Questions and their role in enhancing student learning
Report by Danielle Maroske, Araceli Llanos and Tamara O'Rourke
The use of questions within the classroom is integral to enhancing student learning. It is an essential skill, which forms the basis of good and successful teaching. As facilitators, we must demonstrate a range of questioning techniques designed to support student learning (NSW Institute of Teachers, 2006)
There are a number of positive elements that can be derived from implementing questioning strategies within the classroom. These range from helping learners connect concepts to making inferences, whilst encouraging awareness, enhancing creative thought and generally helping the learner gain a deeper understanding of the specific topic at hand (Erickson, 2007). In planning a sequence of effective questions, teachers must not only consider the types of questions they wish to use, but the domains these questions address and how to respond to questions as to maximise student learning.
There are five main types of questions that can enhance a students learning experience. These include factual, convergent, divergent, evaluative, and combination questions. These questions all have their place within the classroom and as teachers it is useful to know where they all fit in. One of the most basic questions is the factual question. Factual questions are associated with hard facts that are universally known. They are at the low end of cognitive processes and usually end with an answer that is either right or wrong (Erickson, 2007), for example,’ what country is the Eiffel Tower situated in? ‘. A second type of question is referred to as convergent. When answering a convergent question there may be some discrepancy but there is usually widely accepted answer. This type of question significantly enhances student comprehension skills. For example ‘What were the main reasons that lead to the fall of the Weimar Government in Germany?’ Divergent questions follow up on a convergent question and take the topic further. These questions allow for more discussion, as the answers are not always explicit. They are at the high end of cognitive learning processes and enhances student learning by helping students to look outside the square and examine all possible scenarios (ibid, 2007). The evaluative question requires deep thinking processes to be used and asks the learner to evaluate various scenarios to make an educated judgement. These questions often ask the learner to compare or contrast, ask why or how certain events occurred or to evaluate the similarities and differences of a certain topic or aspect.
Questions that use a combination of the aforementioned structures are referred to as combination questions. They are generally more sophisticated and require deeper, more complex thought.
Rhetorical questions are often posed in situations when one wants to provoke a cognitive response from the audience. A verbal response is not expected – the question is posed as a trigger. Closed questions are non negotiable and often leave no room for interpretation whereas open questions allow students an opinion and a chance to explore. (Erickson, 2007).
Exploring the different uses of questions is the next step in planning a sequence of questions for an effective lesson. Teachers can plan sequences of questions in order to achieve particular learning outcomes (Good & Brophy, 1990, cited in McInerney & McInerney, 2006). To achieve this, teachers must classify their questions according to three domains: cognitive; affective; and reflective and metacognitive.
Cognitive domain questions are those questions require students to remember, understand, apply, analyse, evaluate and create new information (Dalton & Smith, 1989, cited in Godinho & Wilson, 2004). Educators can classify their cognitive domain questions using Bloom’s Taxonomy of cognitive processes. Bloom’s Taxonomy identifies six cognitive levels that teachers can use to promote a low or high level of cognition. Questions that target the lower end of the cognitive hierarchy are often recommended as the initial point to establish fundamental understandings while higher-order cognitive questions on the other hand, provide students with the opportunity to engage in the construction of meaning at a deeper level. In practice, teachers should initiate with lower order questions which focus on the recall of knowledge and progress to higher order questions by modelling questions and strategies that require students to organise, analyse, synthesise, reflect, justify and invent knowledge and information. Examples of higher order questions include ‘How could you find out? What would you do if? Why do you think this happens?’
While it is said that higher-order questions lead students to articulate relationships between and among concepts, integrate facts and address various perspectives or solutions (NSW Department of Education and Training, 2003), there is no doubt that students with different abilities will require a combination of lower and higher order questions. This balance will not only help students with higher abilities to learn effectively from both higher and lowers questions specifically when critical feedback is provided but also students with lower ability levels to benefit from higher order questions which allow for a range of correct answers. Thus, it is crucial that teachers create a balance of lower and higher order cognitive questions as research demonstrates that both can lead to enhance student learning (Gall, 1984, cited in McInerney & McInerney, 2006,). Affective domain questions are those that address our emotions and personal values (McKenzie, 2000, cited in Godinho & Wilson, 2004). In an inquiry based learning environment, it is imperative that students use questioning as a means to explore their own and other’s values. Krathwohl’s instructional objectives taxonomy provides teachers with useful verbs for framing questions in the affective domain. These verbs are aligned to different levels, which increase in complexity in attitudes and emotional responses. Educators can use affective domain questions to elude simple answers from students to complex issues such as equity in the classroom. Examples of affective domain questions include ‘What does it mean to be a good friend?’ and ‘What does to mean to have respect integrity?’ (Godinho and Wilson, 2004)
Reflective and metacognitive domain questions assist in monitoring and self-regulating learning. Both teachers and students can use reflective questions to engage in purposeful reflection on the effectiveness of their own behaviours and learning experiences. Similarly, metacognitive questions would provide an opportunity for teachers and students alike to consider their knowledge and awareness of their personal learning styles. Research indicates that teaching students to ask questions of themselves through the modelling of self-questioning techniques cannot only facilitate student learning but also to develop our own questioning strategies (Godinho, S. & Wilson, J., 2004)
One of the benefits to using these higher order questions in the classroom is their potential to develop creative thinking skills. Through discussion and discovery, students can generate ideas that will facilitate learning in a meaningful way. By framing questions in a thought-provoking manner, teachers can help students to explore their own understandings and the understandings of others. Information can be presented as meaningful whole units and then broken down by questions to allow learning activities to become more culturally, personally and educationally relevant (McInerney, & McInerney, 2006). William’s Taxonomy of Creative Thought provides a guide to framing questions that will invite a personal and creative response. This cognitive-affective model suggests that several factors are conducive to creative thought, including flexibility, imagination and risk-taking. Interest and curiosity are important intrinsic motivators (Fortier Vallerand, & Guay, 1995), and William’s model takes this into consideration. Students’ knowledge is validated and expanded upon as they are asked to imagine, elaborate and be flexible in their thinking. Open-ended questions are used and allow learners to critically and creatively examine their thoughts and brainstorm new ideas. While creative questioning is used by the teacher to direct, this technique allows for a student-centred learning approach. Students are able to use their formal and informal knowledge to generate meaning, and in doing so gain confidence in their ability to understand, learn and contribute. The creative thinking skills that are developed can then be applied across all subject domains.
While frameworks such as William’s and Bloom’s taxonomies provide useful ways of developing questions, teachers must carefully consider the way in which their questions are phrased and delivered. Even the most thought-provoking and creative questions will be ineffective if they fail to meaningfully engage. Godinho and Wilson (2004) describe many common mistakes that are made by teachers, one of which includes excessive questioning. Students need time to explore their ideas, to compare, contrast, argue and explore. Rapid questioning may inhibit learning and, argue the authors, cause anxiety. Anxious students, generally, do not perform well academically ( Bigge & Hunt, 1962), and are less likely to be engaged. Providing time for students to gather their ideas and prepare them coherently will generate a higher-quality response, and help students to be confidant in their answer. Teachers must also ensure that they are not simply waiting on a pre-determined response – it must be remembered that the process is as important as the product. Teachers should study and reflect upon how they respond to a students answer. Constantly targeting particular students, excessive praise, and unnecessary interjection can decrease the effectiveness of questions (Godinho and Wilson, 2004), and do little to enhance learning. Responding strategies suggested by Godinho and Wilson (2004) include sustaining the question by using probes and asking for clarification, and allowing appropriate wait time. Minimising unnecessary feedback may help to validate all ideas, and increase participation. Encouraging students to respond to each other rather than simply using the ‘Initiation, Response, Evaluation’ pattern of talk (Latham, Blaise, Dole, Faulkner, Lang and Malone, 2007) will help to develop class dialogue. Questioning as a teaching strategy can be incredibly effective if teachers are aware of their approach, and evaluation of strategies can be made by both teacher and student.
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