"The Magic in Questioning" for TEFL Course Trainees
Done right, you ensure both comprehension and fun!
(Adapted from Module 6 of the TEFL for Target Learner Groups Course)
As you are about to see, good questioning technique, which is the "magic" a good teacher wields in maximizing his or her students' learning is not just the province of language teaching alone, but is applied to the teaching of all types of courses.
Indeed, this topic deserves a book in itself, since it forms the fulcrum of the participative style of teaching and is the basis for good rapport between the trainer and the trainee.
There are a number of reasons for asking questions during a training session:
To Ensure Comprehension
- To encourage participation, thereby increasing interest and activity.
- To give feedback to the trainer that he is progressing at a rate the trainees can cope with.
- To encourage reasoning ability in the trainees.
- To test trainees’ knowledge.
- To maintain control of errant trainees.
It will be seen from this list that the first three reasons for questioning differ in character from the last two, since the latter have to do with testing, whereas the former encourage thought and help the training session develop. Terms have been coined to differentiate the two as testing questions and teaching questions, and, although this is a great oversimplification in some ways, it is sufficient for the purposes of an industrial trainer, for example. Testing questions essentially check that learning has in fact taken place, and are historical in nature as they test previous knowledge. Teaching questions form the framework of the session: asking the trainee to form the framework of the session; and asking him or her to reason out principles, describe concepts and forecast the next step. Thus, in essence, teaching questions are based in the present, but concerned with the future, as in the following example:
“What do you think makes this part of the machine go up and down, Fred?”
“ How, do you imagine, can we allow for depreciation of machinery in our cost analysis?”
Pertinent to these same points, a question might be:
“Last week I taught you what makes this part of the machine go up and down.
What was it, Fred?”
“Where did we put depreciation of machinery in our cost analysis?”
Teaching questions are the garrets to framing, but with care and prior thought, they can form the core of the session, particularly if they are used in conjunction with visual presentation of the answers.
Framing questions in general is an art which requires constant practice. There are some ground rules, however:
- Use language that the trainees will understand.
- Start with the question word (who, why, where, what, when or how).
- Use testing questions to check previous knowledge during the introduction and summaries, and teaching questions during the body.
- Try to ask questions (for maximum participation) at the rate of approximately one every two to three minutes.
- In group situations the rule is Pose, Pause, Pounce, Praise! In other words, put the question to the group as a whole, pause and then pounce on one trainee for his answer. The “pause” is essential for thinking time, and trainers must learn to withstand the pressure of silence. Trainers new to this will find it a lengthy business, but at all costs avoid the temptation to leap in. Eventually, this will become second nature, but at first some device such as counting, or reciting the question silently to oneself, is a useful barrier to rushing in.
- The way the trainer deals with the answer is critical, since it sets the tone for the session and can kill or encourage other trainees’ participation. If the answer is correct, reinforce the student’s action by immediate acknowledgment (“Good”, “Fine”, “Yes”), by perhaps rephrasing it an using it in the development of the next teaching point. If the answer is not what is required, but the trainer feels the question was reasonable, it is good practice to ask for someone else’s view, not to say “No!”, as this will perhaps affect the trainee’s future input. If no one is able to answer correctly, then the chances are that the question was not framed clearly, and a good policy is to rephrase it and ask the original trainee, thus saving his face. Avoid questions which have a yes/no answer, since the trainees have a 50% chance of guessing correctly, and if a yes/no answer does emerge, it should be followed by “why?” to the same trainee.
At the beginning of this section, one purpose of questioning was stated to be the control of errant trainees. Trainees who are not concentrating can be brought gently to heel by careful questioning, as this engages their gray matter, stimulates their interest and, therefore, brings them back into the lesson. It is most important to do this in such a way as to avoid ridiculing them in front of their peers.
In general, be gentle in question and answer sessions, treat contributions with respect and encourage verbalization of points which are not clear. If the trainees are intimidated, they will not ask for clarification when needed, and will not “spark” spontaneously when creative leaps are made. Question technique is a difficult art to master, but the reward of a lively, interactive group learning together is one of the trainer’s most valuable experiences.
In fact, the ability to ask the right question at the right time is the hallmark of a good teacher. Let's now examine the most common question types.
“Tell me about ‘X’. What do you think about ‘X’?”
Useful for: Putting the trainee at ease. Introducing new topics. Exploring opinions and feelings. (Beware of over-talkative trainees.)
“Do you come from ‘X’?” “Is the work hard?”
Useful for: Checking specific points. Getting short yes/no answers. (This style of questioning is of little or no use for exploring attitudes, perceptions or depth of learning.)
“How”? “What”? “When”? “Tell me more about it.” “Why do you think that?”
Useful for: Getting more information and detail. Exploring attitudes and opinions. Demonstrating understanding. (Beware of differing views.)
SIGNPOSTS & BRIDGES.
“That is very important; now what about this?”
Useful for: Moving from one topic to another smoothly.
“Do you think this is a good idea”? “Can you see the benefits of ...?”
Useful for: Selling an idea to the trainee. Helping a trainee who is having difficulty in grasping a point.
“How would you deal with …?” “What would you do if…?”
Useful for: Testing a trainee’s imagination. Testing his understanding of a subject. (The drawback is that the answer is hypothetical, too.)
“So you think that?” “Is this what you are saying ...?”
Useful for: Getting the trainee to expand, especially where his initial reply has an emotional content.
“What do you think of the revised airspace structure?
By that, I mean Scottish; in other words, how will the new airway fit in”?
Not useful because: The trainee becomes confused, forgets most of the question and answers only what he can remember.
“How can the CAA solve the staffing situation?”
“What is the solution to the situation of aimlessness?”
Not useful because: The trainee is not able to give a meaningful reply.
“You don’t really think that, do you?” “You wouldn’t do that, would you?”
Not useful because: It indicates that the instructor does not approve.
“I am sure you will agree with that?” “The answer is, of course, ‘X’, isn’t it?”
Not useful because: The trainee is forced to agree with the instructor. It does not explore the trainee’s knowledge.
The USE of QUESTIONS in the LEARNING SITUATION
As we have already stated, instructors have learned that the best single teaching aid they have is the ability to put the right question at the right time to the right trainee. In developing a new idea, even though the student does not have specific information on the subject, an experienced instructor can, by gradual questioning, get the student to develop, through answers and subject. When the student has, with this type of assistance and yet without being told, developed a new thought, he will have it well fixed in his mind; and it is likely that the rest of the group, having followed the questioning and had thoughts of their own at the same time, also will have retained the information.
Instructors often ask a somewhat startling question or conduct an interesting demonstration at the beginning of a lesson; this is intended to arouse curiosity and helps to focus the attention of the class. In classroom instruction or group demonstration, questions should be addressed to the class as a whole; then a student should be called on individually by name, but the name should only be mentioned after the question and strictly in accordance with the Pose, Pause, Pounce principle, as trainees then will be more likely to pay attention to the question. If the question is given first, each member of the class will feel that he or she may be the one to be called on and so will pay attention and formulate an answer. Not all answers need to be repeated, but some repetition is beneficial because it reinforces valid points or correct answers. The instructor should insist that the student give the answer distinctly enough to permit the rest of the class to hear it. If the answer is vague, other students may be called upon to assist in clarifying the point, and, as a final check, one of the students may be asked to summarize the complete and clear answer which has been developed.
Uses of Oral Questions:
1. To focus attention, provoke curiosity and stimulate interest. A good question at the beginning of a lecture can achieve this. During a lesson, a student whose mind is wandering can be snapped into attention by a question.
2. To help students recall known facts, which are needed as a basis for the material being taught.
3. To guide the approach to a particular subject and make students think and direct their thoughts in order to help them learn precise facts and reach sound conclusions.
4. To ascertain whether what has been taught has been well understood.
5. To relate theory to practice.
6. To summarize the important points at the conclusion of a lesson, or part of a lesson.
7. To raise further questions, thus stimulating thought and encouraging research into a subject.
8. To accomplish rapid general revision, as a few quick questions at the beginning of the lesson will indicate what material requires reinforcement.
Desirable Guidelines for Classroom Questions:
1. If questions are asked in order to help students recall facts, the students should be required to give immediate short answers; but if they are asked questions requiring detailed answers they should be allowed sufficient time to work out the answer.
2. Avoid closed questions, but if you do phrase a question which requires a brief “yes” or “no” answer, immediately ask “why?”
3. Guide the students’ thoughts with a carefully planned sequence of questions. The answers may require them to coordinate facts and ideas or think out cause-and-effect relationships. They should be allowed sufficient time to think out the answers.
4. The practice of asking “trick” or “catch” questions demonstrates poor technique. Neither is it
good to concentrate too many questions on the exceptions to a rule. These confuse the student and tend to make them lose confidence in the instructor.
5. A question should be limited to one main thought and should have an answer which can be worked out through the use of means available to the students.
6. Questions should be clear, concise, unmistakable in meaning and carefully worded in simple terms that can easily be understood. Loosely-worded questions may confuse and encourage sloppy thinking and careless answers.
7. Questions should be suited to the ability of a student but difficult enough to offer a challenge.
8. Questions covering key points should be carefully prepared in advance and should follow an order which gradually develops the topic.
Techniques of Classroom Questioning:
1. Put the question to the whole class.
2. Pause long enough for all the students to think out their answers. Watch the faces carefully.
3. Nominate one student to answer the question. (Never pre-nominate.)
4. Do not call upon the students to answer in any regular order. Scatter the questions around the class.
5. Ensure that everyone gets a fair share of questions. This will ensure the attention of the whole class.
6. Do not single out all the easier questions for the weaker students.
7. Direct the questions around the class in a manner which will ensure that all students feel they are contributing to the lesson development.
8. Be cautious about using questioning techniques to curb an unruly student. Take great care in such a situation not to ridicule the student in front of his peers.
9. Require good, clear answers from the students. Make them speak up so the whole class can hear.
10. Do not accept inexact, careless or incomplete answers and do not fill in the gaps for the student to save time.
11. Do not repeat all of the answers given by the students. However, on occasion, especially when a vital point has been made or confirmed by a student, repeating his answer can constitute a very useful and important reinforcement for the rest of the class.
12. KEEP THE PACE LIVELY!
The above is not a definitive list of questioning techniques, but will be useful as a guide, as you begin teaching.
A good questioning technique is one of the most important weapons in the instructor’s teaching arsenal. Use it to good effect to ensure that the trainee develops the subject through his answers to your questions. In this way students will feel much more part of the class and are more likely to remember what has been taught.
POSE, PAUSE, POUNCE! are the watch words of a good questioning technique. Trainees in our TEFL for Target Learner Groups Course have plenty of opportunities to hone their skills in questioning technique throughout, in the continuity exercises and in lesson presentations. You also can learn to do it by studying this article carefully. It is not easy, but persevere — because the interaction which occurs between the instructor and students during a well-structured lesson is one of the most rewarding aspects of being a classroom instructor!
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