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The Power of Questioning in Classrooms


Bhavesh Gor

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“No one can teach, if by teaching we mean the transmission of knowledge, in any mechanical fashion, from one person to another. The most that can be done is that one person who is more knowledgeable than another can, by asking a series of questions, stimulate the other to think, and so cause him to learn for himself.”

—Socrates, 5th century BC.

I had not quite understood what Socrates meant until I observed a lesson for grade Two.

I was fortunate to observe a lesson by an Environmental Science teacher teaching in grade Two. The chapter was ‘Housing’ and the subtopic being discussed was ‘Types of Doors’.

The teacher started asking her students about the different types of doors that they had seen around them. The students gave various responses. Some said that they had seen hinged doors, some had seen sliding doors and yet another narrated that he had seen a door that opened when he stood in front of it at a shopping mall. The teacher framed her next question by asking how the door opened. The students had various interpretations like – ‘There is probably some person who opens the door’

The teacher did not stop the discussion by explaining the science behind it. But she encouraged students to think critically. Some students felt that there was a switch on the floor which helped the door to open.

This went on till finally, one of the students said that there was a device which knew that there was somebody standing at the entrance. That is when the teacher introduced the word ‘Sensor’ and took the discussion forward.

The teacher used the art of Probing. So, what are probing questions?

Jenn Linning in the article ‘Probing Strategy: Using Questions to Develop Student Answers’ mentions that probing questions encourage students to extend their verbal answering in the classrooms. Teachers can use probing to discuss new concepts, they can be used for more clarity on concepts that are taught, and seek experiences of the learners on particular concepts.

Probing in classroom is important because it provides encouragement to students to explain their answers. Many a times, it helps in clarifying their understanding by the series of questioning.

A very popular technique of asking probing questions is a follows:


So, at the Pose stage, the teacher poses a probing question. Then at the Pause stage, she asks the students to think and she too pauses, trying to keep the students, who blurt out the answers, at bay. At the Pounce stage, she calls out the names of the students whom she wants to respond to. This technique also ensures that all the students pay attention to the classroom interaction. At the Bounce stage, instead of the teacher concluding whether the response is right or wrong, she/he passes on to the other students to respond to the answer provided. Thus, the whole class gets a chance to contribute to the discussion and clarify their own understandings.

Research suggests that this process helps your brain to form new connections between information, making it more likely that you remember and store it.

Probing questions can also be introduced by a teacher as a prerequisite knowledge-testing at the beginning of a lesson.

There are various other techniques of asking questions which can be used during the lesson after the lesson is taught.

Teachers use questioning technique

A teacher once asked “What is the capital of India”? to her grade 5 students when she was teaching Political India as a part of a geography lesson.

Another teacher asked “Why is New Delhi the capital of India”? to her grade 5 students.

What is the difference in the learning that will happen by following the above questioning technique?

In the first case the teacher uses the common method of recitation, or the Initiate-Response- Evaluate (I-R-E) model of questioning, although this model can be an effective way to check for factual knowledge or recall.

In the second case when the teacher asks ‘why’ questions, it gives the students a chance to critically think and respond. This technique also allows more students to take part in the classroom discussion. This ensures that the learning is co-constructed. The most important part in asking thought-provoking questions is inviting students to make predictions and summarise them, link concepts learned in the past, and clarify them.

Research has shown that one way of helping our students towards deeper learning is to use effective questions in all lessons and subjects. A teacher’s skillful use of questions can help students make connections between their learning.

A teacher generally asks many questions and they can be categorised in two main categories:

  1. Surface Questions
  2. Deep questions

Surface questions elicit one or more ideas. They can be answered by a straightforward response that requires little processing or deep thinking but require a minimum level of understanding in order to be answered correctly.

When the teacher asked “what is the capital of India?, she is asking a surface question.

Deep Questions: They elicit relations between ideas and extended ideas. Higher level thinking skills will need to be used to give a satisfactory response to a deep question. These types of questions are good for developing students’ critical thinking, although care should be taken not to make them out of reach as this can be demotivating. Because of the complex nature of the question or response, some students may require a hint to point them in the right direction if they are struggling. The second question asked by the teacher is an example of deep questioning.

Asking questions that begin with ‘What if…?’ and ‘Why…?’ can help you delve deeper into students’ thinking.

Deep questioning also helps to bring out the learning gaps or misconceptions in the students’ understanding of concepts.

A perfect example of deep questioning used as a formative assessment after the lesson is taught is the Detailed Assessment. Though the format of Detailed Assessment is in multiple choice questions, each of the multiple choices are distractors which capture the misconceptions and force the students to think critically.

It is a common observation that even while children know how to solve a problem, they may not be clear about its underlying concept. The question mentioned below is a sample of Detailed Assessment and gives a clear understanding of the learning gaps.

Q. Which of these correctly describes what happens to the molecules in a bowl of ice cream when it melts?

1.They absorb heat energy and start moving more slowly.

2.They absorb heat energy and start moving more rapidly.

3.They release heat energy and start moving more slowly.

4.They release heat energy and start moving more rapidly.

Correct Answer: Option 2

Over 70% of the children select option 1 as the correct answer.

This is because they see that the ice cream melts slowly and assume that molecules will start moving more slowly.

Detailed Assessments are the starting points of deep questioning in classrooms. They can be used as formative testing in the classroom. The teachers can build on the common answer to be able to tackle misconceptions thus formed. Detailed Assessment helps the parents, students and teachers identify such learning gaps through questions of higher order thinking and provides high quality guidelines to address those.

The Westbrook report on pedagogy, curriculum, teaching practices and teacher education in developing countries (2013) has said that in the most effective practices, teachers asked a variety of questions drawing on students’ backgrounds and ranging from closed, recall questions to higher order, open questions with feedback embedded through elaboration, rephrasing and probing.

In the less effective practices, teachers rarely rephrased, elaborated or probed a student’s response apart from short praise or whole-class clapping; Hardman et al. (2012) point out that while students were involved, their understanding was not 4 checked – and hence in these ritualistic question and answer sessions, ‘no learning’ took place .

Thus, we have seen in exploring questioning critically we have thought about techniques and question types conducive to students’ deeper learning. However, it is important to think about what can go wrong when teachers use questioning in their lessons, and what are the common pitfalls?

The common pitfalls are listed below:

  1. Not being clear about why you are asking the question
  2. Asking too many closed questions that need only a short answer
  3. Asking too many questions at once
  4. Asking difficult questions without building up to them
  5. Asking superficial questions
  6. Asking a question then answering it yourself
  7. Asking bogus ‘guess what’s in my head’ questions
  8. Focusing on a small number of pupils and not involving the whole class
  9. Dealing ineffectively with wrong answers or misconceptions
  10. Not treating pupils’ answers seriously

Therefore one should be wary of the common pitfalls of questioning in classrooms.

But it is imperative to remember that effective questioning is a key aspect of the teaching and learning process, as the kind of questions we ask determine the level of thinking we develop. The focus of questioning should be aimed at identifying learning gaps created while constructing knowledge.


  1. Common pitfalls of questioning’: http://oer.educ.cam.ac.uk/wiki/Common_Pitfalls_of_Questioning/Document
  2. Probing Strategy: Using Questions to Develop Student Answers by Jenn Linning | Dec 6, 2018 | Teachers, Tutors
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