The power of questions in teaching and learning
There are two teaching behaviors that, once mastered, can help the teacher be more effective in bringing about powerful learning in the instructional setting.
These are both fundamental teaching skills (“basic”) but both seem difficult for many teachers to master.
Additionally, these two skills are interrelated.
What are those skills?
The first is controlling the discourse. The second is asking questions.
Controlling the discourse during the instructional learning process accomplishes two things: first, the teacher is better able to lead learners to realize the learning objectives of the lesson, unit, or course.
Second, the teacher is better able to avoid confusion in the learning process by avoiding getting sidetracked, avoiding off-topic questions, and avoiding superfluous discussion.
There is no better way to sabotage learning than to cause confusion in the mind of the learner.
The second critical skill is asking effective instructional questions.
This teaching practice can facilitate controlling the discourse.
There are two facets to using questions in teaching: (1) technique and (2) types of questions.
We’ll deal with the second facet.
Asking the right type of question can help a teacher control the discourse.
Using one of ten types of questions appropriately, the teacher can control the discourse either by initiating dialogue, or, using the question to follow up on a student’s response. Here are the ten types of questions at the teacher’s disposal:
- Exploratory questions: these probe for knowledge, information, or facts.
- Challenge questions: these cause the learner to examine assumptions, conclusions, interpretations, and misunderstandings.
- Relational questions: these call for the learner to compare and contrast the relationship of one item (concept, object) with another
- Diagnostic question: these call on the learners to determine causes or examine motive
- Action questions: a type of application question, this calls for learners to articulate an action (what would, could, should, someone do).
- Cause-and-effect questions: calls for the learners to identify accurately, or, anticipate, causal relationships
- Extension questions: facilitates the ability to extend a discussion of probe deeper into a concept
- Hypothetical questions: causes a learner to formulate a hypothesis when a new element is introduced (a new fact, issue, circumstance) into the discussion.
- Priority question: calls for the learner to evaluation and choose what is most important from among choices.
- Summary questions: calls for the learner to synthesize learning and articulate key concepts.
One of the things I like about online teaching is that it allows me, as the teacher, to read a student response and then think carefully and intentionally about which type of question will make for a good learning prompt.
Choosing the most helpful from the list of ten questions I can push for deeper thinking, and, control the discourse toward the learning objective for the session.
This is more difficult to accomplish in a classroom setting when one must “think on one’s feet” and be constrained by time.
It can take years for a teacher to master the art of asking the right type of question at the right moment to control the discourse.
The online environment provides a more leisurely opportunity to do so.
See: Christenson and Hanson (eds.), Teaching and the Case Method. Boston: Harvard Business School, 1987.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.
His books on education include Academic Leadership: Practical Wisdom for Deans and Administartors, Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).