Questioning Techniques - Training and Development

Questions are an important instrument for professional instructors. They employ questions as routine devices for maintaining communication; they may even use questions as a control device for"troublesome" students. Let's examine the use of questions in greater detail.

Directive questions can review factual material and help learners discover new insights. Examples: "What is the square root of 144?" "Give an example of horizontal loading as opposed to real job enrichment."

Reflective questions can double-check feelings, can consolidate issues and insights. Example: "You feel, then,that your own job is confining?" "Am I correct in sensing that you feel we've explored this topic more than enough?"

Open questions cannot be answered with a yes or a no or with facts. They are thus useful in probing for feelings and in testing a learner's inventory. "How do you feel about the Equal Rights Amendment?" "What do you know for sure about how adults learn?"When good instructors sense latent apathy or hostility, they tend to use open questions. In one-on-one as well as in group sessions, open questions can communicate a concern that allows apathetic or negative learners to redirect their psychic energies.

Besides knowing when to use each type of question, professional instructors master other questioning techniques.

First, they avoid the "Any questions?" trap. To ask a class "Are there any questions?"rarely produces anything at all—much less cogent interrogation!

Therefore, professional instructors stimulate with carefully planned provocative questions that:

  • Elicit specific opinions or feelings
  • Require an examination of all sides of an issue
  • Permit a learner to share a relevant valued experience
  • Arouse sufficient interest that the answers trigger related questions from the class

Maybe after instructors positively reinforce student-initiated questions, the "Any questions?" question will produce a flurry of questions. But usually students ask questions when

  • the class activity stimulates them to do so,
  • they feel reinforced for asking, or
  • they are stimulated to ask another question because the instructor asked a good question in the first place.

Professional instructors have learned not to interrupt pondering students with follow-up questions. They wait for the student to respond. The follow-up (or "tandem") question usually stems from the instructor's desire to help the student. It rarely works. If the initial question has been well-conceived, students will need a few seconds to think. Let them do so. Asking another question, or rephrasing the old one, just gives them two things to think about at once. One was enough! This is especially true when learners are having trouble formulating their answers. Instructors just add frustration by rephrasing or changing the question. A Wonderful cartoon captures the learner's viewpoint on this; the exasperated student exclaims, "Just when I thought I had the answer, I forgot the question!"

Experience also teaches instructors to ask the question before naming the respondent. Why is this important? Because it permits all the students to decide how they would answer. If not called upon, they can check their intended response with the one given—and be ready to participate if it is incorrect or incomplete. Such covert involvement keeps them "attending" during the entire session; this technique avoids the daydreaming potential that comes when they have been excused from answering a question by an instructor who asked someone else before even asking the question. Because all students "attend" all the time, they are more likely to enliven and enrich the discussion by comments or questions of their own.

Experienced instructors call on students in an irregular, unpredictable sequence. They don't go around the room in clockwise or counterclockwise patterns. They don't go down the alphabetical roster. Students who do not know when they will be called upon tend to answer every question in their own minds.

When students ask questions,professional instructors usually give the asker the first chance to answer.Why? Because the instructor may feel this will allow the learner to grow in self-confidence. Or because it will let askers discover the answers they are capable of giving but may be ignoring for the moment.

As a second choice, instructors like to redirect a student's question to other class members. This keeps attention on the content rather than on a dominant instructor. It provides a helpful way for adults to invest their existing inventory in the learning process. It gives the instructor useful feedback about where the students are in their progress toward learning goals.

A poor third choice is for the instructor to answer the student question.

There are, to be sure, times when this is appropriate, but only if:

  1. The question deals with course logistics (only the instructor knows those answers), or
  2. The questioner specifically asked for the instructor's opinion (and then it's "maybe"), or
  3. It is appropriate or necessary to color the discussion by revealing the instructor's opinion, or
  4. The class has been totally unable to come up with a right answer, and
  5. The search elsewhere would delay processes beyond the value of the question.

That seems like a lot of times when instructors may legitimately give answers, but those "iffy" cases don't come up very often!

Professional instructors use questions to"get a discussion going." In Teaching Tips, W. J. Neckerchief against asking questions that obviously have only one right answer. Discussion questions, he says, "need to get at relationships, applications or analysis of facts and materials." He also identifies a need to frame the questions at a level of abstraction appropriate to the class."Students are most likely to participate in discussion when they feel they have an experience or an idea that will contribute" (1969, 54). Directive questions (those having one right answer) are useful for review—not for stimulation.

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