-generated questions and reading comprehension among 360 third- and fourth-graders. Results showed higher-level student questions to be associated with higher levels of conceptual knowledge gained from text (Taboada & Guthrie). A study reported in Preventing School Failure found that ninth-grade history students who were asked to respond to meta-cognitive and affective journal questions over a 12-week period "demonstrated better retention of content material as evidenced by course grades at the end of the study" than students who were asked text-related questions or no questions at all (Smith, Rook & Smith, 2007).

Most educators are familiar with the six levels of cognition included in the original Bloom's Taxonomy: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Scholars updated the taxonomy in 2001 to incorporate 45 years' worth of "new knowledge and thought" (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001). The new levels are expressed as verbs instead of nouns, and the order of the two highest levels of cognition have been reversed: remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate and create. Scholars have also added a dimension that identifies four types of knowledge: factual, conceptual, procedural and meta-cognitive.

Carla Thomas McClure is a staff writer at Edvantia, a nonprofit education research and development organization ( For references used in this article, go to