Classroom Questioning Strategies

My high school instructional coach has started running a “Lunch and Learn” series that targets a particular teaching skill or topic every month or so. The theme of the series is around the 8 Qualities of Engagement by Antonetti & Garver. Even though it only lasts about 30 minutes, it’s a useful opportunity to get a quick reminder about a specific part of my practice along with some strategies and resources that can be put to immediate use. It also doesn’t hurt that a tasty lunch is provided. The second session was on questioning strategies and gave me some food for thought that I wanted to reflect on.

Starting with a Question

Starting my lesson with a question as opposed to a more traditional “Students will…” or “I can…” objective is something that is easy to forget about. In essence, this is inquiry with a little ‘i’ in that it gets students engaged with the material in a way that provokes more thinking. Easier said than done. Inquiry guru Trevor MacKenzie has a similar “hook” that he calls a provocation where the teacher begins with an image, video clip, primary source, or other item that students can look at and begin questioning to get into the lesson’s material.

Specifically phrasing the day’s objective as a question for the purpose of opening class takes a bit of word smithing. A really good compelling question is not easy to write and teachers are not as good at it as we often imagine. Going from the objective “Students will analyze the causes of World War One in order to understand the difference between short-term and long-term causes” to the question “What were the causes of World War One?” just does not do it at all. “Was World War One inevitable?” is a little better, but tends towards being too trite. Something with a bit more humor helps with initial engagement, like “Why did Europe go to war over a dead Austrian that few people seemed to like?” Although this final question may not read with as much academic quality as others, it can interest students a bit more and still get them to question multiple causation and the interplay of factors leading to the outbreak of war. Any teacher or evaluating administer should be able to see how it ties to the curriculum. After all, it is the teacher’s job to decide how to deliver the curriculum in the best way possible.

Hinge Questions

The term “Hinge Question” was a new one for me that came out of the lunch and learn. The terms seems to come from Dylan Wiliam, or at least he is now associated with it in my mind as a result of his article and YouTube clip. The idea of the hinge question is that the teacher plans out particular points in the lesson where a student response is elicited in order to determine whether the teacher will move on to the next concept or reteach what was already presented. Not a new or groundbreaking concept, but very difficult to do well.

In AP World History I have done this by asking students to write thesis statements, contextualize a thesis statement, answer one or two stimulus-based multiple choice questions, or HIPP a primary source among other options. The challenge is doing this during the lesson in a way that provides me with actionable feedback on where students are at that moment. I have used Mentimeter to do this in the past, where student responses pop up on the screen and I can take a few minutes to emphasize strong answers and correct problematic answers in a way that does not call out students individually.

MCQ questions are a little harder to use because they take a bit more time to write. At least, good MCQ questions tied to both skills and content take more time to write. In a good question, there is the correct answer, one answer that is completely wrong, and two distractors that are wrong for different reasons but still include something that seems correct. Easier said than done. An example is below.

Dylan William writes that a useful way of developing these questions is to start with partial or incomplete understandings that students have, using them to generate plausible answers. This way, students who do not understand the concept are less likely to guess the correct answer. I suspect this is easier for math teachers than humanities teachers, especially if the latter rely on pre-made questions banks.

  1. A historian writing about the causes of the French Revolution would most likely define which of the following as a “trigger cause?”
    • A. The spread of Enlightenment ideas such as Rousseau’s Social Contract.
    • B. The execution of King Louis XVI
    • C. The Storming of the Bastille
    • D. The winter famine of 1788

Ideally, students will select answer C. If a student selects answer A, it tells me they may not know the difference between a long-term cause and trigger cause. If a student selects B, it tells me they understand the concept of short-term and trigger causes, but do not have a firm understanding of the chronology of the content. If a students selects answer D, they may understand the difference between short and long-term causes, but struggle with issues of short-term vs. trigger causes. Hopefully, these will get better as I write and use them more. I am more comfortable using open-ended responses as checkpoints, but this can get time consuming if I am trying to collect and analyze evidence from every student.

Student Written Questions

Part of using questioning strategies is getting students to ask quality questions that reveal insight and significance. I find using DBQs is one great way to do this. Students should be “questioning” primary sources, using those questions to probe for insight, connections, and analysis opportunities. Using primary sources in any capacity helps students improve their own questioning abilities.

On a larger scale, it’s important to help students develop research and compelling questions. Using larger inquiry projects like National History Day can help students hone these skills. The Historical Thinking standards from the National Center for History in Schools include a standard on developing the ability of students to ask questions of both topics and sources. Likewise, this skill is embedded in the C3 Framework. As students become better questioners they develop deeper analytical abilities. An example from my students’ NHD work this past year is below.

Higher Order Questions

We want students to be able to answer open-ended questions. Ideally, they do this with the concept of “however,” revealing a complex understanding of the topic. This takes practice.

My experimentations with the Harkness method this year have reinforced to me the importance of class discussion and student-centered approaches to helping them develop these skills. Strategies like Harkness ask students to not only respond to higher order questions, but to produce their own as they push the discussion forward. This has taken practice and repetition, but I have seen a tremendous amount of growth in with students’ analytical depth and agency.

In AP World History, I have used Harkness discussions as a capstone activity for several units. For example, at the end of units three and four students were asked to explore “To what extent did societies change as a result of land and sea-based empires ruling conquered people?” Likewise, at the end of unit six, students conducted a Harkness around the question “To what extent were colonies and empires maintained through force alone?” Each of these discussions pushed students into the gray of history, forcing them to deal with frequent cases of “however” and “although.” This is also part of the secret to earning the analytical complexity points on the DBQs and LEQs.

Essential Questions

Essential questions are necessary for helping students balance the big picture and purpose of learning with all the details embedded in course content. I like to write essential questions for both content and skills. For skills, I often turn Peter Seixas’ Big Six guideposts into questions and organize these on canvas as we progress through a course. Questions like:

  • Is history inevitable?
  • What makes something historically significant?
  • Why do some speak of progress while others speak of decline?
  • How are changes and continuities interwoven?
  • Are people, systems, or conditions more powerful drivers of change?

Content based essential questions are easier to find, though making them compelling is another challenge. Some of my favorites:

  • Why did the Renaissance begin in Europe? (Spice it up)
  • Why did Europe beat China to the Americas?
  • How did Asians and Africans fight back against Imperialism?
  • How is nationalism both a constructive and destructive force?
  • To what extent has globalization been a force for positive change?
  • What beliefs, ideas, and values make up the American Character and Ideology?
  • To what extent was American Imperialism anti-imperial?

Using these in class, referring to them, and making them more than wall decorations models higher order thinking for students and encourages them to explore course content. Depth pays dividends in the future.

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