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Opinion26th June 2017

How can we use questioning to gauge the extent of students’ understanding?

Will Whitehouse is the Assistant Principal for Humanities at Ark Globe Academy in South London. He joined the school in September 2016. Will regularly leads CPD sessions at Ark Globe focusing on a range of topics, including questioning. His insights have allowed staff to hone their practice and understand the benefits of deeper questioning.

Questioning is key to any successful teacher’s practice. It informs our understanding of student progress, helps direct a lesson towards the learning objective and can provide a useful springboard for student thinking and discussion.

Questioning is like picking a lock. It takes experience and a steady, precise hand to coax the desired response from the students’ minds. Use the wrong word, phrase or tone in the wrong place and it is likely that you will have to start again. If the purpose of our question is to discover the level of our students’ understanding, then the type or wording of the question that we use really will determine how well we can assess each individual student’s progress in the topic that we are teaching.

So what are the potential pitfalls that we can fall into when attempting to question to assess understanding? I have coined the first mistake ‘Playing to the crowd’. This is when we try to impress on others how much our students know, by asking questions that we know they will answer well.

We all want to show that our lessons are successful; both to our colleagues, ourselves and our students. But occasionally this can mean we attempt to demonstrate that our students understand a topic – when in reality their level of understanding is superficial at best. Even asking difficult questions to our most able students has its downsides. It will likely show an outside observer that the students have learned something, and their prompt response will make you feel good – but have you learnt anything that you didn’t already know? A solution to this would be to use class data and assessment to inform whom you question and ensure you ask a range of students questions every lesson, even if this means that you do not get the instant response that you desire.

[[{“fid”:”179951″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:”“Questioning is like picking a lock. It takes experience and a steady, precise hand to coax the desired response from the students’ minds.””,”field_tags[und]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“title”:”“Questioning is like picking a lock. It takes experience and a steady, precise hand to coax the desired response from the students’ minds.””,”style”:”margin-left: 5px; margin-right: 5px; float: right; height: 250px; width: 400px;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]But what type of questions to ask? When I first started my teacher training, there was a mantra that we should use different types of questions for different abilities of students. Weaker students could be asked closed ‘what?’ type questions, whilst students that were more able should tackle more difficult, open ‘why?’ type questions. This was designed to be a way in which we could differentiate our lessons easily and with little effort, so naturally my fellow trainees and I all began doing this in every lesson.

It was only when I had been teaching for a couple of years that I realised that this method has a serious yet familiar fallacy; it will tell us nothing aside from what we already know. To overcome this I have begun to think of questioning different abilities of students in the same way as taking a lift versus taking the stairs. Our more able students may be able to take the lift up to the more difficult questions straight away, where they can be questioned further to test their understanding. Students with low prior attainment may require the ‘stairs’ approach, where questioning begins with closed, leading questions. However they can then progress to more developed open questions once a level of understanding is recognised by the teacher. With this approach, questioning serves not only to inform your awareness of student progress, but also helps further students’ understanding by ‘connecting the mental dots’ in their minds.

A key thing to remember when it comes to questioning is to think of yourself as a detective; don’t take the first response from a student and leave it at that. Always try and ask a follow-up question to stretch their understanding and your appreciation of their ability.

Delve that little bit deeper and you could uncover misconceptions or hidden understanding that you could then share with the rest of the class or use to frame a discussion. Very few of us have Sherlock Holmes’s powers of deduction. Most of us have to rely on asking the right series of questions to find out what we need to know and to unlock the ‘true’ nature of our students understanding.

This article was originally published in Ark Globe Academy’s termly publication Talking Teaching. You can read the full newsletter here. If you have any questions about teaching and learning at Ark Globe, don’t hesitate to contact Narayan Deb, Lead Practitioner.