Friday, April 08, 2011

10 Ways to Help Students Ask Better Questions

by John T. Spencer

My students gather in a circle for article reviews. Each pair offers a short summary of the current event followed by a few discussion questions. On this particular day, we meander between talks of democracy, education, death and human suffering. The points students bring up are thought-provoking. However, I'm most impressed by the questions they ask one another. They clarify and ask follow-up questions. They make inferences. They ask connecting questions and critical thinking questions. It's a messy process, but it's beautiful messy. It's art.

However, the deeper questions didn't happen in a vacuum. Students have spent hours learning the art of questioning. Here are ten things I've done in class to encourage students to ask better questions:

  1. Question Everything: It's become a mantra in our class and it extends all the way to me. As long as a question is respectful, I want students to question their world. This applies to analyzing mathematical processes, thinking through social issues, making sense out of a text or analyzing the natural world for cause and effect. Pretty much every lesson we do includes students asking questions to me, to one another or to themselves - and the boldest of students will ask questions of the world.
  2. Reading: I require students to ask questions before, during and after reading. At first, the questions are basic. "What's this story going to be about?" or "Why is that character acting like that?" Over time, however, students think deeper about the text and start asking some profound questions. For example, yesterday a student asked a question about Flowers for Algernon: The main character seems to be happy but ignorant that people make fun of him. Is it better to be ignorant and happy or to know the truth, even when it will crush you?
  3. Inquiry Days: Three times a week, we do inquiry days, where students begin with their own question in either social studies or science and they research it, summarize it and then ask further questions. While my initial goal involved teaching bias, loaded language and summarization, I soon realized that students were growing the most in their ability to ask critical thinking questions.
  4. Feedback on questions: I highlight their questions in Google Docs and leave comments on their blogs with very specific feedback. It might sound harsh, but I will tell a student, "This question is shallow. You're a deeper thinker. Try asking a question that forces someone to question what they already believe" or "This question is deep, but it's worded in a way that elicits a short answer response. Can you change it so that you draw a longer response?"
  5. Model It: In the first week of school, I model the types of questions that require deeper thinking. This happens during read alouds, but also during class discussions. Sometimes I'll ask a really lame question and then say, "Someone tell my why that question sucked?" or I'll ask a deeper question and say, "Why was that a hard question to answer?" The goal is to get them to see deeper questions and to also think about why a question is deep or shallow.
  6. Practice It: We do mock interviews, fake press conferences and rotating discussion zones in the first week of school. Instead of spending time on ice breakers or excessive time on procedures, we spend time on learning to ask better questions.
  7. Scaffolding: Some students have a really hard time with questioning strategies. So, initially I give sentence stems. At first this was really hard for me. I thought that students would naturally ask questions and grow through accessing prior knowledge. I quickly realized that language acquisition had often been a barrier in asking better questions. So, sentence stems and sample questions became a way that ELL students could modify questions and access the language.
  8. Types of Questions: I teach students about inquiry, clarifying, critical thinking and inference questioning. Often the process is messy and there are moments of overlap, but it helps students when they can think, "What needs to be clarified?" or "How does this relate to life?" and from there they can develop better questions.
  9. Multiple Grouping Formats: Students sometimes ask me questions. Other times they ask partners or small group questions. Still other times they ask the questions to the whole class. Thus when they do an article summary, they start with individual questions but eventually move into leading a whole-class discussion.
  10. Technology: E-mail, Google Docs, instant message, Twitter and blog comments have all become asynchronous formats for asking and answering questions. Technology allows students to take their time in crafting a question while having access to the questions of their peers.
John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at  He recently finished two books, Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and Drawn Into Danger, a fictional memoir of a superhero. You can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer


  1. John - really interesting list.

    When you say 'inquiry days' (point 3) do you literally mean an entire day? And if you DO, then if you don't mind me prying, how, logistically, are you able to devote three days a week to student-directed inquiry?

  2. Sorry, it's not a full day. It's an hour to hour and a half block. I also let students keep the same topic for multiple weeks.

  3. are fortunate to work in a school that allows and encourages you to facilitate real learning. I agree on all points. I was having a chat with a school administrator and we were discussing how schools seem to pick and choose and even move people on (get rid of). One point he made, was that schools often make a shift to hiring teachers and not educators, simply because teachers (good ones) do as their told and get results. The other gets results but often ask questions (they question everything) which becomes a pain to administrators. It upsets their boxed idea of management and disrobes the documents that these administrators try to cling to. The schools maintain their reputation, but moves away from creating life-long learners. The name of the game is money, sustainability and not necessarily inspiring kids. Your points can do just that, inspire kids. Thank you...well done!

  4. It sounds like you've created a classroom culture in which there is deep trust and respect among students and teacher, a community in which everyone feels safe to take the big risks that this kind of real questioning requires. The freedom to experiment with one's thinking, ideas, and the tools to express them only comes from a dynamic and strong base. I love that you are creating that community with your students. I wish you worked in my school.

  5. This is an awesome post. If we think of the traditional three step process in the gradual release of responsibility:
    1. demonstrate
    2. guided practice
    3. independent practice
    I believe that most of the learning happens at step 2, but weaker teachers often go straight from step one to three and wonder why it doesn't work.
    The beauty of what you propose is that you have multiple ways of giving students guided practice and your feedback mechanism is not an add-on but embedded in each step.
    I like that you affirm the person even as you critique the product.
    So purposeful!!! I have bookmarked this page as a favourite!
    Merci - Ingrid @mmeveilleux

  6. Hello,

    We are a group of PHD students currently attending the University of Aveiro (UA) in Portugal and would like to ask you to take part in an online survey we are carrying out.
    In one of our courses we were asked to do some work based on data collected online and decided to focus our research on educational blogs distinguished in different categories by Edublogawards in 2009.

    Besides data collected straight from the blog itself we thought it would be interesting and useful to get some insight from the authors and administrators. We have thus developed an online survey available at

    to gather information regarding its main features and current relevance.

    We would be forever grateful if you could take 5 minutes to answer it before April 16.

    Kind regards
    Fátima, Sandra e Susana

  7. You list some wonderful suggestions for questioning. I teach Western Philosophy to 10th grade students, and I use many of the same techniques. Ensuring that students can think more rationally begins with teaching them how to ask good questions. I really like your idea of inquiry days, and I plan to try it a couple of times this year, and to incorporate it into my teaching next year.

  8. I have been working to improve my classroom questioning too. The following are some of my successes and failures in teaching questioning skills to 5th graders (not trying to spam or trackback - Feel free to give me some feedback):

  9. Could you elaborate on number 6? I am very interested in trying these activities in my own classroom. Thanks in advance!


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