Promoting Better Student Questions

Questions to ask

Questions to ask

I recently came across my notes about a 1988 book on classroom interaction: Questioning and Teaching: A Manual of Practice, written by J.T. Dillon. It’s an oldie, but a goodie. It’s full of insightful and thought-provoking kernels like these:

  • “The most distinctive feature of questions during discussion is that they are open for discussion rather than closed for answer.” p.125
  • “The source of the answer does not lie in the teacher, text, lesson, or assignment; the content of the answer is not predetermined, and its rightness is not foreordained. There may not exist a “right” answer…” p. 126

Dillon describes eight states of being that I think of as question drivers. Each relates to whether or not students verbalize their questions and the kinds of questions that are asked.

  • Ignorance- I don’t know and I realize I don’t know
  • Perplexity- I am puzzled and uncertain
  • Need- Knowing is necessary
  • Desire- I want to know
  • Belief- I am committed to the question and its suppositions
  • Faith- I am confident that the unknowable is knowable
  • Courage- I am brave enough to face the unknown and the consequences of knowing
  • Will- I resolve to seek knowing

The author also delineates five teacher responses to students’ questions:

  1. Reinforce and reward the experience of perplexity and the expression of inquiry.
  2. Help the student and classmates devise methods to address questions.
  3. Find out the question the student has in mind to ask, help them formulate.
  4. Examine the grounds of the question with the student.
  5. Appreciate the student’s state of knowledge revealed by the question.

I appreciate the thoughtful language Dillon uses to consider the thinking and emotions that coexist as a student wrestles with whether and what to ask. Ignorance and perplexity are straightforward. Students have to realize they lack knowledge or are confused and uncertain. Ignorance and perplexity drive a majority of questions teachers face. But not all students who are perplexed or ignorant initiate a question. To do so requires need and desire. All four of these drivers are needed to spur a question. They form the basis for straightforward questions like:

  • Can you explain that concept again?
  • What would happen if this variable was changed?
  • Will this be on the exam?

According to Dillon (and I concur) belief, faith, courage and will are associated with students asking deeper, more penetrating questions. Teachers, and I put myself in this camp, often lament the surface-level questions asked by students. Perhaps students aren’t asking better questions because teachers aren’t intentional about setting the stage. What can teachers do to create an environment supporting belief, faith, courage and will?

Belief requires student commitment to the issue and its truths. We commit when we care or have a vested interest in knowing. Essentially- if it matters, it’s worth asking about. This is another piece of evidence supporting the importance of helping students establish personal connections: student-to-student, student-to-teacher, student-to-subject. Indifferent students don’t ask many deep, probing questions.

Students who have faith in their ability to learn from their peers or the teacher are more likely to ask better questions. Faith drives questions because it means students have confidence that their questions will be heard and addressed. Faith-filled students are confident they can understand and achieve knowing. Teachers support students’ faith in questioning by establishing a community of learners, where it is safe to ask questions and where time to investigate them is allowed.

In my view, faith is external and courage is internal. Courage is the strength to question our convictions, consider alternative points of view, and accept we may be biased or just plain wrong. Courageous questions are at the crux of transformational thinking and learning, something most teachers aspire to promote. Teachers support courageous thinking and questioning by assigning reflective journals and logs, and facilitating discussions where beliefs and assumptions are gently but persistently challenged.

Self-directed learners have the will to identify questions and seek answers independent of the teacher. Daniel Goodenough (1992) puts it this way:

“As a discussion teacher, I have developed new standards for evaluating classes. In lecturing, success meant that students paid attention, laughed at my jokes and applauded me. I told them what to learn, and they learned it. Now one measure of a good class is the gleam in students’ eyes as they head for the library or lab to answer some of the questions the group has hammered out. And after case discussions I often reflect on whether I have learned, and whether good, provocative questions have emerged with little or no prodding.” p. 96

Notice that students “hammered out” questions, not answers. If we want students to ask more and better questions, teachers need to be more intentional about promoting them. Summer break is an excellent time to ponder philosophical questions about teaching and learning. Promoting students’ questions is on my list. What’s on yours?


Dillon, J.T. (1988). Questioning and Teaching: A Manual of Practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Goodenough, D.A. (1992). Changing Ground: A Medical School Lecturer Turns to Discussion Teaching, in Educating for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership. Christensen, C R., Garvin, D. A. & Sweet, A., eds. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.




About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on April 26, 2016, in Learning, Students and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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