Productive Questions and How to Ask Them

Productive Questions and How to Ask Them

Communication by Paul Shanks. CC BY-NC 2.0

Conversation between students and instructors plays a critical role in the TILE classroom experience, making it important that instructors plan well in advance and practice the art of asking questions.

Asking the right question at the right time can be the best way to help an individual or group to get past an obstacle in the way of solving a problem, to move further along the process of solving a problem, to help understand where they might have taken a wrong turn, or to help them see a problem or potential solutions more clearly.

Conversely, unproductive questions can actually stifle discussion or make discussion into a game of “guess the teacher’s mind.”  For example, asking “How’s it going?” or “Are you having any problems?” can produce vague student responses whereas asking “Tell me about what you’ve been working on” or “What has been your process so far?” may elicit from students deeper reflection and more critical thinking.

"Productive questions lead students to think about creative solutions and help them get 'unstuck' when they face obstacles,” says Lisa Kelly, Associate Director at the UI Center for Teaching. “Not giving them the answer directly means the learning is still theirs."

Five principles to consider for effective questioning (as adapted from PRIMAS online resource):

1.     Plan to use questions that encourage thinking and reasoning

2.     Ask questions in ways that include everyone

  • Ask questions that encourage a range of responses
  • Avoid teacher-student “ping pong”

3.     Pause for 5-10 seconds after asking a question to give students time to think (Rowe, 1974)

4.     Avoid judging students’ responses

  • Rowe (1974) found that if a teacher made judgmental comments, even positive ones such as “Yes!” and "Well done" then this negatively affected students’ verbal performance. Instead, use comments and questions that permit a variety of responses and encourage alternative ideas. "Thank you for that, that is very interesting. What other ideas do people have?"

5.     Follow-up student responses in ways that encourage deeper thinking


Centre For Research In Mathematics Education. Teacher Handouts: Asking Questions That Encourage Inquiry-based Learning (2010): 1-10. 2010. Web. 24 June 2014. http://primas.mathshell.org/pd/modules/4_Asking_questions/pdf/4_Handouts.pdf

Rowe, Mary B. (1974). Wait time and rewards as instructional variables, their influence on language, logic and fate control. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 11, 81-94.

Photo by Paul Shanks, "Communication". CC BY-NC 2.0. flickr.com