Questions To Improve Learning

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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How should teachers ask questions of their students? 

This blog was sparked by a ‘question’ I heard a teacher ask their students in a lesson. How can teachers frame questions with a more thoughtful choice of language?
 A couple of years ago, I first blogged about Pose, Pause, Pounce, Bounce! If you are not familiar with this superb questioning strategy, then I would strongly recommend that you download my resource here for your classroom. Then read the supporting blog to explain the resource in fuller detail.

“I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it” Morpheus – The Matrix Film – 1999

Asking Tougher Questions:

In The Question Matrix, I shared how PPPB led to @JohnSayers developing this idea into a 6-step process for questioning students. Or more explicitly, to ask students the ‘right’ questions using the better-framed choice of language. Using questions to:
.• to clarify and assess understanding
• to challenge assumption
• to evidence for argument
• to gather viewpoints and perspectives
• to predict implications and consequences
• to question the question.

Questions To Avoid:

In countless lessons I have taught and observed, the worst type of questions are framed poorly from the start. If this is the case, a poorly asked question leads to: students calling out; closed responses; incorrect answers; surface-learning and less deeper knowledge required.
  1. Let me ask you all, what is the … (asks for everyone to answer; perhaps call out …)
  2. Can anyone tell me … (gives the option to volunteer)
  3. What does this do … [holds object up] (most hands go up in the classroom)
  4. Any leading question which suggests its own answer …

shutterstock_380486122 business woman firmly covering her mouth

It’s better not to ask questions in this way. Don’t waste your breath!

Image: Shutterstock

Asking Better Questions:

Deeper questioning – asked correctly from the outset – anticipates a deeper response from students. When lesson planning, is it useful to pre-plan your key questions for the class/students by keeping in mind lesson objectives and success criteria. Every teacher should ask themselves, do we want students to develop critical thinking skills or to deepen their subject knowledge?
If so, this will determine what type of question to ask and how to word it and ask it.
For example: ‘what manufacturing technique are we using here and how does it compare to [another] manufacturing technique?’ is a good example of a critical skills question, compared to this following example which develops knowledge; compared to similar techniques used in the cotton industry today, why should this industrial revolution [tie-dye] technique be avoided when manufacturing cotton?

Closed Questions:

Any type of closed question which demands a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ should always be followed up with an additional question. Even a follow-up ‘why?’ demands more of a response or an opinion from the student as to why they opted for yes or no. This could further be developed by asking another student if they agree or disagree (and then why) with the first student’s response …

Specific and Direct:

During any discussion, a single question that is complex can often reap the wrong results.
Instead, try a sequence of questions to build depth and complexity once information is gathered and teased out from students. This can be done in class discussions with ease, but is much harder to achieve over a long period of time. For example, with written feedback as a student develops a written response and evidence improvement.
In class discussions, it is best to avoid more than one question at once.
If you ask more than one, some students may be unsure which question to ask first. This is where the ‘Pose, Pause, Pounce, Bounce‘ technique is most effective. The difficulty with this technique, is teaching yourself as a teacher to pause effectively [including the students], and then having the ability to orchestrate students to respond in a controlled and calm ‘no-hands up’ environment, where all students are asked to respond [even if they answer is wrong].

The Question Matrix:

Asking more meaningful questions are best developed from top left to bottom right in the following image:


Questioning Matrix PPPB Speed Dating
If teachers plan and compose specific questions more carefully, questions that will be asked of students, by doing so will help increase student participation and encourage meaningful learning.
Why not give it a go and report back in the comments section below?
Credit: Pam Fearnley (for PPPB idea via Pupils First Ltd.)

3 thoughts on “Questions To Improve Learning

  1. I agree Ross, questioning has to be right in order to build learning engagement and develop understanding, For me its not “thoughtful” but “mindful”. Being mindful of the students perspective as well as understanding can make asking questions inclusive rather than exclusive and impacting what I call the “learning map” (part of our self belief as a learner). A mindful approach to asking questions leads to the increased participation, not only in answering questions but also in the learning.

    Here are two articles I have written that explore my approach to mindful teaching and mindful learning.

    An introduction to Mindful Teaching:
    Just what is Mindful Learning:


  2. Great article with some good points. I would add that scaffolding a questioning session is key to getting different levels of students involved. Using closed questions can be useful, as you say, when followed up with why or how questions. Closed questions can also be used to create a little bit of confidence in a student where you pretty much know they can get to the right answer but often lack the confidence in sharing this with their peers. I think the real skill that teachers can improve on is turning a closed question into an open one and also getting the students to evaluate each other’s questions and answerrs by asking things like, “Why do I like that answer” and “how could xxx improve on that answer”…?

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