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Teaching Strategies to Get Engaging Questions

Jordan Catapano

We’ve all experienced it before: We ask a question to our class, and those same few students raise their hands and share. The rest of the class sits quietly. And as the year goes on, the rest of the class learns that they don’t have to participate, content that those go-to students will consistently participate. The teacher, they know, does not require everyone to engage with questions as long as someone does.

Every class comes complete with its share of outgoing participants, shy introverts, and those middle-ground, I’m-not-going-to-engage-with-questions-unless-I-have-to students. But if teachers only call on those same few students throughout a given year, then how do we know how well all students are engaging in questions? We don’t. And that’s a problem.

So here are some key teaching strategies for what a teacher can do, and what to avoid, to help every student in class engage with the questions posed.

Teaching Strategies: What NOT To Do

One of the most common methods of presenting questions in class is for a teacher to ask one question aloud, call on the first hand they see raised, and then move on with the discussion. This method is helpful to that one student who has decided to engage with the question, but the other students who did not participate with the question had little – if any – engagement with the thought process the question presented.

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If the question was obvious or insignificant, perhaps there’s no need to hold every student accountable for engaging with it. But we must think about to what extent we would expect our classes to respond.

As teachers, it’s tempting to hurriedly call on that first hand that’s raised in the air. We fear the awkwardness that accompanies silence and enjoy ensuring that the discussion moves ahead. Unfortunately, relying on the call-on-the-first-hand-then-move-on approach often means that large percentages of our class are disengaged throughout any given conversation.

Also, when no one raises their hand, we skip “wait time” for students to think and instead rephrase our question multiple times. Silence, we forget, is the sound of thinking. And worse, when no one responds to our question, we skip the question and move on entirely, as though it doesn’t matter if a class engages with the inquiry or not.

Avoid jumping to that first hand, avoid letting the same few students dominate the conversation again and again, and avoid letting silence intimidate anyone into evading the question entirely.

Positive Questions Techniques

When I began teaching, a mentor teacher jokingly told me about his first evaluation. “I knew the principal was coming in to watch my class, so I told my students a trick the day before. If I asked a question and they knew the answer, they should raise their right hand. If I asked a question and they didn’t know the answer … they should raise their left!” This of course wasn’t true, but there is an interesting notion behind this story. The teacher wanted their students to look engaged, so they all had to participate with the question even if they didn’t know the answer!

It’s this concept – that all students engage with questions – that drives my thinking behind questions in the classroom. This is known as “Building a culture of total participation.” No students are allowed to leave themselves out of the thought process or dialogue that your questions create. Here are some successful methods you might consider including to build that culture of total participation.

Create the environment. Early in the year, directly express to students the importance of their participation with class questions and discussions. Everyone is responsible for thinking, even if they aren’t certain of their answer. Help each student take individual responsibility for engagement, thinking, sharing, and reflecting.

“Who else got this answer?” When one student shares a response, I don’t necessarily let that be the end of it. I follow up to the class with “Who else got this answer?” Then students raise their hands if they did. Usually not everyone raises their hand, so then I can continue by asking a student who didn’t raise their hand, “What answer did you get?” This could turn what would be a quick answer into a more thoughtful discussion about their thinking processes.

Fist-to-Five. When asking students a more reflective question, have them hold up a certain number of fingers to indicate their response. A question might be, “How difficult was this reading passage for you? Five fingers means you hardly understood a word, and zero means you understood all of it rather easily.” This allows all students to consider and respond to the inquiry, and the teacher can obtain quick and transparent formative feedback.

Write first. Often when asking questions, I require that each student first write down their own individual answer. Only after everyone has written his or her thought does public conversation happen.

Write first, then cold call. When I ask a question and have students write their thoughts first, I often say, “Make sure you get a thought down, because I’m going to randomly call on two people.” This puts a little more accountability on students to have something constructive to say since it may be them I call on. When I cold call on students, I tend to select students who less typically participate, giving them an opportunity to think about their response first and then share.

Ink-Pair-Share. And in addition to writing and cold calling, another great way to get all students to think and to share is to have them first write their ideas then share what they have with a partner or group. Here, each student engages with the question and has opportunity to verbalize their thinking as well.

Think with your feet. One of my favorite techniques to get all students engaged with thinking is to have students share their response by walking to a section of the room. After asking a question, I’ll tell students to walk to one side of the room for one answer and a different side of the room for the opposite answer. Or students could be directed to go to one of the four corners to represent their response as well. No matter how you set up your space, all students are responsible for kinesthetically sharing their thinking about your question.

Use discussion boards. While many students are hesitant to share their thinking aloud publically, they might feel more comfortable engaging on an online discussion board. If you have a class website, blog, or learning management system, post questions onto discussion boards and require each student to post a certain number of answers or responses. The use of technology allows students to think about, write, and edit their posts on their own schedule, which might offer a more appealing and manageable form of conversation.

Flip your class. A flipped classroom model also helps hold each student accountable for dealing with questions posed. If, for example, you provide a lesson that students will view at home, make sure that you end that lesson with a question they can engage with. Their obligation is to come to class the next day with their thoughts or notes about the question and begin sharing responses right away.

Around the whole room. When students are likely to have a variety of different thoughts or answers, go around the entire class and require each student to share their short response. This ensures that every student will answer the question out loud.

Poster questions. Instead of having to verbalize answers, students are instead handed a marker and asked to write their answers to questions recorded on posters around the room. Like digital discussion boards, students can think about their answers and respond to others, but all without the pressure of having to raise their hand and publically speak out.

Begin and end with a question. Start your class with a “hook” question that relates to what students will learn during class. Then, as class time expires, have students return to this question and individually answer it on an exit slip. This helps each student engage with the question and pay attention during class, and it provides teachers with formative feedback.

“I don’t know” is OK, if … Tell students it’s OK to say, “I don’t know the answer,” as long as they do one of the following:

  • Ask a follow up or clarifying question
  • Listen to a classmate’s answer and repeat it
  • Look up information that could lead them to the answer
  • Think about the question and then answer it later in the class

Beyond Teacher Questions

Of course teachers will ask many, many questions of their students throughout the year. How many will your students actually apply their thinking skills to?

Perhaps more importantly, how many questions will your students ask themselves? Teachers ask students questions to make them think of answers, but students who learn to consistently frame their own questions will more likely demonstrate curiosity, depth of thinking, and learning retention. So beyond getting students to engage with your questions, develop a classroom environment that is open to all forms of inquiry!

What do you think about this list of ways to help all students engage with questions? What would you add? Tell us your suggestions in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.