Teachers are on a constant quest to ask the right questions during their instruction. There is a fine balance between a question that provokes student thinking and a question that contains too much scaffolding. The Department of Education writes, “Researchers support a problem-solving approach in the mathematics classroom because it engages students in inquiry, prompting them to build on and improve their current knowledge as they “construct” explanations that help them solve the task at hand. In a constructivist classroom, students are recognized as the ones who are actively creating their own knowledge. (Asking Effective Questions, July 2011). Our ability to question our students effectively helps our students to be aware of their thinking processes, make connections between ideas and concepts, and helps them build new understanding.
Open-end math tasks provide a great opportunity for mathematical questions that get students thinking deeper about a concept. However, sometimes during the process of completing a task, we find that our kids become stuck. They either don’t know how to approach a problem, where to go next in the problem, or what strategies are appropriate to solve a problem. Enter guiding questions. Guiding questions help move students around these stumbling blocks without giving them too much information. They help build student confidence in their own abilities while scaffolding them at their level. Guiding questions help students know that a range of responses, answers, and approaches are accepted and valued, which will build their confidence as mathematical learners and help them feel more comfortable taking risks or asking for help when needed.
Here are 8 things you need to remember before asking questions.
1. Anticipate Student Thinking
While planning the problem or task you plan on using, try and solve it in several different ways. This will help you anticipate and predict what direction your students will take when solving this problem. This can help you be prepared to walk a student through their thinking, help clarify any misconceptions, and know how and where to lead the discussion.
2. Link to Learning Goals or Objectives
Before beginning your lesson, identify the learning goals or outcomes you are hoping to achieve. This will help you create tasks and ask guiding questions that keep your students focused on the desired outcome.
3. Use Open-Ended Questions
Open-ended questions are beneficial in many ways. First, they encourage and support a variety of approaches and responses to a task. Second, they help build student confidence because they allow each person to respond at their own level, using their own strategies. Open-ended questions are automatically differentiated because each student will use different strategies, solutions, or thought-processes that are appropriate to their current level. Third, open questions tell each student that a range of responses (as opposed to just one) are expected and, more importantly, valued.
4. Use Questions That Need an Actual Answer
Sometimes it becomes easy to ask rhetorical or yes/no questions. Neither of these question types benefit a collaborative mathematical classroom. Take for example the question “Two plus two is four, right?”. This question does not have multiple points of entry and signals that the student might be doing something wrong. Try something like “What is a way you could add numbers to get four?”. This allows students to see that they can approach the problem in a variety of ways.
5. Use Questions That Allow Collaboration and Conversation
Open-ended questions are a great starting point for mathematical conversations. Have students work in pairs or groups to talk about their ideas and solutions. Then, have them defend or refute their idea with evidence. This is also a great time to teach students to challenge their own ideas, and the ideas of their classmates, in a respectful way. If students understand that mistakes are common in the learning process, and that understanding a topic is the ultimate goal, they will be more open to discussing their ideas and the ideas of others.
6. Use High Level Thinking Verbs
Using verbs from Bloom’s Taxonomy help to push your students deeper into a topic and promote genuine understanding. Verbs such as compare, describe, prove, and show can be powerful ways to guide students into a greater understanding of a topic.
7. Keep Your Questions and Body Language Neutral
Our students look to us constantly for signs of the correct answer. They pick up on changes in our tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions. Make sure your questions are nonjudgmental and avoid using the words correct/incorrect, right/wrong, or hard/easy. These words can signal to students that they have done something incorrect.
8. Wait Time is Crucial
Giving your students wait time after they have heard or seen a question is crucial in their learning process. Wait time can range from 3 to 10 seconds. This not only provides students with the ability to process through some information, it also can help less confident students respond more often, and allow students who need to be challenged more time to find an additional solution. After giving a decent amount of wait time, you can also use strategies such as Think-Pair-Share or Turn and Talk to let students process their thoughts out loud.
There are eight main categories of questions you can ask your students. When deciding what questions to use, first look at what problems or stumbling blocks your students are facing. What is the main reason they can’t solve the problem or continue with what they started? Having this insight can help you formulate the best questions for your students and guide them toward the end goal.
Some of these questions overlap and could be used in multiple situations. They have been separated out only to lessen confusion and stay organized.
Our goal as teachers is to help our students identify how they are thinking about and approaching a problem. The way we utilize guiding questions will help our students see the connections between ideas as they work through a problem. Using solid guiding questions during a math task can really help our students increase their conceptual understanding and feel more confident in their mathematical abilities.