6 May 2016

How Do You Question for Understanding?

Checking for understanding by asking clarifying or testing questions is not effective and does not produce authentic engagement with the class.  The sort of questions I am talking about are single answer where the audience are invited to put their hand up to give it a go.

I was recently sitting in an audience where there was a presentation being given.  It was a very engaging presenter with great content delivered through slideshows and videos.  The presenter was very good at asking clarifying questions to emphasis his point and rewarding the answers for the ones that put their hands up and got it correct with lavish praise.

I wasn't one of the ones to put my hand up.  I was looking around the room and noticing things whenever one of these sorts of questions was asked of the group.  I came to the conclusion that they are very ineffective way to developing interaction with your audience.  I saw many of the audience looking bored or away and the same small selection of people putting their hands up to give the question a go.

What the presenter was going for was an obvious answer he could just say to make the point or it becomes a game of "guess what predetermined answer is in my head even though there may be other valid ones".

A question that is designed for just one person in the audience to answer encourages passivity for majority the idea that someone else will answer so I don't need to think or engage.  It was always the same people putting their hands up and engaging in this sort of questioning, which is what I always see when I use this in class too.

So What Kind of Questions Do I Like?

An engaging and interactive question allows a chance for everyone to engage with it somehow.  It should inspire their thinking and engagement, it should allow them to apply it to themselves and what is important to them or what they are interested.  It should validate everyones answers and contribution so they feel valued and develops an environment that encourages participation and engagement.

The sort of questioning that this makes me think of usually takes more time and are things like:

  1. Think, pair, share. 
  2. Write down your thoughts then hold them up for others to see
  3. Small group brainstorms then transferred to a big group one.
  4. Having electronic feeds on the board like twitter or padlet that everyone can contribute to with live updating.

I am keen to develop my tool box of great questioning for understanding and engagement, so please share any good ideas you have in the comments.


  1. I recently got my students to record themselves giving a model answer to an exam question to share with the rest of the class (students worked in pairs/3s to complete 3 years worth of exam papers). Watching their videos of them explaining why they were giving the answers was really eye opening - even with being nervous they could verbalise the why better than if I had just asked them and it showed me some misconceptions around some ideas.

    1. That is an awesome way to see into their thinking. What was the workflow? Was it online? What devices did they use?