Types of questions

Depending on the types of answer you are looking to elicit, and the confidence of your students, there are a range of different question types you might use. Try to assess the following questions. For each type of question, make a note of what you think the strengths and weaknesses might be in terms of eliciting student responses. Pause before moving on to consider our thoughts.

Closed questions have right and wrong answers.

Example: "What was the date of the Battle of Hastings?"

Our thoughts: Students often avoid answering closed questions as they do not wish to look foolish if wrong, smug if correct or because it is not a very interesting thing to do. Often only the same few students answer closed questions and it rarely provides an opportunity to discuss answers.

Open questions have many possible answers.

Example: "What was the significance of the Battle of Hastings?"

Our thoughts: These questions respect students' intelligence and may encourage a response as there is less risk of being seen to be 'wrong'. But students might require a little time or private discussion before they are willing to offer an answer in public.

Prompts for reflection may have no 'right answers' at all - they are designed to prompt students to think.

Example: "If the Saxons had won the Battle of Hastings, instead of the Normans, what might the consequences for the future of England have been?"

Our thoughts: This is an excellent type of question for eliciting student involvement. One of the most important characteristics of good questions is that they prompt more thinking, not just an answer.

'Guess what I'm thinking questions' involve an open question, to which there are many possible right answers, but the teacher is only interested in one of them.

Example: "Why did the Normans win the Battle of Hastings?"
Teacher's answer: "The Saxons were exhausted from their march from an earlier battle in Northern England."

Our thoughts: This is a particularly stupid game some teachers play in which the question is posed in such a way that no one could know the answer as only the teacher knows which answer is wanted. Students who are prepared to join in the game can only guess, and they can only feel foolish if they guess wrongly. Most students sensibly refuse to join in.

How to elicit answers

From these examples, we might conclude that reflective and open questions are generally most likely to encourage answers from students. But simply posing a question in the right form is only half the battle. You also need to ask the question in an appropriate way – in particular:

  • Ask sensible questions. Not multiple part questions. Not trivial questions. But sufficiently challenging questions that are possible to answer from either prior knowledge or the content of the lecture.
  • Allow plenty of time – simply wait. Students need time, on their own, to make notes and think. Most new teachers feel they have waited an age for students to answer their question when in reality they may wait only a second or two. Having the confidence to pause – perhaps for ten seconds – allows students to formulate an answer they would be prepared to voice.
  • Ask a particular student, who cannot hide.
  • Allow students to discuss the question in pairs or threes – then ask the groups to report back. If students are still reluctant to speak in public, ask the pairs to write down an answer and collect several to read out before commenting on them. This can be particularly helpful for students whose native language is not English, who will have an opportunity to share their ideas but may not themselves have to be the person who expresses them to the class as a whole.
  • Offer alternative answers and ask, "Who thinks this is the best answer? Raise your hands. And who thinks this alternative is the better answer?" This can be achieved very effectively, with high levels of student engagement, using technology. This is explored later in the chapter.

Responding to students' answers

There are a number of good techniques that can be used to respond to students' answers during a lecture. As far as possible always try to be conversational, enthusiastic and non-judgemental; try to pitch what you say to encourage further answers (e.g. "That's interesting: I hadn't thought of that! What else?").

Dealing with 'wrong' answers

Never just say 'Wrong!" It humiliates the student and deters anyone else from offering answers in the future. If an answer is wrong, try the following strategies:

  • Ask several people and elicit several answers before offering your own answer or comments, and then do so in a general and depersonalized way. For example, "So we have a range of views here. Let's look at these answers and examine them", rather than "John and Felix are wrong and Raul is right."
  • Offer alternative answers of your own – some more plausible than others – so that everyone in the room is thinking about which the better answers are. Look round the room and alight on eager faces, using open hand gestures to invite additional comments or alternative answers.

You may occasionally encounter individuals who answer in unhelpful ways, deliberately or unintentionally. Tactics for dealing with difficult students are dealt with in 'Lecturing 2'.

Dealing with 'right' answers

If an answer is right, or half right, use it as a way to elaborate on the point in an informal way. Try to avoid condescension ("Well done!") but do try to make the student feel good and encourage others to answer in the future (e.g. "That's interesting"; "That's a useful answer for me because..."; "Yes, and what is more...").

Active and quiet students

You will encounter some students, usually in the front row, who try to answer everything. Once you have spotted them, try to address questions to a different part of the room. You may need to be explicit about this, e.g. "Thanks Yazmin, I'm going to try to involve others for a while now."

The number of 'quiet' students, though, is likely to outweigh the number of overactive ones. Some of them you can get involved by using the tactics outlined in this section – but some will not join in whatever you do. They may be thinking hard without feeling the need to say anything. Or they may be prepared to discuss in private, but not speak in public. There is probably nothing you can do about this; putting pressure on individuals is never a good idea.