Any Questions? Turning That Dreaded Silence Into a Conversation

By Lindy Elkins-Tanton

I now cringe whenever I hear a speaker say, “Any questions?” Few of us are ever jumping out of our seats with unanswered questions. If we had something urgent to ask, we probably would have asked it right away. And if we didn’t, the speaker’s query is met with awkward, almost guilty silence. In fact, common advice for teachers is to ask for questions, then wait as long as it takes to get a question. Even in undergraduate classes, where everything is organized around learner inquiry, students struggle with asking questions. Instead of enduring the awkward three-minute wait, there are better ways to help students ask questions. 

Getting Students to Ask Questions

Questions fall into two main categories: those to clarify a specific piece of content and those that push the class toward a solution to a larger goal or problem. The second—a natural next question—is a more powerful kind of question; one which takes students a step away from their current knowledge and toward the identified goal.

First, students might have trouble thinking of questions. They need to gain confidence in phrasing questions and to learn what questions are valuable in what contexts. No matter in what context you are asking for questions, students may need some scaffolding to help them start. However, don’t use scaffolds for long—just a couple of class sessions should suffice.

Content Questions

Here are some question stems that students can complete and some prompts that might inspire content questions. (You may need to alter them for your age group.)

  • What is the definition of ____________? What exceptions is the definition trying to avoid?
  • How would I identify____________?
  • Why have the authors focused on____________?
  • What was the first moment in the lecture/reading/video that confused you, or where you felt a little lost? What question can you ask about that moment?
  • Do you have any questions about any of the author’s choices in what they did or wrote about, and what they left out?
  • Did any argument or assertion in the lecture/reading/video feel poorly supported? What might the author need to justify better?

Natural Next Questions

Students might use these prompts:

  • What question do you need to ask yourself to move forward?
  • What’s a new topic (not the ones you’ve been learning about so far) that you might need to learn about to reach your big goal?
  • Look at your big goal. What’s a specific thing you need to learn to get to that big goal?

Starting Question-Asking Outside of Class

Of course, students might still be intimidated speaking up in class. The time and place of question-asking can have a big effect on the confidence of learners. The lowest-pressure time and place is by themselves, outside of class. Start by asking students to write a content question about that day’s lecture on an index card right after class, and to hand it in at the beginning of the next class. Or, ask students to prepare natural next questions in the evening to ask in the next class.

Before requiring students to ask questions in class, remember that there could be some potent cultural pressures. Many cultures, including large parts of Asia and India, virtually forbid students to ask teachers any kind of challenging question. Shyness can also be a big deterrent. Students may benefit from practicing at home first.

In the classroom, be explicit about your expectations. For example, you can require each student to ask at least one question each week. If you are collecting a list of questions, let everyone know that brainstorming rules are in effect: There will be no critique of any question. All questions are good questions, all questions are applauded and welcomed.

After the class relaxes about asking questions, you can introduce the idea of improving questions. For example, using Beagle’s Question Productivity Index Rubric, students can work on improving their own questions or they can work in supportive groups.

Finally, demonstrating to students that their questions count greatly enhances the learning process. Address content questions in groups. If you’re interested, reach out to the Beagle Learning team about how they can do this for you automatically. Students in undergraduate courses using Beagle Learning software either upvote natural next questions online or vote on them in person at the end of class, and the top question or questions become topics for the next class. When learners can guide their learning direction, their engagement naturally grows, their information retention grows, and their sense of belonging grows.

Visit us at booth #416 at the Innovations Conference or to learn more about ways to drive higher engagement with student-led inquiry. Join our Innovations Conference session, “Drive Engagement with Learning Skills: How to Facilitate Inquiry-Based Discussions,” on March 2 at 02:15 PM in Entiat, Level 4.

This article was derived from a post originally published on the Beagle Learning blog, Are Some Questions Better Than Others? How to Assess Questions [with Question Rubric].

Beagle Learning is an Innovations 2020 sponsor and exhibitor.

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