The Teacher's Use of Questions
Jimmy Tuten, Jr.
The goal of the teacher is to involve the students. One of the best ways to cause involvement is through the question and answer procedure. "But questions sometimes are ambiguous and people hesitate to answer, not because they don't know the answer, but because they don't know the question."' Teachers often fail to get class participation because they do not understand the procedure of asking questions. The art of asking good questions which will produce feedback can be improved upon. Like other aspects of the teaching situation, this area needs development. In this writing we want to look at the use of questions in the teaching situation and see if we can not render some assistance in their use.
What is a question? Webster says that it is "an interrogative expression often used to test knowledge." More simply stated, a question is a sentence which demands an answer. Questions are powerful. Why is this so? "Because they act as switches to `turn on' otherwise passive minds. A good question demands an answer because it introduces imbalance within the hearer. A question is like the first half of a suspense story. Once >hooked' by the story, we are unsatisfied until we learn >whodunit.' A question without an answer is like a hymn without an ending." 2
When your primary aim in the classroom situation is to draw out information, start by asking questions. But use questions that will relax the other person. People enjoy giving answers they know are right. They want to do so effortlessly. If our questions are not easy questions, we make it difficult for the student and he becomes evasive and withdrawn. One of the purposes of the question is to dissolve tension. If we fail in this, then the main thrust of the question is not realized. Make it easy for the student to enter into the conversation. Ask questions, but structure them carefully.
Three Features of Good Questions
The proof of the potency of good questions is seen in the fact that the gospels record more than a hundred questions asked by Jesus. Jesus did not ask questions to gain information for himself. His desire was to lead his disciples into a personal search for truth. There are three basics that characterized the questions used by Jesus.3 They were (1) original, (2) practical, and (3) personal. Reflected in these three basics are three ingredients of every questioning situation.
1. Personal Feature - The Student: The questions of Jesus were personal in that He wanted to effect a change within the person of His disciples. The effectiveness of our questions can be measured by this same feature. What will good questions do for your student? First, they will help him to think. Your question will cause the student to do one of two things: (a) try to find the answer, or (b) try to tune you out by putting it out of his mind. Given a problem, the student usually sets about to solve the problem. Secondly, questions encourage a student to express his thoughts in his own words. Finally, questions often result in a complete change of attitude within the student. When you help a student to discover for himself the need for a change, his motivation will come from within. The student values his own discovery above that of others.
2. Practical Feature - The Material: Our Lord had certain truths to communicate to His disciples; truths that affected them in everyday living. The same is true with teachers today. Questions tend to focus attention upon central issues in the subject matter. How do questions enhance subject material? They stimulate interest and arouse curiosity. This is done in what otherwise might be dry material. Questions help students to understand facts. Facts have to be placed in proper relationship to one another. At times facts are not understood because this is not done. Questions also have a great value as a means of review. Reviewing former lessons .with pointed questions brings much of the old material flooding back into the minds of the students.
3. Original Feature - The Teacher: Just as Christ presented material original with Himself, so today's teacher must frame questions that relate to the environment shared by teacher and student alike. Our questions should fit naturally into our manner of presentation. How do questions help us as teachers? They help to evaluate the effectiveness of our teaching. A good question is one of the few ways to test classroom instruction. A good question reveals the level of a student's understanding. The manner in which a student answers a question will suggest the approach to be made in helping the student. More important yet is the fact that good questions help to establish rapport with the students. This is one way you can establish and express your confidence in your students.
Characteristics Of Good Questions
We will look at the characteristics of good questions first from the standpoint of the student, secondly from the standpoint of the material, and thirdly from the standpoint of the teacher.
From the viewpoint of the student, good questions will be:
1. As brief as possible. We tend to make our questions confusing by making them long-winded in nature. This causes the student not to understand the real nature and heart of the question. Teachers should strive to make the question communicative by asking it in as few words as possible.
2. As clear as possible. The student should have enough of a problem answering the question without having to ask, "what was the question," or, "would you please repeat the question." Use exact and precise word in framing your question. Stay away from catch-all or muddy phrases.
3. As thought-provoking as possible. Asking questions that the student has not thought of before always stimulates interest. New problems are always interesting in nature. This is particularly true when the question is made relevant to the lives of the students.
4. As accommodating as possible. Questions should always be adapted to the level of the students. Do not ask questions that are "over their heads."
Viewing the question from the standpoint of the material to be communicated, a good question is one that requires personal interaction with the material. This type of question requests the other person to talk about a particular topic rather than merely provide a specific fact. It sets the student's mind actively in motion because he has to organize material in order to answer. There are four ways of asking this type of question:
1. Ask questions that cannot be answered with a yes or no: Ask a question that requires an explanatory answer. This will cause the student to explain what he means rather than merely provide a fact, or a yes or no.
2. Preface key words with "what about" or "how about:" For example, if you want a person to start at some relevant point regarding the church, you might ask him, "what about the nature of the church," or, "how about the church, what is its nature?" In this way the student will begin at a specific point and explain the nature of the church from a biblical standpoint.
3. Repeat back key words: A third method for getting explanatory answers is to repeat back the key words in the student's previous answer. Suppose you have asked about the form of government involved in the relationship of Christ and the kingdom, and the correct answer "Christ rules as absolute Monarch," is given by your student. You could then ask, "absolute Monarch," what is meant by that term? This would create further discussion of the question. You are merely repeating back some of the student's words, suggesting that you would like to know more about it.
4. Summarize back: A fourth way to draw out information is to summarize back to the student your understanding of what he meant when he gave an answer. If he agrees, he can answer with a yes or no, but if he disagrees, he is faced with the task of explaining the basis for the disagreement. He then may have to give another explanation of what he means.
The characteristics of good questions can be further demonstrated by viewing them from the standpoint of the teacher-involvement. The teacher should strive to be original and creative. It is easy to ask a question in the words of a given text. This is not good because it leaves the student free to answer in the words of the text. The responsibility of the teacher is to creatively relate the material to the problems and interests of the students. The teacher should be logical. His questions should make sense. Always ask questions which are natural to the intended sense of the passage you are studying. Finally, the teacher should be purposeful. Do not ask questions merely to fill time. Each question should have a purpose behind it. The purpose can range from getting the attention of a troublemaker to determining how well you have communicated the lesson material.
Techniques To Use In Questioning
There are many techniques that are very helpful in getting questions across. Knowing something about these will enable the teacher to choose the one most appropriate in a given situation. The teacher might use one technique one time, and another at some other time during the teaching situation.
Ask The Whole Class. A poor technique is to name the student, then ask the question. Sometimes it is necessary to do this when you are trying to get the attention of someone. But it is not a good policy. The danger is that all minds are turned off except the mind of the one whose name was called. A better method is to ask the entire class the question. Choose a volunteer, if any, for the answer. After a pause, you then call on someone specifically.
Distribute Your Questions. The tendency in the classroom is for two or three to dominate by answering the majority of the questions. Try to get responses from the cross-section of the class. Occasionally it is a good idea to jolt a daydreamer into reality by asking him a direct question. This forces him to pay attention, or suffer possible embarrassment.
Allow Time For The Answer. Do not rush your students with a "answer-right-now-or-else" technique. Give them time to answer. Do not, however, permit long periods of silence. If it is apparent that the student does not have the answer, move to someone else in the classroom. If the student is making mental progress on the answer, give an extra few seconds for him to formulate his answer into words.
Do Not Over-Question. Always season your questions with salt. You have the responsibility of communicating a certain amount of material. Do not shortchange your students on the lecture content by over-emphasis on questions. Never rely on questions to the exclusion of other types or methods of teaching.
Be Helpful. Never ask questions in such a manner as to imply: "see how much more I know about the subject than you?" Your questions should be designed to help the student come to a greater understanding of God's Word.
In order to learn to use these techniques skillfully, you are going to have to practice them. Get in the habit of applying them in your classroom. It may appear awkward at first but with continued use they will go more smoothly. As a result, your classroom work will be more enjoyable and more productive.
1. Binkley and Broadwell, Success At Bible Class Teaching (Atlanta; 1973), p. 50.
2. Salisbury and Peabody, A Guide To Effective Bible Teaching (Grand Rapids: 1966), p. 41.
3. These three points were touched on in an earlier article, "The Teaching Methods of Jesus." Truth Magazine, Vol. 18 (December 6, 1973), p. 88.
Truth Magazine, XVIII:28, p. 12-13