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Effective classroom questioning

Dylan Wiliam is an Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at University College London and a former school teacher. Here, he talks to Teacher Magazine Editor Jo Earp about effective questioning in the classroom.

Jo Earp: What’s the problem with the traditional approach then of asking a question and students putting their hands up to answer?

Dylan Wiliam: The real problem is that teachers tend to ask a question, have the confident, articulate students volunteering to respond, the teacher gets an answer from those students and, therefore, if they give a correct answer the teacher tends to move on. All I’m saying is, if you’re only hearing from the confident, articulate students, the quality of your evidence about who is getting it and who is not is rather poor. So the big idea, in terms of classroom questioning, is ‘how good is the evidence you have?’ – and if you’re only hearing from the confident students, you can’t be making decisions that reflect the learning needs of a diverse group of 25 or 30 students. So it’s about broadening the evidence base, getting better evidence of what’s happening in the heads of the students in the classroom, there and then.

… I think there are two good reasons to ask a question. One is to collect evidence that helps you make decisions about what to do next. The other, of course, is to cause students to think. So, I think that there’s a range of things we can do with classroom questioning but, in general, if the teacher is asking a question for the purpose of finding out whether to move on or to reinforce a point, then you need better quality evidence than you can get by hearing only from the confident, articulate students.

This is maybe one of the things new teachers, and experienced teachers, struggle with – how to cut down on the number of questions that you ask in class. And how to get students to engage in productive thinking.

Teachers need to plan the questions they want to ask with more attention than they’re used to. So, typically, teachers just kind of make up questions on the spur of the moment. The difficulty with that, is that often those questions, if they’re not very carefully designed, can be ones where the students can answer correctly without having the thinking or the ideas that the teacher is valuing. So, the worst thing that can happen is you get the right answer but in fact the student is not actually on the right track, but because the question wasn’t very well worded, they can get the correct answer for the wrong reason.

So I think that’s an important point – just thinking about questions as being much more like a ‘set piece’ and spending more time on that one question, and maybe getting a response from every single student, for example, by having students use their fingers to show 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 fingers for A, B, C, D or E with a multiple choice question.

…So the whole idea of trying to orchestrate your classroom discussions by knowing what students are likely to say before you bring them into conversation – that leads to a much more structured conversation.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Teacher magazine and has been reproduced with the permission of the Australian Council for Educational Research. To read the full article and to read more articles like this visit www.teachermagazine.com.au.