Questions are a really useful method of formative assessment to ensure your learners are acquiring the necessary knowledge and understanding before moving on to a new topic. 

They can also be used as summative assessment at the end of a unit or programme, for example, in a test or an exam. I thought I'd put a few ideas in this, and next month's article to help anyone who might be new to asking questions when they are with their learners.

This article will briefly cover:

  • Open and closed questions
  • Using verbal questions
  • Involving learners during a group session
  • Tips when questioning

Open and closed questions

Whenever possible, try to use open questions which require an answer to demonstrate understanding, rather than closed questions which only give a yes/no answer. The latter doesn't show you if your learner has the required knowledge as they could make a correct guess. Open questions usually begin with who, what, when, where, why and how. For example, 'What would you do differently next time?' instead of 'Would you do it differently next time?'

Try to just use one question in a sentence, as more than one may confuse your learners, or they might just focus on the last question asked. Try not to ask Does anyone have any questions? as often only those who are keen or confident will ask, and this doesn't tell you what your learners have learnt. Try not to use questions such as 'Does that make sense?' or 'Do you understand?', as your learners will often say 'yes' as they feel that's what you expect to hear, or they don't want to embarrass themselves. However, if you find yourself doing this, follow it up by asking why it makes sense, or how they have understood it.

Using verbal questions

If you are asking questions verbally to a group of learners, ensure you include all the learners. Don't just let the keen learners answer first as this gives the ones who don't know the answers the chance to stay quiet. Tell your learners you are going to use a particular method before you ask questions. For example, pose a question, pause for a second or two and then pick a learner to answer the question. This way, all learners are thinking about the answer as soon as you have posed the question, and are ready to speak if their name is asked. This is sometimes referred to as pose, pause, pick (PPP). If your nominated learner doesn't know the answer, ask them to guess. That way they still have to think and can't opt out. If they still don't know, say they made a good attempt and then move on to another learner.

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Involving learners during a group session

To ensure you include everyone throughout your session, you could have a list of their names handy and tick each one off after you have asked them a question. This is fine if you don't have a large group. If you do, make sure you ask different learners each time you are in contact with them. Alternatively, you could have everyone's names on folded pieces of paper, and ask a different learner each time to choose one.

Tips when questioning:

  • allow enough time for your questions and your learner's responses
  • ask open questions, i.e. those beginning with who, what, when, where, why and how
  • avoid trick or complex questions
  • be aware of your posture, gestures and body language
  • be conscious of your dialect, accent, pitch and tone of voice
  • don't ask more than one question in the same sentence
  • generate activity and energy if using closed questions to a group by asking learners to stand up, then ask them to sit down for a yes answer (or vice versa)
  • know that some learners might be shy, therefore direct your questions to a table of learners (if you have groups) to help encourage their input
  • use active listening skills to show you are concentrating on hearing what they have to say
  • try not to use a lot of jargon
  • use eye contact when talking to an individual learner, or use eye contact as you ask a question to a group by alternating looking at each learner for a second as you speak
  • use learners' names when possible
  • watch your learners' reactions and body language.

Do let me know if you have any more tips, or what does/does not work for you.

Next time, I'll cover:

  • Examples of questions
  • Preparing questions
  • Written questions
  • Multiple choice questions

Ann Gravells is an author, creator of teacher training resources and an education consultant - she can be contacted via her website: www.anngravells.co.uk

This article is copyright Ann Gravells - her next article will be: Questioning techniques – part 2

The above text is an amended extract from Principles and Practices of Assessment (2016) by Ann Gravells.

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