11. How can questioning unlock learning?


Use questions to check and deepen understanding.

According to Robert Marzano’s book, Classroom Instruction that Works, 80 percent of what is considered instruction involves asking questions. The TES suggests that teachers ask thousands of questions each year.

Used well, questions can achieve two crucial purposes in teaching: they can check for understanding, and they can deepen understanding. The key is knowing the options for how to get students to answer and ask questions.

Here are the top ten techniques that work best to unlock learning:

Check Understanding:

1. Lesson Question

2. Pose-Probe-Bounce

3. Total Response 

4. Progress Survey

5. Exit Ticket

Deepen Understanding:

6. Question Time

7. Write-Pair-Square

8. Action Targets

9. Generate Debate

10. Independent Enquiry


1. Lesson Question: Design your learning objective as a big question to be answered by the lesson.


There are two simple reasons why this works: curiosity and challenge. It creates more curiosity at the start of the lesson than a prescription of what every student will be able to do. It also allows and challenges students to create their own individual answer at the end of the lesson.


There are plenty of options for types of question. You can focus it on a concept or a skill. In English, you could focus it on a character, theme, poem or technique. The crucial element is the sequence of lesson questions you ask across a unit of work to build up to an assessment.


2. Pose-Probe-Bounce. Pose-(pause-pounce)-probe-bounce whole-class questions.


“Hands down”. You *cold-call* students’ names you choose, rather than getting the same few students putting their hands up every time. The effect is electric. Suddenly, everyone has to concentrate. There’s no opt-out. How come? Another analogy is that it’s like playing basketball not table-tennis: everyone’s in the game, not just watching two people playing. Research shows that increasing the wait time, even by a few seconds, dramatically improves the quality of thinking and the depth of responses.


You pose a question. You wait for a few seconds to allow everyone to think. (or a whole minute to allow them to write down a few words, sentence or letter  (A, B, C OR D) if it’s a multiple choice question). Only then do you take whole-class feedback. With hands down, you choose someone in the class to answer. Based on their answer, you probe their response for an example or justification: ‘How come? ‘What’s an example?’ ‘Why?’ Then, instead of replying to the answer, you bounce it to someone else: ‘Jordan, do you agree or disagree with that answer and why?’ Ask if anyone else wants to contribute. Then pose, pause, probe and bounce another question. The dynamic pace sparks energy into the classroom. Bouncing also works by ‘mirroring’ questions you get asked by pupils back to the class: ‘Sir/Miss, what does X mean?’ ‘Good question, who can tell me what X means? Hands up?’


3. Total response: Every pupil answers a hinge question to check for understanding of core concepts


‘Got it? Great, let’s move on.’ Often you need every pupil to understand a concept, otherwise later learning will prove impossible. Asking whether everyone’s understood doesn’t give you any evidence on who hasn’t understood. Getting just a few responses won’t help you visualise whether everyone’s learned what you’ve tried to teach. You need total response mechanisms that give you a crystal-clear picture of who gets it and who doesn’t. A useful analogy is that of a hinge: choose the concepts on which later learning hinges.


One option is to put up a multiple choice question with four options, and use ABCD cards to see instantly how many haven’t understood, and exactly who needs your help. Another option is to use mini-whiteboards, as maths teachers, who often need to check sequential consolidation of core concepts, often do. Hands-up voting is less useful, because weaker students can follow the crowd.


4. Exit Ticket: Use an end-of-lesson plenary question to evaluate what they’ve learned.


How do you know they’ve learned what you’ve tried to teach that lesson? Check how many people still have misconceptions you need to address next lesson by asking a question at the end of the lesson whose answers will reveal that.


For how to design exit tickets, see this post.


5. Progress Survey: Run a self-evaluation questionnaire to find out how well they understand how to improve.


How clear are pupils on what they need to do to improve in your subject? This is one of the trickiest questions in teaching, and one I’m still struggling with. A sequence of questions that asks students how confident they feel on how to improve in the main areas – reading, writing and speaking in English, algebra, geometry and statistics in Maths – further broken down by concept or skill – is useful in knowing who feels they are struggling in each area of the subject.


Use an online survey tool like surveymonkey with 10 free questions or google forms. Or print out a survey of rating questions with the numbers 1-10 below each question, and get students to circle their numerical self-rating on the scale before and half-way through the unit of work.


6. Question Time: Provide opportunities for them to ask questions of you as the expert.


It’s no good asking ‘any questions?’ at the end of the lesson, when the implicit message is ‘no questions, right?’ It’s hard for students to think up questions when put on the spot like that. Instead, give them notice in advance of when you will regularly open up your expertise to them to access.


Ask: ‘any questions’ at check-in points and give them advance warning and thinking time.

Regular check-points work well, such as for homework: ‘I’ll ask whether you have any questions on the homework in a few minutes, so have a think about what you want to ask now.’ Get them to script their questions so that they can prepare what they need to ask, or so that they can even give the questions to you after the lesson if they need. The logical conclusion of this for a tricky topic is ‘Question Time’ with scripted questions asked of the teacher by nominated interviewers from groups.


7. Write-Pair-Square-Share: ‘Snowball’ group discussions of key questions


Some questions require extended thinking time and benefit from pair and group discussion before whole-class feedback. These questions are primarily complex, multi-layered questions of opinion or interpretation, or those where you want every pupil to think deeply about the idea or issue, rather than only listening to a whole-class discussion with one voice at a time. The analogy of a snowball works well here: it starts small, but the longer it rolls, the larger it becomes, just like in class, moving thinking from individual to pairs to fours and finally to a whole class of thirty.


Pose a tough question that requires extended thinking time, such as ‘Why did the author write this book?’ and get students to write their thoughts on it for a minute or more. Then ask them to condense their thoughts into a minute or two discussion with the person sitting next to them. Then pairs become squares, and they have four minutes, roughly one per person, to share and discuss ideas. They can nominate a spokesperson to summarise and share the group’s ideas to the whole class, or you can name one of the square as spokesperson – either in advance or after the discussion.

8. Action Targets: When marking, or doing peer & self-assessment, set actionable questions.

Why? The main thing that makes marking effective is that it’s actionable. There’s no point in slaving away writing laboriously personalised comments if students don’t use them or can’t act on them. To check whether they’ve understood and can apply the target you set, phrase your comment as a question they are required to answer as soon as they get their books back. Marking then becomes a dialogue where you continually help them understand how to improve.

When asked to do peer- or self-assessment, ‘Write more’ ‘Add more detail’ ‘Improve handwriting’: such are the useless comments students often add to their work. To prevent this, share options of questions that students could ask of each other’s and their own work to improve it.


For marking, a useful rule of thumb is *five times or more*: students should spend five times as much time on acting on feedback as it takes you to set it. So if you spend one minute marking a students’ book, you need to spend that one minute designing a five minute task for them to act on. An open question, such as ‘How…?’ or ‘Why…?’ gives them five minutes silent writing time to answer at the start of the next lesson.

For peer-assessment, display six or so different questions on the board that students could choose to use when evaluating their work; give them another option to create their own question, and share and praise the students who take the time to do this. Get students to answer the questions they’ve set, too.



9. Generate Debate: Stick post-it notes on a visual spectrum to showcase class opinion.


Most subject questions you as the teacher already know the answers to. But sometimes, asking authentic questions that you’re genuinely interested in hearing their answers to, can generate debate. The often-luminous colours of post-it-notes can form a clear visual snapshot of class opinion on an issue, and allow for a visible cue to the ‘one-voice-in-the-room’ constraint of debate.


Get students to write their reasons for why they place themselves in a position on for example, an agree-disagree spectrum on the board. Get them to justify and persuade others of their opinion.

10. Independent Enquiry: Get them to create their own questions.


Students who create their own questions begin to understand how to unlock their own interpretations and meaning. This is especially useful for complex texts in English like poetry, plays and novels. It also allows students to independently choose their own ways into a text, and explore possible answers for homework. Used effectively, this can change the way students think about learning.


Get students to generate options for questions they could ask. Get them to categorise the types of question they are asking in different ways: for instance, character, author and context questions. Teach them the difference between open and closed questions, and their different purposes. Get them to choose one question to answer in extended writing for homework, and find evidence to back up their reasons. The other way of doing this in Maths is to put up a number: ‘The answer is 16. What is the question?’ or to design exam questions for each other.

The devil, as ever, is in the detail. What do you think makes effective questioning for unlocking understanding in the classroom?


5 thoughts on “11. How can questioning unlock learning?

  1. Pingback: What can we learn from Dylan Wiliam & AfL? | Pragmatic Education

  2. Pingback: What can we learn from Dylan Wiliam & AfL? | Pragmatic Education

  3. Pingback: Edssential » 11. How can questioning unlock learning?

  4. Pingback: Better questioning: thinking about thinking | Belmont Teach

  5. Pingback: Reflection of my teaching #20 (Hinge questions) | #hackthecurriculum

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