Asking good questions

You can’t beat a good question. In fact, the internet age has arguably made the ability to ask a good question more important than ever before as we are constantly ‘searching’ for information. In the following short video about questioning, Warren Berger notes that a 4-year old child can ask in excess of 300 questions per day as it tries to make sense of the world (as many parents will no doubt have experienced). And yet students entering university have often lost the ability to ask good questions as they have experienced an education system that prioritises memorisation over questioning.

A key aspect of a university degree is therefore to help students rediscover the ability to ask good, informed questions. As they move from undergraduate to postgraduate, and potentially on to doctoral study, developing questions becomes even more important. But at the very least, by the time students finish their degree they need to have developed the ability to ask critical, informed questions about the world. As Warren Berger notes in the video, we have greater access to knowledge than at any time in human history – what we need are great questions to enable us to know what to do with all this information.

As educators, it is therefore vital that our teaching involves asking questions. If students can access the knowledge of the world on the internet, a lecture or a workshop should avoid simply ‘telling’ students information. Rather, it should encourage students to critically reflect on their views about the world and challenge them to formulate and articulate their own responses to the topic in question. What follows is a summary of different questioning strategies that you can use with your students.

Categories of question

Different types of question call for different types of answer, and direct discussions in particular ways. It is helpful to monitor the range of questions you ask so that you don’t over-use one type and inadvertently dominate the discussion. Two useful continuums of questions are:

Open – closed questions (or narrow – broad questions)

Closed questions request a specific answer. An example of a closed question requiring just a brief answer is, ‘What is the capital city of Bolivia?’. In contrast, open questions invite an open-ended or convergent answer. They open up an area of discussion and invite the respondent to go deeper into his or her world in order to bring forth an answer. An example of an open question is, ‘What is your philosophy of teaching?’.

Recall – thought questions

This continuum extends from recall of simple facts to speculative questions which require evaluative answers. A recall question can be closed, such as, ‘When was your course last revalidated?’ or open, such as, ‘How did you approach revalidation last time?’ Thought questions are higher order questions that should provoke greater levels of understanding and are more difficult to make up on the spot. Thought questions might begin with phrases such as, ‘Is there a better solution to …?’, ‘Do you think … is a good or a bad thing?’ or ‘How would you feel if …?’.

Pitch

Pitch relates to the open-closed and recall-thought continuums and refers to levels of questioning. You might choose to change the pitch of your questioning by, for example, beginning with a series of recall questions to find out about a context, and progressing to more challenging thought questions to probe deeper. Alternatively, you might begin with some broad thought questions and move towards more specific questions which help your reviewee to identify the specific problem s/he wishes to address.

Pauses

Pauses are necessary after posing questions that demand thought, and might also be necessary before you ask a question to indicate a change in level of thought or type of question. Make sure that you allow time for thoughtful responses.

Probes

Probe questions are supplementary questions that require elaboration, clarification, justification, illustration or example. They usually contain challenges and are thus useful for deepening the discussion. Examples of probe questions include, ‘Can you give an example to that?’, ‘Is there an alternative viewpoint?’ and ‘Is there an underlying principle to your concern?’

Sequencing

Sequencing questions so that the discussion progresses requires the listener to respond to answers. A useful technique for making sure that you respond sensitively can be to repeat back or to ‘mirror’ an answer to check for shared understanding and, possibly, to encourage clarification or elaboration. Another technique for making sure you respond effectively is to ensure that you listen actively.

Active listening      

Identified types of listening which could be useful to peer-supported review are surveying listening and study listening. In surveying listening, the listener tries to build up a mental map of what is being said to capture key points or main steps in an argument or description. It might be useful to reflect these points back to your reviewee to consolidate what has been said and to focus the next stage of a discussion. Study listening goes beyond the information being given to seek out hidden meanings and the speaker’s patterns of thinking and requires you to make hypotheses about underlying meanings, which is a subtle skill.

A type of listening to be wary of is ‘selective’ listening where you only attend to information which corresponds to your way of thinking. You might also find that you become confused as a listener if there is a mismatch between the verbal language and body language of the person you are listening to.

Common questioning errors:

  • Asking too many questions at once
  • Asking a question and answering it yourself
  • Asking a difficult question too early
  • Asking irrelevant questions
  • Always asking the same type of question
  • Asking questions in a threatening way
  • Not indicating a change in the type of question
  • Not using probing questions
  • Not giving time to think
  • Ignoring answers
  • Failing to see the implications of answers
  • Failing to build on answers

(Adapted from Brown and Atkins 1988, p.73)

(The content of this handout is largely adapted from Brown, G. and Atkins, M. (1988) Effective Teaching in Higher Education, Routledge.)

Coaching and mentoring

If you want to continue to develop your skills in critical questioning, you may be interested in becoming a coach or mentor.  Look out for forthcoming workshops and content on this area, which we will be posting on the site.  If you are interested in finding out more about mentoring, please contact Annamarie McKie, Learning and Teaching Facilitator, 01634 888647

Coaching and mentoring is a strong element of applications for Senior Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (UCA runs its own HEA-accredited scheme for Senior Fellowship).  See this recent presentation from the UCA workshop Coaching and mentoring for learning and teaching, which was presented to staff signed up for Unit 7003 (Senior Fellowship via UCA Professional Recognition scheme)

Mentors in learning and teaching at UCA

If you are looking for a critical friend to bounce off ideas about creative arts pedagogies, or want to talk through some challenges in your own teaching/supporting learning, please get in contact with the following staff:

Epsom – Dr Gill Nah, Dr Nicholas Houghton, Sallyanne Theodosiou, Ray Martin

Canterbury – Dr Gill Wilson, Annamarie McKie

Rochester – Annamarie McKie

Farnham – Amanda Couch, Tony Reeves

 

 

 

 

 

 

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