Questioning How I Question

For some, “assessment” is sometimes a dirty word, with visions of rubrics, accreditation reports, and piles of data.  Readers of this blog hopefully do not have this vantage point, thanks in part to some great previous posts on this topic and an overall understanding of how assessment is a critical component of best practices in teaching and learning.  Yet, even as a new(ish) faculty member who values assessment, I still struggle with trying to best determine whether my students are learning and to employ effective and efficient (who has time to spare?!) assessment strategies.  Thus, when a professional development opportunity on campus was offered to do a book read of “Fast and Effective Assessment: How to Reduce Your Workload and Improve Student Learning” by Glen Pearsall I quickly said “Yes! Send me my copy!”

 

Prior to the first meeting of my reading group, I dutifully did my homework of reading the first chapter (much like our students often do, the night before…).  Somewhat to my surprise, the book doesn’t start by discussing creating formal assessments or how to effectively grade and provide feedback.  Rather, as Pearsall points out “a lot of the work associated with correction is actually generated long before students put pen to paper. The way you set up and run a learning activity can have a profound effect on how much correction you have to do at the end of it.” The foundation of assessment, according to Pearsall is then questioning technique. 

 

Using questions to promote learning is not a new concept and most, even non-educators, are somewhat familiar with the Socratic Method.  While the simplified version of the Socratic Method is thought of as using pointed questions to elicit greater understanding, more formally, this technique encourages the student to acknowledge their own fallacies and then realize true knowledge through logical deduction[1],[2].  Compared to the conversations of Socrates and Plato 2+ millennia ago, modern classrooms not only include this dialectic discourse but also other instructional methods such as didactic, inquiry, and discovery-based learning (or some version of these strategies that bears a synonymous name).  My classroom is no different — I ask questions all class long, to begin a session (which students answer in writing to prime them into thinking about the material they experienced in preparation for class), to work through material I am presenting (in order to encourage engagement), and in self-directed class activities (both on worksheets and as I roam the room).  However, it was not until reading Pearsall’s first chapter that I stopped to question my questions and reflect on how they contribute to my overall assessment strategy.

 

Considering my questioning technique in the context of assessment was a bit of a reversal in thinking.  Rather than asking my questions to facilitate learning (wouldn’t Socrates be proud!), I could consider my questions providing important feedback on whether students were learning (AKA…Assessment!).  Accordingly, the most effective and efficient questions would be ones that gather more feedback in less time.  Despite more focus on the K-12 classroom, I think many of Pearsall’s suggestions[3] apply to my undergraduate physiology classes too.  A brief summary of some strategies for improving questioning technique, separated by different fundamental questions:

 

 

How do I get more students to participate?

  • We can “warm up” cold calling to encourage participation through activities like think-pair-share, question relays, scaffolding answers, and framing speculation.
  • It is important to give students sufficient thinking time through fostering longer wait and pause times. Pre-cueing and using placeholder or reflective statements can help with this.

How do I elicit evidentiary reasoning from students?

  • “What makes you say that?” and “Why is _____ correct?” encourages students to articulate their reasoning.
  • Checking with others and providing “second drafts” to responses emphasizes the importance of justifying a response.

How do I sequence questions?

  • The right question doesn’t necessarily lead to better learning if it’s asked at the wrong time.
  • Questions should be scaffolded so depth and complexity develops (i.e. detail, category, elaboration, evidence).

How do I best respond to student responses?

  • Pivoting, re-voicing, and cueing students can help unpack incorrect and incomplete answers as well as build and explore correct ones.

How do I deal with addressing interruptions?

  • Celebrating good practices, establishing rules for discussion, making it safe to answer and addressing domineering students can facilitate productive questioning sessions.

 

After reviewing these strategies, I’ve realized a few things.  First, I was already utilizing some of these techniques, perhaps unconsciously, or as a testament to the many effective educators I’ve learned from over the years.  Second, I fall victim to some questioning pitfalls such as not providing enough cueing information and leaving students to try their hand at mind-reading what I’m trying to ask more than I would like.  Third, the benefits of better questioning are real.  Although only anecdotal and over a small sampling period, I have observed that by reframing certain questions, I am better able to determine if students have learned and identify what they may be missing.  As I work to clean up my assessment strategies, I will continue to question my questions, and encourage it in my colleagues as well.

 

1Stoddard, H.A. and O’Dell, D.A. Would Socrates Have Actually Used the Socratic Method for Clinical Teaching? J Gen Intern Med 31(9):1092–6. 2016.

2Oyler, D.R. and Romanelli, F. The Fact of Ignorance Revisiting the Socratic Method as a Tool for Teaching Critical Thinking. Am J of Pharm Ed; 78 (7) Article 144. 2014.

3A free preview of the first chapter of Pearsall’s book is available here.

Anne Crecelius (@DaytonDrC) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health and Sport Science at the University of Dayton where she won the Faculty Award in Teaching in 2018.  She teaches Human Physiology, Introduction to Health Professions, and Research in Sport and Health Science. She returned to her undergraduate alma mater to join the faculty after completing her M.S. and Ph.D. studying Cardiovascular Physiology at Colorado State University.  Her research interest is in the integrative control of muscle blood flow.  She is a member of the American Physiological Society (APS), serving on the Teaching Section Steering Committee and will chair the Communications Committee beginning in 2019.  In 2018, she was awarded the ADInstruments Macknight Early Career Innovative Educator Award.
2 thoughts on “Questioning How I Question”

Anne great blog.  I would like more information on how you warm up the class? Do the students know they will be called on or is it random? If random how do you make sure everyone gets called on? How big are your classes?

Thanks for the comment and kind words Patricia!

For warm up, I have a powerpoint slide pulled up in advance of their arrival (I aim for 5-10 minutes before class).  Students pick up a quarter sheet of paper (a good way to recycle single sided printing!) on their way in and they answer the question on this.  I’ve considered an electronic version, but having them hand these in and then pass them back also helps me learn names.  I give them the first 5 minutes of class to continue working (especially those who arrive right when class starts).  I play music during this time which they also enjoy…when the music stops, we start.  There’s always an open-ended question (low Bloom’s level) and a true/false.  I also invite them to ask me a question (I’m wondering why…. What happens if….I ‘m having trouble understanding…).  This allows me to see what they may have missed in the reading or from last class.  I (or a student volunteer teaching assistant) go through and answer those (which is often “did class help?” in response to something that confused them).

After completing, I invite responses and allow them to volunteer.  I try to vary who answers and if noone does, I can go back to “you all wrote something down”.  I could probably be better about making sure all are called on.  While they are working I try to roam the room to see what each table (group of 4 at 2 tables typically) is coming up with.

My classes range from 26 or so on the small side to 35ish.  Definitely helps having a small size like that for this kind of activity.

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