Observation by Tutor – 6/6

“Can it be, Ischomachus, that asking questions is teaching? I am just beginning to see what is behind all your questions. You lead me on by means of things I know, point to things that resemble them, and persuade me that I know things that I thought I had no knowledge of. “
Socrates (Quoted in Xenophon’s “Economics”)

“To question well is to teach well.”  Henry Barnard, American Journal of Education, 1860

Chrissi Nerantzi observed me on 26th October when I was teaching a three-hour Radio News session to first year undergraduates on the Journalism BA.  There’s a maximum of twenty students in the class.  The session was about finding news stories so the first part of the session involved them getting together in small groups to discuss ways and places they could look for original story ideas.  They then fed back to the class and I asked questions.

This class of students is very engaged and their discussions are always well-focused.  They feed back to the class with confidence and are happy to question and challenge each other so this approach, I think, works well with them.  It’s also fair to say that I enjoy this kind of approach because it usually produces something unexpected!  It also enables me to get to know the students much better.

However, the feedback with Chrissi a few days later has really made me think about the way I handle these discussions and group exercises.  She observed that after I have asked a question, I don’t give students enough time to answer before providing the answer.  This was quite a surprise!  Obviously, in my head I DO give them plenty of time to answer but it seems this doesn’t actually happen in reality.

So since this conversation with Chrissi, I’ve started “observing” myself in class (and other situations!).  And it turns out she’s right!!  I do indeed have a tendency to leap in when I don’t get an immediate answer.

Why do I do this?  Hmmm, let me think about that for a moment.  (See what I did there?!)  I think it’s because I don’t like the silence of the pause.  I feel that, as the teacher, I should keep the session moving and waiting for students to find the answer to my question wastes time for everyone.  I also worry that the student is embarrassed and I’m just prolonging their agony if they don’t know how to answer.  It seems fairer to put them out of their misery and move on rather than keeping the whole class STARING at them expectantly, waiting for the answer.

So why do I ask questions in the first place?  I’m trying to tease out the information or an analysis of a problem.  I want them to draw on their existing knowledge and use it to construct the next level.  In an ideal situation, I want them to realise that they already have a lot of the skills and experience they need to solve a problem but they need to apply it differently.  I want the students listening to the discussion to benefit from the Q&A too.  How would they have answered the question?  I also want to keep the students engaged and alert rather than passive receiving information.  By asking them questions, I’m also assessing their knowledge.

So I see it as a really important part of my classes – which is why it’s important for me to ensure I’m getting the most out of the process.  I suspect I’m squandering a lot of very good learning opportunities by leaping in too soon with my own response to the question.

What type of questions do I put to students?  Whatever pops into my head, usually!  But perhaps I should think about this question more seriously.  There are different types of questioning.  Convergent questions are asked with a correct answer in mind.  Divergent questions are more explorative.  For example, how can a student use the experience of an exercise she’s just done to explain a particular concept.  This sort of questioning is trickier because it needs to be properly guided by the teacher.  How long do you let the student ramble before jumping in to do it yourself?!  (Biggs and Tang 2011)

But there are other ways of categorising questions – high-level and low-level questions – and this ties in with Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives.  High-level questions require students to analyse and hypothesise.  Low-level questions require the students to recall answers.  (Biggs and Tang 2011)

I think all types of questions are valid in different situations.  When teaching students how to use a particular piece of technology, I need to question them to make sure they can recall the correct sample rate to use when recording audio.  It may be a low-level question but it is extremely important!  However, when they are debating the newsworthiness of a particular story, they are required to perform activities from the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy and so higher-level questioning becomes natural in this situation.

HOW am I asking questions?  Ah, it feels like we’re getting to the nub of the problem here.

“Wait time” is a concept explored by Mary Budd Rowe initially in the seventies.  She carried out extensive research on “wait time” and found that typically teachers wait between 0.7″ and 1.4″ for an answer (this is reassuring!  I’m not the only impatient teacher out there) whereas leaving just 3″ of silence after asking a question led to students answering more successfully and more deeply and, interestingly, more confidently.  Perhaps that’s because the student feels that by giving her time you really, really want to hear what SHE thinks rather than asking her to come up with the answer that’s already in the teacher’s head.

Unfortunately, there is little immediate help for those of us who find the optimum wait time so hard to achieve.  Rowe even describes using an electronic device to flash a green light at a teacher when she’s waited long enough for an answer!  This, apparently, had limited success in changing entrenched habits.
Biggs and Tang are similarly unhelpful.  They suggest waiting up to 30″ for a student to answer a divergent question (citing Ellsworth et al. 1991).
If you might feel embarrassed by 30 seconds of silence, work out ways of not being embarrassed.” (Biggs, J & Tang, C 2011 p150)
I think my students would feel more embarrassed than I would, to be honest!  I think working up to 3″ of wait time is a more realistic goal for me at the moment.
I’ve not tried doing this consciously in class yet and I think it would require a very conscious effort to achieve this.  I think it would have an impact on the whole pace of my teaching.  I know I talk too fast (again, something which came up in my post-observation feedback with Chrissi but which I was aware of myself) so perhaps lengthening out the wait time would influence other areas of my speaking.  I’m going to continue to “observe” myself teaching – and perhaps in other areas too – to see if I can make myself wait 3″.  I will then reflect on how the extended wait time influenced the discussion and the pace of the class as a whole.  How will I feel about that terrifying silence?  I don’t know.  But having read the research which supports the value of an extended wait time, I think I will have more confidence to accept the silence.

What about Socratic questioning?  Socratic questioning is a process whereby students are guided towards a solution by answering questions posed by the teacher.  The questions are designed to enable the student to build on existing knowledge and/or experience in order to reach the required conclusion/answer.  The role of the teacher is to keep the discussion focused, follow up on the students’ answers and invite elaboration.  Socratic questioning is used to develop students’ critical thinking skills through active interaction between students and between the student and teacher. (Paul 1993 cited in Yang, Newby & Bill 2005).  Whilst the literature and case studies are fascinating, Socratic questioning seems to impose a purist structure on the classroom, an orthodoxy which can become an end in itself.  Does it elevate the art of debate above the need to ensure students are able to apply, analyse or explain new skills and concepts?

I think it is more useful as a background philosophy to inform an individual’s use of classroom discussion.  The art of questioning is such an individual process, dependent on personality, subject matter, student experience and interest that an over-reliance on a rigid structure could prove disastrous.

So this observation and the feedback with Chrissi afterwards has really made me reflect on the way I lead discussions in class.  But it’s also helped me find some interesting research into the subject so I can better understand the use of questioning and the importance of “wait time.”  There are lots of useful tips for teachers on questioning out there which I’m going to explore and I’ll try incorporating some of the more appropriate ones into my teaching next semester in keeping with UK PSF A3-A5.


Biggs, J. & Tang, C. (2007) Teaching for Quality Learning at University.  Maidenhead. Open University Press

McComas, W.F. & Abraham, L. (2004) Asking More Effective Questions. USC Centre for Excellence in Teaching.  http://cet.usc.edu/resources/teaching_learning/material_docs/Asking_Better_Questions.pdf

Rowe, M. (1986) Wait Time: Slowing Down May Be A Way of Speeding Up!   Journal of Teacher Education 1986; 37(43) DOI: 10.1177/002248718603700110

Yang, Y., Newby, T., Bill, R. (2005) Using Socratic Questioning to Promote Critical Thinking Skills Through Asynchronous Discussion Forums in Distance Learning Environments.  The American Journal of Distance education, 19(3), pp163-181

Using Socratic Questioning (2012). Retrieved 10.12.12. from http://tfsc.uark.edu/180.php