Thoughts on Questioning Techniques in the Classroom

photo credit: mag3737 via photopin cc
photo credit: mag3737  cc

Every year I find that pairing the right math activity while asking specific questions can yield some amazing student learning experiences. I would assume that most math teachers would agree that only giving a specific solution to a student doesn’t necessarily help them understanding concepts. Offering solutions without feedback or questions can encourage students to care only about finding the answer. The act of “answer finding” limits understanding and diminishes curiosity.

When I started teaching I spoke constantly. I would give examples and statements that I thought would help all my students. Looking back, I spoke more than I should. As I progressed in my career I found that constructing a mathematical understanding doesn’t always ignite from just listening to the speaker.  There’s a time and place for listening, but being engaged in the learning process is vital.  I soon found that a balanced instructional approach was needed so I decreased the amount of talking and started to ask math related questions instead.

Although statements are beneficial, effective questioning techniques can provoke a response from the student. Offering guiding questions, or questions that encourage students to delve deeper in their explanation benefits the student. I feel like part of my job is to create an environment where students are able construct mathematical understanding. When students struggle with that understanding, questioning techniques can be another tool that teachers utilize. Questioning also helps students think more independently and explain their mathematical reasoning in a verbal or written form. Students need to be able to explain why and how they find solutions.  This type of communication is an important skill to develop.  Before planning on using questioning techniques in the classroom there are some important points to consider.

The environment

Students have to be open to answering the questions that are posed. In order for questioning techniques to work, students need to feel comfortable enough in the classroom to offer their ideas and explain their mathematical thinking. This environment is often intentionally built by creating a positive classroom learning community early in the school year.  Students will often participate less if they feel as though their input isn’t valued.

The timing 

Teachers can spend extensive time planning, but I find the best times to use effective questioning techniques are in the moment. Learning can be messy and teachers need to be able to have questions available depending on where students are in their mathematical understanding.   I’ve seen great question techniques used in whole class and small group settings.

 The questions 

The questions that are posed truly matter. When I started teaching my questioning techniques were less than stellar. Through time I’ve learned to expect more from my students. When given a chance, students are fully capable of expressing their thinking. Teachers need to allow students opportunities to do just that. The questions should prompt a response from the student beyond yes or no.  I want to get the students talking about their math process and learning.




Other classroom questioning resources are below.

Effective Questioning Techiques
Asking Questions
Using Questioning to Stimulate Mathematical Thinking
Leveled Math Questions












Math: In Response to Your Question

I’ve been exploring the use of multiple solution problems in my math classes.  These types of problems often ask students to think critically and explain their mathematical processes thoroughly.  To be honest, these questions can be challenging for elementary students.  Most younger students expect or have been accustomed to finding one right answer throughout their academic career. Unfortunately, state and local standardized assessments often encourage this type of behavior through multiple choice questions.  This type of answer hunting can lead to limited explanations and more of a focus on only one mathematical strategy, therefore emphasizing test-taking strategies.  Encouraging students to hunt for only the answer often becomes a detriment to the learning process over time.  Moving beyond getting the one right answer should be encouraged and modeled.  Bruce Ferrington’s post on quality over quantity displays how the Japanese encourage multiple solutions and strategies to solve problems. This type of instruction seems to delve more into the problem solving properties of mathematics. Using this model, I decided to do something similar with my students.

I gave the following problem to the students:

How do you find the area of the octagon below?  Explain the steps and formulas that you used to solve the problem.

Octagon Problem

At first many students had questions.  The questions started out as procedural direction clarification and then started down the path of a) how much writing is required? b) how many points is this worth? c) how many steps are involved? d) Is there one right answer?  I eventually stopped the class and asked them to explain their method to find the area of the octagon, basically restating the question.  I also mentioned that they could use any of the formulas that we’ve discussed in class.  Still, more questions ensued.  Instead of answering their questions, I decided to propose a question back to them inorder to encourage independent mathematical thinking.  Here are a few of the Q and A’s that  took place:

SQ = Student Question         TA = Teacher Answer

SQ:  Where do I start?

TA:  What formulas have you learned that will help you in this problem?

SQ:  Do I need to solve for x?

TA:  Does the question ask for you to solve for x?

SQ:  Should I split up the octagon into different parts?

TA:  Do you think splitting up the octagon will help you?

SQ:  How do I know if the triangle is a right angle?

TA:  What have we learned about angle properties to help you answer that question?

Eventually, students began to think more about the mathematical process and less about finding an exact answer.  This evolution in problem solving was inspiring.  Students began to ask less questions and explain more of their thinking on paper.  At the end of the math session students were asked to present their answers.  It became apparent that there were multiple methods to solve the problem.  Even more important, students started to understand that their perseverance was contributing to their success.  The answer in itself was not the main goal, but the mathematical thinking was emphasized throughout the process.

Afterwards, students were asked to complete a math journal entry on how they felt about the activity.

Image Credit: Kreeti

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