How College Faculty Should Ask Their Students Questions

As I often do, I have summarized my recommendations at the end of this article. If you are pressed for time, you might want to scroll down. If you do so, I hope you come back and read the entire article. I would love to hear from you. Let me know if you found it helpful.

“Asking Questions”

From Tools for Teaching by Barbara Gross Davis.

“Asking and answering questions are central to the learning process and to effective teaching.  Yet studies show that faculty devote less than 4 percent of class time to asking questions and that the questions they do ask are rarely of the type that require students to think.” (Barnes, 1983).

Dr. Barbara Gross Davis begins the chapter on Asking Questions with the above quotation.  I find that statistic shocking, and I doubt that it still applies 27 years after it was written.  Teaching techniques have advanced, and colleges are dedicating resources to helping faculty improve their instructional skills.

When it comes to questioning their students, I have had the privilege of observing some true pros.  There was a science instructor whose techniques were based on constructivist learning theory.  He didn’t tell his students what they needed to learn, he guided them in a structured process by which they virtually taught themselves.  Another faculty member who comes to mind has a knack for asking questions that gets his students doing most of the talking.  Granted, his technique would not work well in a large lecture hall.

In my opinion, good questioning techniques help instructors achieve three extremely goals:

  1. Formative Assessment – Questions provide immediate feedback to help you determine if your students are learning.  Your students’ responses signal you to proceed or possibly to return to some of the points they didn’t quite understand.
  2. Student Engagement – If you are asking questions, good questions, your students are thinking. Questions put their minds in gear so to speak. In that way, your questions are a catalyst for learning.
  3. Rich and Enhanced Learning – Well constructed questions get students thinking about the important concepts and help them go beyond memorization to learning and understanding.

Davis contends that the effective instructor should identify questions prior to class and prepare for asking them.  I agree, but keep in mind that you cannot and should not prepare all your verbal questions in advance.  Questioning is, in large part, a spontaneous art form, one that should become a reflexive habit for an effective instructor.

What questions should you ask?  My advice is to use your course learning objectives as the basis for your questions.  (That was quite obvious, wasn’t it?  However, I do have a subtle point to make.)  There are the learning outcomes in your syllabus, ones I will call macro-objectives.  These are not usually quite general in nature, meaning they are nowhere near specific enough to assess with concise questions.  There are also the underlying concepts, principles, facts, and details associated with those outcomes, which I call micro-objectives.  Therein lie the seeds from which to grow your questions.  Formulate question so the correct responses will validate your students’ command of those micro-objectives – the concepts, principles, facts, and details by which you will assess their command of the macro-objectives.

Davis encourages us to use various types of questions.  Some of the questions she describes are ones we all know – Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How?  Among the others she mentions are two types I wholeheartedly endorse: cause-and-effect and hypothetical questions.

Davis indicates that the type of question we ask depends on the cognitive skills we want our students to demonstrate.  With reference to Bloom’s Taxonomy (see my article on this topic) she differentiates between knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis and synthesis.  What I would add to the list, particularly for those teaching a lab or shop course, is performance.  Such a question might begin with “Show me how …” or “Please demonstrate …”

There are 13 strategies, or tactics as Davis calls them, for asking questions.  You will need to read her book if you want them all, because I am going to refer to just a few, the ones I consider most important.  She advises us to ask one question at a time.  In other words, don’t complicate matters.  She discourages questions that can be answered yes or no.  She also recommends questions that may have more than one answer, and warns against leading questions.  Don’t you agree with me that this is all sound advice?  (Oops!  Sorry.  I violated two rules at once.   That was a leading question with a yes or no answer. 🙁 )

Perhaps the most challenging tactic Davis presents is to wait silently for an answer.  If you are like me, you want to immediately give clues or switch to a Socratic questioning mode.  The silence is something I find awkward, but it may be the only way to get some students to respond.  However, my advice is not to overdo it.  A long period of silence will create a stressful situation for your students.

Davis’s last strategy can’t be practiced in a large lecture hall, but it is a good one.  She advises us to move around the room in order to include all students.  You approach the student to whom you are talking.  Then, while that student who is responding to your question, you maintain eye contact while you back away.  Your body language will draw in other students.

In the last section of her chapter on questioning, Davis provides tactics for handling student responses.  Four of her five pieces of advice should be intuitive but may not be something we have all mastered.  She says, “Listen to the student,” “Use nonverbal gestures to indicate your attention,” “Vary your reactions to students’ answers,” and “Tactfully correct wrong answers.”  The last tactic can make or break you as an instructor.  If you criticize a student’s response, or in any why make a student feel dumb, you will lose that student.  Actually, it may even be worse.  You may create an enemy whose written comments on his or her end-of-term evaluation will be less than flattering, maybe something like one of these: “She gets angry when students don’t give her the answers she wants;” or “He yells at students and tells them how dumb they are;” or “She keeps asking questions until you can’t answer one, then tries to embarrass you in front of the class.”

I agree with all five of Davis’s strategies, but it is her fifth tactic with which I take a small bit of exception in the form of a warning.  She writes, “Praise correct answers.”  While she warns against praising every answer, my warning is that continual praise focused on a small percentage of students, those whom we used to refer to as Teacher’s Pets, will be counterproductive.  If you go overboard with lavish praise for a few, you will turn off other students.  And these will be the ones whom, in most likelihood, you need to encourage.

Ever have a “front row center” student whose goal seems to be a new world’s record?  What record would that be?  Most times called upon by a college instructor in one 50-minute class period.  (During my youth, I tried for this record and came embarrassingly close on a few occasions.)  If you have such a student, one who attempts to flaunt his or her brilliance by answering every question, you need a plan for drawing in other students.  You might want to say something like “Thanks for all your help, Anna, but let’s hear from someone else on this one,” or “I want to know what some of the rest of you think.”  If you are standing close to the “overly participative” student, use one of Davis’s tactics and back away.  Also, avoid walking close to that student and minimize eye contact until you have drawn in other students.

Using Technology as a Tool for Asking Questions

There is a topic Dr. Davis did not address in this chapter, which is using technology to ask questions.  I have two recommendations.  First, use the online “courseware” available to you to post questions, threaded discussions questions in particular, for students to respond to outside of class.  While I do not have readily available references to cite for you, studies have shown that this tactic garners participation from students who are reluctant to speak up in class.  I seem to remember a study that concluded this strategy was particularly effective with female students.  (I am certain that would have been helpful for some of the women in classes with me. ;-( )  In addition, use clickers to give your students a formative assessment quiz.

It is far beyond the scope of this article to explain how to construct a course website, compose threaded questions, or use clickers.  If you are not familiar with these forms of technology and pedagogy, ask someone at your college.  Or, send me an e-mail ( and I’ll do my best to point you in the right direction.

My Advice for College Instructors in Quest of Quality Questions

Here is Hummel’s Humble Homily, my would-be words of wisdom about asking questions in class.

  1. Prepare questions in advance, ones that will promote student learning.
  2. Don’t be too rigid.  Improvise.  Adapt to your students’ responses.
  3. Avoid yes/no questions, especially ones like, “Did everybody understand that?” and the totally useless “Are there any questions?”
  4. Use technology such as online threaded discussions and clickers.
  5. Use questioning techniques that engage your students but don’t intimidate or criticize them.
  6. Use questions to find out what your students know, not ones that embarrass or punish them for what they don’t know.
  7. Reflect on your questioning after each class.  (Davis does recommend this!)  Decide what worked and what didn’t work.  Make adjustments for the next class.
  8. Work on your technique.  Questioning is a skill and an art.
  9. Practice your art.  Questioning must be a habit.  You need to make good questioning your habit.
  10. Ask one of the most important questions of all:  How am I doing?

Relative to the 10th item on my list, you may find two of my earlier articles helpful – The One-Minute Paper and Student Evaluations.

© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

Last revised May 31, 2010

About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC). My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences. I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students. After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.

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