Communicating Through Questions

We ask our students questions on our syllabi, in classroom discussions, in brief hallway encounters, on their essay assignments and exams. Too often, though, questions we ask in class seek only to assess content comprehension and miss the full potential of questioning as a pedagogical tool. Probing, thoughtful questions can help students develop their critical thinking skills, surface connections between their own experiences and course content, and enrich our classroom environments.

This workshop will build attendees’ awareness and skill at asking strategic questions that serve a variety of purposes: setting a tone of inquiry and openness, inviting students to express their thoughts, opinions and uncertainties, and illuminating underlying assumptions. We will talk through categories of questions, types of answers, and motivations and attitudes associated with questioning in the classroom from the perspectives of both students and teacher. This workshop will encourage questions! We will use role play, and draw from both published literature on questioning and the experiences of participants.

This workshop was offered in Fall 2018 as an in-person workshop at the Graduate Center, CUNY. The workshop and materials were developed by Sarah Litvin.


All materials on this page and in the linked google folder are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (CC-BY-SA) 4.0 International Public License.

This folder contains outreach materials, workshop plans and slides.

Materials Folder: Communicating Through Questions

Workshop Plan

[4-4:15PM] Introductions

  • Name & Discipline
  • What is your experience as a student being asked/trying to answer questions in the classroom?
  • What are you hoping to get out of this workshop?

There are a lot of places we ask questions. We don’t often think of it, but we have different expectations for what kinds of responses we’re looking for in all of these contexts

    1. Syllabus
    2. Essay prompts
    3. In-class discussions

Today we’re going to focus on questions that we ask and answer during class, but these ideas will be applicable to a range of teaching contexts.

[4:15-4:40] Framing Roleplay and Brainstorm/Discussion

  • Framing–How are questions used differently in different professional settings? What various purposes do they serve in the classroom?

Role play these scenes: What are three questions you might hear from the professional in this scene?

  • For example, a policeman at the crime scene would say, “Where were you standing?”

What is the purpose of asking these questions in this context?

  • For example, it would be to corroborate information.
  1. Senate confirmation hearing
  2. Police at a crime scene
  3. Conversation at a dinner party
  4. Conversation with a dear friend or family member
  5. Car dealership
  6. Job interview

Let’s consider the classroom setting. What are some purposes teachers have in asking questions? Write on board.

  • To check comprehension
  • To solicit feedback on whether an explanation or idea is clear
  • To ask students’ opinions
  • To facilitate conversation and discussion
  • To intensify conversation or reduce the heat
  • To offer students an opportunity to challenge the validity of the information
  • To help draw connections between students’ experiences and the course content
  • To create a classroom community where many are involved

In different disciplines, there’s likely a different emphasis on the purpose of questions. Additionally, we all have different teaching philosophies and levels of comfort with asking questions. Let’s take a minute now to reflect on our own teaching.

[4:45-4:50] Reflective Writing

  • Which of these categories do most of your questions fall under?
  • Which of these kinds of questions do you want to improve today?

[4:50-5:05] Part II- Some of the research on effective and ineffective questions:

  • As much as 90% of teachers’ questions focus on low-level cognitive skills such as recall and memorization
  • Bloom’s taxonomy
  • Columbia University Study: When teachers wait at least five secs after asking a question, students lengthen their responses, back-up their claims with evidence, and become less teacher-directed and more peer-directed (uchicago “Asking Effective Questions”

Summary: How does a class benefit when a teacher communicates effectively through questions?

    • Creates an atmosphere of inquiry in the classroom: Shifts responsibility onto students; can you create a question out of what a student responds?
    • Gives students an opportunity to demonstrate what they know and seek clarification for what they don’t understand
    • Creates opportunity for students to express their thoughts, opinions, uncertainties
    • Creates opportunities for the teacher to more frequently assess student understanding and engagement
    • You’re communicating not just this content, but also the larger goals for it, and a sense of your concern for the student

How do we create questions that will do all this good stuff? Connect questions to larger learning goals…

[5 PM- 5:30] Part III: Practical Tips for Communicating through Questions in the Classroom

Hand out tipsheet and give them time to work with their own upcoming course content to come up with the kinds of questions that they identified they’re weak on in their reflective writing

[5:30-6:00]- Discussion: When Students Ask Questions: How to match the appropriate response to the appropriate question

Giving yourself wait time as a teacher!!! It’s also not always about the answers

Types of Questions: 

  • Perfectly legitimate fact-based
  • Perfectly legitimate logistical
  • Off-topic
  • Unclear
  • Inappropriate/personal
  • A statement, not a question

Kinds of Answers 

  1. Answer the question
  2. Redirect the question to the class: The advantage of this strategy, as in redirecting, is that the student may learn the process of searching for answers to his own questions rather than relying on the teacher. The risk is that the process can be embarrassing or so threatening that the student will be too intimidated to ask questions in the future. Obviously some human compassion is called for when using this strategy.
  3. Ask the student to stop after class to discuss the question.
  4. Refer the student to a resource where she can find the answer.
  5. Defer the question until a more appropriate time if the question is not connected to the material you’re covering. Be sure to note the question and the student, and to return to the question at a more appropriate time.

No matter which strategy you use you should return to the student after addressing the question and determine whether the response has satisfied the student.

If you don’t know the answer to a student question never fake an answer. Admit that you cannot answer the question and then select one of these strategies or others you find appropriate:

  1. Ask whether someone in the class can answer the question. Most times after class you should follow this with an attempt to determine whether the information provided was accurate or based on sound reasoning and credible sources.
  2. Either propose a plan for obtaining evidence for answering the question or ask the students to suggest how the question could be investigated.
  3. If possible, suggest a resource where the student can find information. The resource may be written material, another faculty or staff member, a student, or someone from the community.
  4. Volunteer to find the answer yourself and report back to the class. Make sure you actually do return with the answer if you choose this option.

I’ll be writing about this, thinking about it; what questions did this raise that need more consideration?

  • Help me to fine-tune my thinking in response to what ppl want to know about this?

Exit Ticket: When someone asks you “What did you get out of this?” What will you say?