Socrates is the first known philosopher to have used questioning in a systematic way with an ethical purpose in mind. Famous Socratic dialogue takes place between Socrates and Meno in which they discuss human virtue—whether or not it can be taught, whether it is shared by all human beings, and whether it is one quality or many. Socrates is recognized for his uncompromising search for and devotion to truth. His devotion eventually cost him his life (“Socrates” 2011). In his method, Socrates used a sequence of questions to help an individual or a group to determine their underlying beliefs and the level of their knowledge. The Socratic Method was developed to urge one to examine his own beliefs and the validity of such beliefs ("Socrates" 2011). He asked questions such as: what is virtue? What is justice? What is it that makes an action good? What is the end of human existence? It is possible to see his level of dedication to use the questioning method in one of his sayings as well: "I know you won't believe me, but the highest form of Human Excellence is to question oneself and others" ("Socrates" 2011, "Socratic method," para. 2). We do not know if Socrates was officially the first person using questioning techniques but there are many fields one can see the form of questioning specific to him such as sermons, TV shows, education, law and so on. This article will discuss the use of questioning techniques and wait time particularly in education due to its significance and common use.
A question can be defined as any sentence that has an interrogative form or function (Cotton 1988). Asking and answering questions are among the most common human behaviors we experience in many different areas of our lives (Samson, Syrowsky, Weinstein, & Walberg 1987). For instance, as mentioned in Sahin and Kulm (2008)’s study, questions have been used for many purposes such as provoking students and making them listen carefully, analyzing their thoughts and thinking critically. Moreover, the questioning method serves to initiate discussion and review material. Unsurprisingly, research has found that classroom talks are dominated by teachers’ questions (Redfield & Rousseau 1981). Indeed, teachers use anywhere from 35 to 50 percent of their instructional time posing questions (Cotton 1998). Thus questioning is a common and pivotal teaching skill which needs special attention for maximum benefit. Additionally, the type of questions teachers ask and how often these questions are posed to students also needs examining.
The questioning method has been a well-studied topic in education for centuries because it has been thought to be a good measure of a teacher's quality (Stevens 1912). Therefore, a number of studies have taken place to examine the types of questions asked by teachers. Even though different categorizations have been set out in various researches, it is possible to see that there are several types of questions studied most and these include: higher-order, open-ended, divergent, evaluative, lower-order, factual, convergent, closed, and procedural questions. But when looked at these questions closely, it is possible to group them under two categories, probing and factual, based on the answers you expect from your students. The first group of categorization might include higher-order, open-ended, divergent, and evaluative question types under probing since all those question types require students to think deeply, provide wider responses, and justify answers. Indeed, Sahin and Kulm (2008) found that probing question was like the first group of question types requiring the following:
- Asking students to explain or elaborate on their thoughts
- Asking students to use prior knowledge and apply it to the current problem or idea
- Asking students to justify or prove their ideas (p. 3).
Examples of probing questions include:
- How do you know that these fractions, 3/7 and 9/21, are equivalent?
- Why do you agree with your friend?
- How do you know that your answer is right?
- What if you were in his shoes, what would you do to stop him from stealing?
- If you were the President of the United States, would you liberate Libya? Why or why not?
The second group consists of lower-order, convergent, closed, and procedural questions that require students to recall specific facts and provide short answers. Sahin and Kulm’s (2008) study described indicators of factual questions which was very similar to the second group of questions:
- Asking students for a specific fact or definition (Vacc 1993)
- Asking students for an answer to an exercise
- Asking students to provide the next step in a procedure.
Examples of factual questions include:
- What is the definition of a ratio?
- When is the Independence Day of America?
- What do you get when you divide 16 by 4?
- Do you agree with him?
- How many blue chocolate candies do you have in your M&M bag?
In practice, 60 to 80 percent of teachers’ questions are factual and around 20 percent of them are probing questions according to Cotton (1998). So it is important for teachers to be knowledgeable about those questions types.
How to develop questioning skills
Cotton (1998) found that teachers’ questioning method was the second most used teaching skill after lecturing in K-12 education. This is an interesting finding because even though it is used widely in teaching, research shows that teachers receive little training on how to ask, what to ask, and when to ask questions and how much time they need to wait after they pose a question. For instance, Sahin (2011) found that training or workshops on questioning was not a common practice in Texas. Four teachers said that they never took a course or a workshop specifically focusing on questioning and wait time. Interestingly, they said that they still used different questions to teach what they teach. When they were asked how they developed their questioning skills, they attributed it to watching and observing a good teacher as the number one technique to learn how to ask questions.
Another common method to learn how to pose questions is going out in the field and working in a classroom with real teachers and students as described by a middle grades mathematics teacher:
When I was an undergraduate, the time in the classroom, the classroom experience, going out in the field, being in the classroom with actual teachers and helping them out, seeing how they are doing it. You pick up things and you get exposed to different strategies in the classroom. So, I think, having the exposure in the classrooms is very beneficial because you are taught a lot with a lecture at A&M or at any college but real life exposure out in the classrooms with real kids, what kind of questions kids are asking and how they are responding to the questions, I think, is very helpful (Sahin 2011, 39).
Also the importance of workshops on questioning techniques and wait time cannot be ignored since teachers tend to and are encouraged to attend workshops regularly to grow and become better teachers. But Sahin’s findings illustrate that teachers cannot locate a specific workshop on questioning. There was only one teacher who said that she attended a workshop on teachers’ questioning method in her fifteen years of teaching. So, trainings or workshops on different teaching skills should be organized and teachers should be highly encouraged to attend a certain number of professional development workshops each school year.
Questions and wait time are two sides of the same coin. As a coin cannot be valid without one of the sides, questioning techniques will not be successful without sufficient wait time. More precisely, you may ask quality and timely questions to your students but it will not extract learning unless you provide them with enough time to absorb and process the question and produce an answer. Cotton (1998), in her review on questioning and wait time, defined wait time as “the amount of time the teacher allows to elapse after he/she has posed a question and before a student begins to speak” (p. 5). Interestingly, research shows that the average wait time teachers allow students to generate response is one second or less (Rowe 1974). Naturally, no one can expect students to understand a question, process it, and formulate a response in such a short period of time.
Increasing a wait time of three or more seconds is an immense improvement for better responses and eventually for more effective student learning. Studies such as Cazden (2001) have revealed that three or more seconds of wait time help students give longer responses, provide better responses with more evidence of learning, further elaboration, encourage more questioning, and added engagement with increased student-to-student and student-to-teacher interactions. This is why it is crucial for teachers to go through trainings to develop proper wait time habits encouraging further student learning.
The use of questioning skills in daily life
Scholars, religious leaders, and/or prophets can be categorized as teachers as well since they are in a position to communicate to people certain things by lecturing, preaching, or posing questions. In that sense, Socrates was not alone in his use of questioning techniques to teach something or convince someone about a misunderstood value. The following story presents an excellent example of a well-constructed questioning method with enough wait time. In the story, Turkish scholar Said Nursi talks about how wrong or exaggerated fear can make one’s life unbearable:
An important man (may God’s mercy be upon him) was afraid to travel by boat. One evening, we went to Galata bridge to take the ferry to Eyup. He did not want to get on, saying that he feared he would drown. When I asked him how many boats were in the Golden Horn, he replied that there might be as many as one thousand. When I asked him how many boats sank each year, he replied usually one or two, and sometimes none. I made this analogy: “Since a year has 365 days, your chance of drowning is 1:365,000. Why does such a small chance scare you?” I asked: “How much longer do you expect to live?” He answered: “Maybe 10 years; I am old already.” I continued: “As there are 3,650 days in 10 years, your chance of dying today is 1:3,650. But since we do not know when we will die, you could die at any time. So repent and weep! Write your last will and testament!” Seeing the truth in my words, he got on the boat even though trembling. (Nursi 2007, 401-2)
In the example, Nursi uses a series of questions to help a person overcome his fear of boarding a boat. In this example, Nursi achieved a couple of things through questioning: first, he asked a series of (factual) questions to help the person determine his underlying beliefs about death. Nursi formulated this information in such a way to show the man how small the possibility of a boat sinking was through a set of factual questions. He posed each question cleverly and effectively to help the person realize how his feelings of death were exaggerated. Also, Nursi gave his addressee enough time to think about the questions, use prior knowledge and apply it to a current problem or situation. He did not rush him to give answers. Moreover, the information Nursi obtained was not something that his addressee did not know, rather it was a tool to help the person overcome his fear of death when boarding a boat. In a short period of time, Nursi persuaded the person that his fear was needless through the use of a questioning technique combined with adequate wait time. As Myhill and Dunkin (2002) stated, “Just like a good barrister, a good teacher knows how to use questions for maximum impact” (p. 8).
In conclusion, teachers’ questioning skills are one of the primary and most influential set of pedagogical skills in use in classrooms. Therefore, teachers should be trained in order for them to become knowledgeable about what to ask and how to ask. Additionally, teachers should know that they should wait at least three seconds after posing a question for more effective student responses and understanding. Teachers’ questioning skills and wait time should complement each other for better outcome. Colleges, districts, and schools should seek ways to improve both prospective and in-service teachers’ questioning skills.
- Cazden, C. B. 2001. Classroom discourse: The language of teaching and learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
- Cotton, K. 1998. Classroom questioning. North West Regional Educational Laboratory. Retrieved from http://www.learner.org/workshops/socialstudies/pdf/session6/6.ClassroomQuestioning.pdf
- Nursi, Bediüzzaman Said. 2007. The Letters. NJ: Tughra Books.
- Myhill, D., & Dunkin, F. 2002. What is a good question? Literacy, 8.
- Redfield, D. L., & Rousseau, E. W. 1981. A meta-analysis of experimental research on teacher questioning behavior. Review of Educational Research 51, 237–245.
- Sahin, A. 2011. Teachers’ awareness and acquisition of questioning. (Manuscript submitted for publication).
- Sahin, A., & Kulm, G. 2008. Sixth grade mathematics teachers. Intentions and use of probing, guiding, and factual questions. Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education, 11(3), 221-241
- Samson, G. E., Strykowski, B., Weinstein, T., & Walberg, H. J. 1987. The effects of teacher questioning levels on student achievement. Journal of Educational Research 80, 290–295.
- Socrates.(n.d.).Wikipedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socrates
- Stevens, R. 1912. The questions as a measure of efficiency in instruction: A critical study of classroom practice, Teachers College Contributions to Education, 48, 95. New York: Columbia University, Teachers College Press.
- Vacc, N. N. 1993. Implementing the professional standards for teaching mathematics: Questioning in the mathematics classroom. Arithmetic Teacher, 41(2), 88–91.