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Effective Questioning Enhances Student Learning
By Shirley Ronkowski   Printer Friendly Version

Instructor initiated questions enhance student learning by:

  • developing critical thinking skills
  • reinforcing student understanding
  • correcting student misunderstanding
  • providing feedback for students
  • enlivening class discussion

Questions serve as a teaching tool by which instructors manage and direct learning, test student understanding, and diagnose problem areas. The skillful use of the following question strategies have been found to enhance the effectiveness of instructor initiated questions.

1) USING A SKILL HIERARCHY: Asking questions that move from requiring simple recall of information to more difficult levels of cognitive reasoning, helps students develop cognitive abilities and critical thinking skills. (see chart below.)

KNOWLEDGE recalling facts or observations;
supplying definitions
COMPREHENSION describing; stating main ideas;
comparing & contrasting
APPLICATION applying techniques & rules to
solve problems that have a
single correct answer
ANALYSIS identifying motives or making
inferences; finding evidence to
support generalizations
SYNTHESIS developing solutions problems and/or
making predictions
EVALUATION making value judgments about
a controversial issue; judging
truth, validity, beauty,
worth etc.

The below chart corresponds with the rows above.

l. Who?, What?, Where?, When?,
2. How would you define the term...?
l. Describe (what will happen when...)
2. What is the main idea (of article)?
3. How are the theories alike/ different?
1. If..., then...
2. How does this rule apply to...
3. How would you interpret this graph/chart?
1. What can we conclude about...?
2. What does this tell us about...?
3. What evidence can you find to support...?
l. How can this dilemma be solved?
2. How can we improve this?
3. What might happen if...?
l. What is your opinion (on this matter)?
2. Would it be better done another way?
3. Why do you agree with...?

2) EMPLOYING WAIT-TIME: Wait-time is the amount of time an instructor waits for students to respond before giving the answer or posing another question. At least 5 to l0 seconds are needed for students to think about and respond to the questions. Of course, questions at higher cognitive levels tend to require longer wait-time than questions at the lower cognitive levels.

3) REDIRECTING QUESTIONS: Question redirection occurs when an instructor turns a student-initiated question or comment back to the student or to the class. This provides students with further opportunities to develop thinking and communication skills. It also helps to promote classroom discussion by taking the focus off the instructor and encouraging student to student interaction.

4) USING PROBING QUESTIONS: Probing questions are initiated by the instructor and requires the student to think beyond the initial response. It directs, develops, or refocuses the student's response.


Phrasing problems can mislead or confuse your students. The four most common problems in phrasing questions are:

"YES" OR "NO" QUESTIONS: Yes/No questions demand only a yes or no response and do not stimulate discussion. These questions usually begin with auxiliary verbs are, is, could, would, does, do, can and was. Unfortunately, studies show this form is used often in classroom settings. Example: Is social reform an issue here? Change to: What specific social reforms are at issue here?

AMBIGUOUS QUESTIONS: Ambiguous questions are unclear and unfair. It often turns into a guess what's on the teacher's mind. Example: Phrasing is a problem in questioning? Change to: Why could poor phrasing of a question be considered a problem?

Spoon-feeding QUESTIONS: Spoon-feeding questions give too much guidance and does not require students to develop analytic skills. Examples: Leading questions: "So we can say that, no matter where we live, people need food and shelter. Isn't that right?" Questions that include the answer or offer a choice: "Are the things necessary or only desirable?" Inverted questions: "The kind of things that we can discover from observing animals are what?" (These types of questions tend to force a predetermined answer).

COMPOUND QUESTIONS: Compound questions tend to include too many factors and or pose several questions for students to consider at once. For example: "How did the revolution begin, and what did the nobles have to do with it? Did tax reform have anything to do with it?" The solution to avoiding this type of question is to make sure your questions contain only one main idea.


ORIENTING STUDENTS TO CHANGE: Since the classroom is a social system, it's very easy for TAs and students to quickly learn to expect certain behaviors of one another. For example, when students are not used to having an instructor ask them specific questions or give them sufficient waittime, they may not immediately respond. Letting students know the purpose of any changes you plan to make in the classroom or in your teaching behavior helps orient students to change and increases the likelihood of their full cooperation.

Written by Drs. Nancy Lorsch and Shirley Ronkowski, 1982. Instructional Development, University of California, Santa Barbara.


"Condensed Version of the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives." In Bloom, Hastings, and Madaus (eds). Handbook on Formative and Summative Evaluation of Student Learning . 1971

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