There are many reasons why we want and need students to ask questions. The questions students ask can tell us whether they understand what they are learning and are ready to move forward, or they can communicate uncertainty, confusion, and misconceptions. Students’ questions can signal interest in going deeper and exploring further. Questions can reveal worry and stress or excitement and confidence. The questions students ask can also be evidence of disengagement and resistance when they are off topic or laced with anger and cynicism.
However, access to the full range of student questions requires us to create conditions under which students are willing and able to tell us what we need to know. Students need to be confident that we are ready listen. They need to feel respect for their thoughts, opinions, and concerns. Students need to experience our patience when their questions reveal the need for more guidance and support. Of course, they also need to feel safe and free from emotional attack.
Still, establishing these conditions only “opens the door” to questions. It does not guarantee that students will freely respond when we need to know if they understand. Students may still be reluctant to admit confusion or lack of understanding, and they may be hesitant to share worries and stress without support and prompting. Unless we invite students to share their interests and go deeper with their learning, they may be hesitant to ask a question that reveals a perspective that is not shared by others in the class or group.
Success typically requires us to provide the stimulus and process for questions to surface and be voiced. Let’s explore some ways in which we can gain access to students’ questions while “sidestepping” many potential barriers.
One way to “prime the pump” for questions is to ask students to write a question they have. As examples, we might ask students to frame a question that demonstrates what they have learned today. We might ask them to write a question about something they are finding difficult about what they are learning. Or, we might ask them to write a question about what else they would like to learn on a current topic.
Another option is to provide students with sentence stems and starters that are formed as questions. Examples might be “I wonder why…?” “How can I concentrate when…?” And, “Who can help me understand…?” Sentence stems can help students to think of questions and reduce their hesitation since they are only completing the questions, not starting them.
Still another strategy is to establish a routine for questions after information is presented, a demonstration is concluded, group discussions are finished, assignments are given, and other class activities are complete. For example, we might set an expectation for questions by saying, “I need three questions before moving on to our next activity.” Here, we make questions part of the transition process. At first, students are likely to be reluctant but as the expectation becomes routine, questions are likely to come easier and be more substantial. Of course, we need to be patient and allow time for significant questions to be framed and presented. Research shows and experience verifies that we typically do not allow adequate time for students to contemplate and form questions before we move on.
We might also have students turn to a classmate or form a small group to present and discuss questions. This strategy presents questions as an expectation without making the conversation as public as asking questions with the entire class listening. Of course, we can wander among our students listening for questions that follow a common theme or represent the need for further explanation or clarification.
If students have access to technology, we can utilize applications such as Padlet for students to post questions without having to worry about presenting them orally. As students post their questions, we can cluster similar questions, sort for urgency and importance, and provide responses as appropriate. Meanwhile, we will be assuring students that they are not the only members of the class who have questions or may struggle with a specific concept or learning task.
Admittedly, stimulating students to ask their questions can be a challenge. However, the information we can glean from student questions is often essential to the framing and timing of our instruction. The questions can also give us important and timely clues about the needs and experiences of students that may be compromising their ability to learn and succeed in school and life.