10. Questioning

Video transcript

Presenter intro: Helena Moore

Questioning is an essential tool for teachers. Questions can be used to develop understanding as well as to check understanding. Good questions can guide pupils’ thinking and get them to draw upon what they know. They can also help teachers to see how knowledge is taking shape and if there are any gaps or misunderstandings. Whether you’re designing a question to develop understanding or to check it, teachers need to plan what they will ask and know why they’re asking it.

Presenter main

Questioning is a hugely important part of classroom practice. It’s really important to have a clear purpose in mind when you ask a question. You’re probably already asking your pupils lots of questions, but are you planning them carefully to ensure that they’re the best ones?

Effective questions can help to develop pupil understanding by directing thinking or extending thinking. Questions can also help teachers to check what pupils understand. Teachers can use a range of different types of questions.

First, let’s think about questions that develop pupil thinking by helping to direct what they think about. Closed questions are questions where there’s a specific answer. Closed questions can be used to get pupils to recall prior knowledge. How many children did Henry the Eighth have? They can help pupils to notice important details. Where is the topic sentence in this paragraph? And closed questions can help pupils to connect concrete ideas to abstract ones. A key concept in maths is that it doesn’t matter what order you add things up in, the answer would always be the same. This is an abstract concept called commutative property. A concrete idea that helps pupils to understand this is to add up two sets of beads. As they do so, a teacher might ask these specific questions, “show on your fingers what answer do you get if you add these three beads to these seven beads? 10, let’s switch round the order, what answer do you get, if you add these seven beads to these three beads? 10 again. Does it matter what order you add the beads up in? Daniel? What can you tell me about the order that we can add numbers up in? We were talking about it yesterday. Casia?” Questions about the beads, a concrete support, help pupils to understand commutative property, this abstract concept.

Second, teachers can ask questions that extend pupil thinking by asking open-ended questions. Open-ended questions have more than one answer. One fairly straight forward type of open-ended question is to use the word why. In an earlier setting for example, a teacher might interact with the pupil during play and ask a question like, why did you choose to add a tower to your castle? There could be many different reasons, unique to each pupil. These open-ended questions can help pupil to share their opinions, reflect on and understand themselves. Open questions can push pupils to draw upon more of their knowledge. What impact did the opening of the international fast food chain have on Nigeria? How does Shakespeare present Lady Macbeth’s relationship with Macbeth in this scene? Explain why the stone sinks, but the boat floats? In order to ask these questions accurately pupils will need to draw on a wide body of knowledge and teachers should think carefully about the knowledge a question requires.

Finally, teachers can use questions to check for understanding. To be effective, teachers need to know what specific content they’re testing for. What knowledge do they want to see if their pupils have? What misconceptions are they checking for? When designing your question include the subject specific vocabulary that you want pupils to acquire and remind them to use specific language in their answer. For example, in a key stage one class on pollination, you might ask, “what part of the flower does pollen need to move to during pollination?” Making reference to explicit vocabulary expected helps you to check pupils’ understanding more precisely. With a finite amount of time on their hands, teachers need to have a clear purpose in mind when designing questions.

And whether your question is to develop understanding or to check for understanding, you need to get all of your pupils to think about the answer. When teachers ask a question to one pupil, it can be tempting for others to switch off, but in order to learn, pupils need to think. Teachers need to establish a clear expectation that everyone tries to answer the questions that they hear, even if they’re not called on to answer. One way that teachers can do this is to ask a question to the whole class; naming the pupil after you’ve asked the question means more pupils are likely to think about the answer than when teachers direct a question to one pupil. So instead of saying, “Ryan, how many sizes a square have?” It’s better to say, “How many sides does a square have? Ryan?” This tiny switch can make a huge difference, particularly if pupils understand why teachers are taking this approach and if the routine has been set up effectively, for instance, “no hands up, we all need to think.” You also need to leave enough time between asking a question and getting the answer so that pupils can think about their response carefully. Try counting one, two, three in your head after you pose a question.

Good questions can significantly enhance both the quality and the accuracy of pupil thought. Think carefully about the primary function of your question, what you will ask and how your deliver it.

Presenter exemplification framing

In this example, you will see an Ambition Institute coach model how to ask a series of questions to check for understanding. As you watch focus on the following:

  • Structures tasks and questions to identify knowledge gaps and misconceptions
  • Checks that pupils have a secure understanding by encouraging them to elaborate when responding to questions

Exemplificatin: Ambition Institute coach

I want you to imagine I’m teaching a year 12 English lesson. We will be learning about John Keats’ ddes and today we returned to the poem To Autumn. We’ve defined odes as lyrical poems that celebrate people, places, things, or ideas. We’ve also considered that poets have purposes for their art and that case is presenting an argument in defence of season of autumn. We have a routine of no hands up in the class and all pupils expect to be called upon. Pupils have just completed an activity where they’ve worked independently to identify the imagery that tells about Keats’ perspective on autumn. Now I’m checking for understanding to assess whether pupils are right to move on to the next phase of instruction.

“Right. I’m going to ask you some questions now, so listen carefully and remember hands down. What is an ode?

[Pupil gives correct definition of an ode]

Reese, absolutely, an ode is a lyrical poem that celebrates people, places, things or ideas. Reese, can you give me an example of where Keats is celebrating autumn in the poem?

[Pupil answer: swollen gourds and ‘plump’ hazel. They are full and ready to burst]

Right, the first stanza, the strophe is celebratory tone. And last lesson, we also said that Keats seems to go even further by being almost like a defence for autumn, such as not following lines here: “where are the songs of spring, Ay, where are they? Think not of them thou hast thy music too.” Keats seems to be celebrating and defending autumn against the other seasons here.

Now let’s take a look at this quatrain from the second stanza, the antistrophe: “and sometimes like a gleaner thou does keep, steady thy laden head across a brook; or by a cyder-press with patient look, thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.” I find these lines somewhat paradoxical in tone, why is that? Bola?

[Pupil answers: on the one hand there is a bit of a feeling of tiredness and things coming to an end, and on the other hand the ode is rejoicing in things coming into life]

Great, we still see the celebration of autumn, despite some of the language choices, for example, laden and oozings. And also that extra 11th line in each stanza, Bola, so we said that when something is paradoxical, it contradicts another aspect. Is there anything else here that feels contradictory or out of place to the rest of the celebratory tone that would expect in an ode?

[Pupil answers: it feels like autumn is moving quite slowly, it steadies its hand and gives a ‘patient’ look. This is different from the energy of some of the fruits bursting into life]

So there is an authentic tone as if awaiting for something to happen, linking to the somnambulistic imagery that we came across earlier in the stanza, for example, sound asleep and drowsed. And though Keats celebrates autumn in this moment and wants to capture it, the last oozings hours by hours that will give way to winter soon. And we said that this is a typical trope of Keats’ poetry and his fears of middle age and death.”

I want you to draw your attention to a couple of things in that model.

Firstly, you may have noticed I paused and scanned the room before identifying the pupil that I wanted to answer the question. This is for a few reasons. It gave everyone time to think about the response, as they didn’t know who I was going to ask and it meant that I could check that everyone was listening to me and thinking. I wanted to check that pupils knew what an ode was and to ensure that their understanding was secure. My initial questions check that they could identify the features of an ode and then I asked them to explain where they could see this in the poem before moving on.

I also checked for specific knowledge gaps and misconceptions. When learning about odes, students often miss the complexities and nuance in tone, for example, only looking for where the poem is celebratory. I wanted students to both consider the main aspects of Keats’ argument and this important definition of an ode, but I also wanted to develop their understanding of the details that are more subtle and the link to the poet’s purpose across the odes they’ve studied.

When planning questions, I find that it helps to do it in reverse. First I decide what I want to check for then I design a question and finally, I test out the question on myself to make sure that it targets specifically what I wanted it to. This helps me get the most out of questioning in the classroom.

Presenter key ideas

In this video we have considered the different purposes thst questions can serve and how to deliver them in the classroom. Before we finish, take a moment now to read over the key ideas. Which ideas did the example best illustrate?

  • Structure tasks and questions to enable the identification of knowledge gaps and misconceptions
  • Include a range of types of questions in class discussions to extend and challenge pupils
  • Provide appropriate wait time between question and response where more developed responses are required
  • Prompt pupils to elaborate on their answers to check that a correct answer stems from secure understanding

Presenter summary

Effective teachers ask lots of questions during their teaching, but perhaps more importantly, they don’t do this at random. To get the most out of questions, you need to know why you’re asking them and design them carefully. Really good questions benefit from advanced planning.

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Teaching challenge

Mr Aswin feels confident he can lead I-We-You (Lemov, 2015) sequences and help pupils access and practise complex content. However, he notices that pupils are getting used to being ‘spoon fed’ and are quite dependent on him to do the ‘hard thinking’ before they get to independent practice. How can his instruction transfer more of the thinking onto pupils earlier in the learning sequence?

Key idea

Effective questioning can guide pupil thinking through checking understanding, extending pupil thinking and fostering high-quality talk in a supportive classroom environment.

Evidence summary

Checking for understanding

Questioning is an essential tool for teachers to master as it can be used for many purposes (Coe et al., 2014). For example, it is among the most effective ways for Mr Ashwin to elicit what his pupils are thinking (Black & Wiliam, 2009). Sometimes Mr Ashwin checks pupil understanding by asking questions which demand short, simple answers. For example, he may want to see if pupils have enough fluent prior knowledge by asking ‘what is 8 x 7?’ Targeting questions at several pupils could also help Mr Ashwin make an inference about current class understanding and any common misconceptions.

Such questioning is diagnostic: it is primarily about finding out what pupils know rather than building pupil knowledge (Black & Wiliam, 2009). However, things can go wrong if the questions don’t check the right things or if only a few pupils are questioned and information from these answers determines the subsequent direction of the lesson. Teachers can also inadvertently ignore the information generated from questions if they have not planned carefully when to pose them and how to respond to them. When planning questions to check pupil understanding, Mr Ashwin should consider:

  • What is the key knowledge that I need to check in this lesson? What do pupils need to be secure in before I can move on? What will they say and do if they are secure with this?
  • What is the best way to get the widest sample of answers? For example, mini whiteboards, exit tasks or post-it notes cans help quickly gather information about most of the class.
  • What are the wrong answers and misconceptions that might arise in the lesson? How will I prepare to address them?

Extending pupil thinking

Questioning can help Mr Ashwin develop pupil thinking as well as check it. Studies have shown that more effective teachers ask more questions and often require pupils to give extended explanations of their thought process (Rosenshine, 2012).

Sequences of open questions can help to manage pupils’ limited working memory. For example, when introducing a maths problem Mr Ashwin could ask:

‘What would we do first?’

‘Why would we do this first?’

‘Once we have done that, what might we do next? Why’

Such questions require pupils to explain their answers which encourages pupils to think about the underlying principles of learning, deepening and consolidating their knowledge (Pashler et al., 2007). These questions are more effective when pupils have grasped key ideas first (Coe et al., 2014).

Open ended questions can also help to extend pupil thinking. Pupils might be asked to make predictions about a book’s story from its title or to reason about a story, for example ‘why did Winnie-the-Pooh get stuck in the rabbit hole?’ (EEF, 2018).

Ensuring quality answers

To ensure quality answers, questioning should allow enough ‘thinking time’. Research suggests that after asking a question many teachers wait less than one second and, if no answer is given, ask another question or answer the question themselves (Black et al., 2004). Pupils with lower working memory capacities are likely to struggle the most with limited time and preparation (Gathercole et al., 2006), making it more likely class contributions are from higher achievers. A longer wait and time to prepare an answer can lead to more detailed answers and higher-quality thinking from every pupil.

Mr Ashwin could also use questioning to encourage pupils to share answers with their peers, supporting them to articulate key ideas and extend their vocabulary. Effective teachers spend more time on questioning pupils and guiding practice in this way than their less effective peers (Rosenshine, 2012). Teachers who facilitate such talk increase pupil outcomes (Jay et al., 2017). For talk to be effective, Mr Ashwin needs to bear in mind:

  • Pupils need enough knowledge for high-quality talk: Questioning can offer pupils opportunities to practise new ideas, which can be particularly useful after teacher input and before independent practice, in the ‘We do’ section.
  • Questions can increase the quality of pupil talk: When conducting questioning, clear teacher expectations and scaffolding are important to support high-quality talk. Teachers can use questions to consolidate technical vocabulary, clarify how to structure answers and to encourage pupils to address other pupils’ misconceptions. (Jay et al., 2017).
  • The learning environment needs to be safe and secure: Pupil behaviour and outcomes are affected by teacher expectations and what they see other pupils doing (IES, 2008). Mr Ashwin needs to ensure behavioural expectations are enforced to ensure pupils feel safe to contribute answers when called upon through questioning. He needs to insist on mutual trust and respect and be clear that his purpose of questioning is pupil learning, rather than, for example, to catch pupils out.

Nuances and caveats

Great questioning is often delivered on the spot by experienced teachers and is the product of deep knowledge of their subject and their pupils. This knowledge takes time to acquire so, to be as effective, newer teachers can plan out some of their key questions in advance.

Key takeaways

To use questioning to support pupil thinking, Mr Ashwin needs to understand that:

  • Questioning has many purposes for teachers, including checking pupil understanding, breaking down problems and extending and challenging pupil thinking.
  • Pupils need enough knowledge, guidance and thinking time to produce quality answers.
  • Questioning underpins quality pupil classroom talk, especially in the ‘We do’ part of instruction.

Further reading

Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & Wiliam, D. (2004). Working inside the Black Box: Assessment for Learning in the Classroom. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(1), 8–21.


Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2009). Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21(1), pp.5-31.

Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & Wiliam, D. (2004). Working inside the Black Box: Assessment for Learning in the Classroom. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(1), 8–21.

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014). What makes great teaching. Review of the underpinning research. Durham University, UK.

EEF (2018). Preparing for Literacy Guidance Report.

Gathercole, S., Lamont, E., & Alloway, T. (2006). Working memory in the classroom. Working memory and education, 219-240.

Institute of Education Sciences (2008). Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary School Classroom.

Jay, T., Willis, B., Thomas, P., Taylor, R., Moore, N., Burnett, C., Merchant, G., Stevens, A. (2017) Dialogic Teaching: Evaluation Report.

Lemov, D. (2015). Teach Like a Champion 2.0 (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pashler, H., Bain, P. M., Bottge, B. A., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., & Metcalfe, J. (2007). Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning. US Department of Education.

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 36(1), 12–20.


Answer the questions in the quiz to check your understanding of the evidence summary.

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Reminder of key takeaways

To use questioning to support pupil thinking, Mr Ashwin needs to understand that:

  • Questioning has many purposes for teachers, including checking pupil understanding, breaking down problems and extending and challenging pupil thinking.
  • Pupils need enough knowledge, guidance and thinking time to produce quality answers.
  • Questioning underpins quality pupil classroom talk, especially in the ‘We do’ part of instruction.

Reflect on the following questions

  1. What did you see in this module that you already do or have seen in other classrooms?
  2. What do you feel is the gap between your current practice and what you have seen in this module?
  3. Which of the ‘key takeaways’ do you need to focus on? Where and when might you try to apply them to your teaching?