ANSWERING AND ASKING QUESTIONS

by William E. Cashin, Kansas State University (condensed by Marlene Cohen)

[Reprinted from Prince Georges Community College, Reasoning Across the Curriculum Newsletter volume 1, no. 4 (February 1995)]

A summary of questioning techniques that are appropriate in college-level courses for lecture classes as well as for discussion groups.

Ask yourself: What exactly goes on in class? What do I do? What do the students do? Video or audiotaping your class can provide a wealth of detail about your questioning techniques.

I. STUDENTS ASKING QUESTIONS

What are some things that you can do when asked a question other than directly answering it?

1. Repeat the question, paraphrasing it. This insures that the entire class hears the question. It lets the questioner check your understanding of his or her question. This process also gives the other students time to think about the question and possible answers to it.

2. Redirect the question. You might ask another student to respond; or you might redirect the question to the class in general. This also implies that peers are a resource for learning.

3. Ask probing questions. You might respond to the student's question by directing her (or his) attention to a particular aspect of the issue the student has raised, or her attention to some previously learned course material that is relevant, and so help her answer her own question.

4. Promote a discussion among the students. The three previous suggestions usually involve communication between two people, typically the instructor and one student, with the rest of the class simply listening. It may be that you will want to involve the majority of students in trying to answer some questions, for example, where there is considerable difference of opinion about the answer. For example: Instructor: Your comments, together with other things members of the class have said, suggest to me that there are strong disagreements about abortion. I think it might help if we spent some time discussing it. I'd like you to get into buzz groups of three or four people each and spend about ten minutes coming up with as many arguments for and against abortion as you can. When you've finished, we'll discuss them.

II. ANSWERING QUESTIONS

5. Directly answer the question. We do not recommend answering a student's question directly if you wish to foster thinking or problem-solving skills. However, when the questions ask for information that other students in the class are not likely to have, directly answering the question is appropriate. After responding you may want to check to see if you have really answered the question by saying something like: "Does that answer your question?" Sometimes an instructor would like to use a student's questions as an opportunity to bring in a related topic that the instructor wishes to cover, reasoning that students learn better when they see the material as relevant to their own interests. Answer the student's questions first; then be explicit that you are covering something else that is on your agenda.

6. Postpone answering the question. Students are more likely to learn and remember if the instructor answers their questions when they ask them. Nevertheless, on certain occasions you may decide to put off answering a question. When the material is covered later, call it to the student's attention: "Here is the answer to the question you asked before, Frank...." Clearly communicate to all of the students your willingness to try to answer their questions. Generally, you should answer more questions than you postpone.

7. Discourage inappropriate questions. It is probably best to tactfully indicate what about the questions is inappropriate. You might consider: "Why don't you see me after class?"

8. Admit when you do not know an answer.

III. ASKING QUESTIONS

9. Ask open-ended, not just close-ended questions.

10. Ask divergent as well as convergent questions. The distinction between convergent and divergent questions is whether there is a single or accepted "correct" answer (to a convergent question) or there are a number of possible answers, many of which may be acceptable (to divergent questions). Divergent questions often require new, creative insights.

From: IDEA PAPER No. 31, Center for Faculty Evaluation and Development, Kansas State University, 1615 Anderson Avenue, Manhattan, KS 66502-4073

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