One important aspect of student–teacher classroom interaction involves the process of asking and answering questions. The proficient use of questioning in the classroom is often recognized as a significant tool for managing classroom discourse and motivating student participation in the learning process. Many of the published studies in this area pragmatically advise teachers about the process of designing and executing questioning strategies that enhance student comprehension and recall of course materials. Other studies investigate the efficacy of teacher and student questioning practices. Although there is considerable disagreement regarding the outcomes of, and explanations for, effective classroom questioning, all researchers concur that educational questions are one of the fundamental tools teachers use to promote learning.
Research Questions and Theories
Research on oral questions asked during instruction emphasize the teacher’s role in skillfully posing questions to stimulate student learning and the effect of questions on students’ cognitive processing and understanding. Another studied area explores the effects of student question-asking/answering practices. At issue in these investigations is whether deliberately planned and implemented questioning can be associated with the integration and synthesis of the conceptual material being presented. Discussions about the efficacy of asking and answering questions most frequently conceptualize questions as inquiries that seek specific information or elicit cognitive elaboration (Graesser et al. 1992).
Although the notion of classroom questions is straightforward, researchers have yet to articulate a clear theoretical perspective to explain the way in which questions function to enhance student learning outcomes. Early research advanced a generative explanation that questions help students produce a myriad of thoughts related to the subject. Unconvinced by the simplicity of this explanation, some researchers embraced a more cognitive process suggesting that student learning was a function of elaborating upon the connections between material learned and questions asked. Not entirely satisfied that thoughts are stimulated by mere question-asking, other investigators suggest that teachers have so successfully modeled question-asking and answering behavior that their operant conditioning made questioning an integral part of the learning process. Finally, some investigators support a social interaction perspective, reasoning that the interpersonal interactions that occur in the classroom make question-asking and answering a normal part of a good teacher–student relationship.
Besides theorizing about the underpinnings of question-asking, there is also controversy about the best categorization schema to describe the types of questions employed and the descriptions used to classify the level of questioning occurring in the classroom. Many researchers use some form of Bloom’s taxonomy (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, or evaluation) to assess the types of questions asked. Others have developed schemas that emerged from direct observations, but these typologies have few commonalities. The most pragmatic way to handle question types and/or distinguish between categories of questions is to differentiate between questions that require the retrieval of factual information (lower-level cognitive questions) and questions that require students to cognitively locate relevant information, sift through that information for material most closely linked to the question posed, and evaluate or extrapolate the application of the information to the question being asked (higher-level cognitive questions).
Much of the question-asking literature focuses upon the scope of possible questions that the instructor could ask, phrasing questions carefully, selecting appropriate contentbased questions, implementing both high-level and low-level cognitive questions, and allowing sufficient time for student responses to maximize learning (see Gayle et al. 2006). Such pragmatic advice posits that effective teachers need to: allow both volunteering and nonvolunteering students an opportunity to answer questions posed, retain the possibility of spontaneously called-out answers, provide support for incorrect responses, prod for deeper-level responses, and favorably acknowledge accurate responses. Teachers are urged to side-step the threatening, power-laden nature of question-asking and to avoid asking vague, trick, or abstract questions which may inhibit responses and evoke negative feelings toward learning.
Conceptualizing The Relationship Between Questions and Student Learning
Not only does the research on classroom questioning behavior involve best practices, it also investigates the relationship between teacher questioning practices and student learning outcomes. This line of research addresses the efficacy of asking questions and the types of questions asked. Several studies indicate that student comprehension and recall can be enhanced by strategic question-asking (see Martin & Pressley 1991).
Not all studies affirm the educational benefits of asking questions, and some researchers found that more questions resulted in lower student recall of lecture material. Van den Broek et al. (2001) concluded that a host of factors such as student age, question timing, and question placement mediated student comprehension following teacher questioning. These authors caution instructors to investigate the efficacy of their particular question asking strategies and to be mindful of the questions selected to motivate student learning.
Some writers make bold claims regarding the effects of questioning. Teachers are advised to increase the number of higher-level questions in order to enhance students’ thinking capacity and overall level of academic achievement (Dornisch & Sperling 2004). Pressley & Forrest-Pressley (1985) reasoned that higher cognitive level questions require the integration of material and moving beyond the information presented. Research has not always supported these contentions. The discussion centers on how the cognitive level of the question actually functions to enhance recall or comprehension. Some research findings discount the educational benefits of higher-order questions (see Samson et al. 1987). On the other hand, researchers like Redfield & Rousseau (1981) in their meta-analysis claim that “gains in achievement can be expected when higher cognitive questions assume a predominate role during classroom instruction” (p. 237). This assertion is consistent with Gayle et al.’s (2006) meta-analytic findings that indicate achievement scores tended to increase following exposure to high-order questioning. The problem in documenting the impact of higher cognitive questions on student learning may lie in the actual employment of higher-order questions in the classroom. Wimer et al. (2001) observed that higher cognitive level questioning was surprisingly absent in American classrooms.
Researchers have also focused on teachers paying equal attention to the type of question asked by instructors and the type of response received from students. For example, Dantonio & Paradise (1988) observed that high-level questions, which require students to process readily available information at a higher level than rote recall, elicited high-level responses. These authors believe that lower cognitive level questions requiring the recall of factual information elicit lower-level cognitive responses. Similarly, Fagan et al. (1981) concluded that asking higher-level questions produce higher-level responses. Their conclusions are supported by Gayle et al.’s (2006) meta-analysis. However, some researchers observe that half the time students’ responses to questions fail to correspond to the cognitive level of teachers’ questions (Dillon 1982). The issue appears to be that students may or may not have the mental ability or agility to answer a question at the level of abstraction sought by the teacher.
Extended Wait Time
One theoretical issue contributing to the efficacy of questioning behavior involves the amount of time necessary to deepen the level of student response. This construct is normally conceptualized as the time teachers allow students to think about, and answer, the question posed. Normally, wait time or lapse time is operationalized using a stop watch to measure the amount of time between the moment a question is asked and the time a response is initiated. Research into wait time suggests that the most frequent time allowed for students to begin answering the question asked is three seconds, which may not be the optimal interval for motivating student participation and/or learning.
Research on question wait time fails to produce conclusive evidence that extending wait time maximizes student learning. The majority of the findings have centered on question complexity and required processing-time. Several researchers report that students responding to higher cognitive level questions do not require more wait time than students responding to lower cognitive level questions (Duell 1994). It appears that pausing after higher-level questions does not necessarily produce higher-level responses and that extending the lapse time could actually lower the cognitive processing for higher-order questions.
There is some controversy surrounding the issue of wait time. Several researchers observed that using higher-level questions and increased thinking or wait time produced a higher-level cognitive response (Gambrell 1983). These authors also found that lower level, text-based questions required more think time before eliciting a response. A mitigating factor may be the teachers’ inability to capitalize on the use of higher-order questions which may improve educational outcomes. Another factor may be how a particular instructor encourages students to think before answering questions.
Student as Questioner in Classroom Interaction
An additional area of student–teacher interaction in the classroom involves asking and answering student-generated questions. Although this issue has received less attention, the pragmatic advice to teachers concentrates on modeling skillful questioning behavior for students. It appears that teacher questions generate the most opportunity for student question-asking. West and Pearson (1994) found that students ask about three questions per hour, and those questions most frequently pertained to classroom procedures, information inquiries, and clarifications of teacher statements. Student questions were most often answered by teachers’ clarifying statements.
While considering student question-asking, investigations have focused upon the relationship between student question-asking ability and student comprehension and recall. King’s (1990) studies provided students with a set of questions to guide them in asking and answering additional self-generated or peer-generated questions related to course materials. It appears that students capable of asking and answering questions when engaged in peer interactions produced more in-depth synthesis of the subject matter. Interestingly, the level of student questioning was significantly related to the level of the knowledge statement produced (King 1994). Students who asked questions about their experiences as well as questions that integrated course material demonstrated a deeper understanding of the subject matter and more sophisticated knowledge construction.
Finally, researchers have focused upon other mitigating factors in exploring student generated question-asking. Graesser et al. (1992) reported that tutors generate more questions than students being tutored, but both tutors and students use more questions requiring yes or no answers. This made it difficult to determine the efficacy of questions in enhancing student learning. Good et al. (1987) discovered that lower-achieving students begin by asking more questions than other students in the early grades but ended up asking the least questions as they progress through school. The authors speculate that these students most likely learn not to ask questions because of teacher and/or peer feedback.
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