Any Questions?

Inviting Students to Ask Questions

Have you ever stood in front of a class, or sat in front of a gallery of faces on Zoom, and asked, “Are there any questions?” only to be met with silence and lowered eyes or, equally disappointing, only to receive questions about something unrelated, like the word count requirement of a paper or the date of an exam?

It’s probably happened to all of us.

Sometimes the way we frame our invitation shapes the questions (if any) we get in response. When we ask, “Any questions?” and no one responds, it’s often because students are embarrassed to ask. They may each think they are the only one who is lost or confused. They may be afraid to misspeak or make a mistake. They often don’t know how to formulate their questions, or they feel like there isn’t time to figure out how to ask what they want to ask.

If we articulate our invitation slightly differently, asking them to please share the questions they have, we might stand a better chance of getting responses. When we create an expectation that students always have questions, give them time to think, and praise them for asking, we can help to normalize the practice, and even help them take pride in their curiosity.

We can also normalize asking questions by using wrap-up activities, where students must reflect on the class session and write down two things they learned and two questions they still have. They can submit these quick reflections online or in person, and their professor (or TA or LA) can read them all or just a sampling, depending on class size. We can also invite students to ask questions anonymously, a practice many appreciate, so that they don’t have to feel self-conscious if they really are confused or behind. We can do this through the chat on Zoom, with online surveys, or on index cards in a face-to face class.

Getting students to ask their questions is important for us because it helps us identify what is working and what we might need to adjust in our teaching: clarity, examples, pacing, resources, assignment descriptions, or anything else. It can show us what misconceptions or gaps in knowledge students may have, so we can address them.

Ken Bain, in What the Best College Teachers Do, explains, “Questions help us construct knowledge. They point to holes in our memory structures and are critical for indexing the information that we attain when we develop an answer for that inquiry.” And better, frequent indexing leads to increased recall, understanding, and flexibility. This means that asking questions is an essential part of learning.

In fact, inquiry drives learning, as you likely know from your own experience in your field. In “Students’ Questions: A Potential Resource for Teaching and Learning Science,” Christine Chin and Jonathan Osborne explain:

According to Dennett’s (1991, cited in Pedrosa de Jesus et al., 2003) concept of ‘epistemic hunger’, human beings are ‘informavores’ who need to ‘make meaning’ and understand their surroundings. To assuage this epistemic hunger, curiosity and a ‘spark’ are necessary. The spark is triggered when one encounters something unexplained, unconventional, or an incongruity, within the context of an appropriate body of knowledge, and not in vacuo. Models of question-asking, such as the PREG model (PREG is part of the word ‘pregunta’, which means ‘question’ in Spanish) (Graesser & Olde, 2003; Otero & Graesser, 2001) predict that questions are asked when learners experience cognitive disequilibrium. According to the latter authors, ‘questions are asked when individuals are confronted with obstacles to goals, anomalous events, contradictions, discrepancies, salient contrasts, obvious gaps in knowledge, expectation violations, and decisions that require discrimination among equally attractive alternatives’ (p. 524). Thus, to stimulate students’ question-asking, one might set up some kind of cognitive disequilibrium in the classroom to spark students’ curiosity.

Chin and Osborne asked, “How, then, can teachers foster a ‘culture of inquisitiveness’ in science classrooms and stimulate their students to ask questions?” and found that the use of cognitive conflict, real-world problem-solving activities, problem-based learning, and case studies can all prompt students to ask questions. They added that “activities that pertain to the social dimension of science (i.e. socio-scientific issues) also provide a dynamic arena for student questioning, dialogue, and debate. Using a combination of these strategies might, therefore, result in enhanced question-asking by students.”

Chin reviewed a wide variety of teaching practices that can promote questions-asking. The following are some highlights:

  • Providing students with suitable stimuli for them to ask questions;
  • Modelling question‐asking;
  • Providing question prompts or stems;
  • Asking students to pose questions via a journal, weekly report, question board, etc.;
  • Setting ‘question‐making’ homework;
  • Using interactive instructional approaches where students work in collaborative groups to generate questions; and
  • Creating a non‐threatening classroom atmosphere where students feel free to ask questions.

If you have tips for getting students to ask good questions, please share them with us! And if you have questions about teaching, please email us at Trying to practice what we preach, you can now also submit teaching questions anonymously if you wish. Here’s a link to do so.