2 Questioning techniques

Asking questions to the whole class is an important technique for all teachers. Here is one way of asking a question to the whole class which allows every student to contribute – an active learning technique.

Activity 2: Practising a new questioning technique to teach the difference between bacteria and viruses

Write this question on the board: ‘What are the differences between bacteria and viruses?’ (Please note that if you have already taught this topic, you could use a different question.)

Divide your students into groups of four to six students. Give the groups five minutes to write down some of their ideas to answer this question. You might want to let them use the textbook to try and find the information. While they are working, move around the room and nominate someone in each group to provide the answer on behalf of the group.

Depending on the group, you could also ask some prompt questions which might help them to make progress, such as: What diseases are caused by bacteria? Where do viruses live in the body?

After five minutes, ask your students if they need any more time. If the conversations are still going on, give them another two minutes.

In order to answer this question, students need to understand that viruses and bacteria belong to different families and work in different ways. They cause different diseases.

Now ask each group for their ideas. Rather than just ask for the answer, you should ask a series of questions which will check understanding.

Ask one question to each group. If the nominated person can’t answer, give them the chance to get help from their classmates. Here are some suggested questions:

  • What effect do bacteria and viruses have on the body?
  • What diseases are caused by bacteria?
  • What common diseases are caused by viruses?
  • How do bacteria multiply?
  • How do antibiotics work?

If a group gives an answer which is not quite right, or not detailed enough, pass the questions to another group. Do you agree with that? Can you add to that?

Write the responses on the blackboard, or ask a student to act as class scribe. Don’t worry about how you organise the information. Just write down the points that the groups make.

After each group has had an opportunity to respond, check that all the information on the board is accepted scientific thinking.

Then ask your students to work in pairs to make a list in their exercise books of the difference between bacteria and viruses. They can use the information on the board, but will need to sort it out for themselves.

Pause for thought

  • How did your students respond to this approach?
  • What have you learnt about your students’ understanding from doing this activity?

Case Study 1: Whole-class interactive teaching

Mrs Gandi uses whole-class interactive teaching to encourage the girls to become more involved.

I try to ask my class as many questions as possible, so I can find out what they know and adjust my teaching. I usually ask for volunteers because I don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable or embarrass them if they don’t know the answer. In my Class IX this year, I have more girls than boys but I noticed that most of the people who regularly put their hands up to answer are boys. So, one day, while they were doing an experiment, I asked some of the girls, ‘Why they don’t you put your hands up?’ A few said that they were not always sure they knew the right answer and did not want to look silly in front of the other students. Another said that she often did know the answer, but couldn’t think of it quickly enough.

The next day we were studying the prevention of disease. I planned to ask a few questions to check their understanding of the work we did last lesson on the causes and treatment of disease. I planned to start with a few, quick closed questions and then to ask some more probing open questions, to find out what they already understood about disease prevention.

I asked three short questions:

  • ‘What causes disease?’
  • ‘How can infectious diseases spread?’
  • ‘What do antibiotics do?’

I asked my students to think about the questions on their own and then compare their answers with the person sitting next to them. I gave them a few minutes to do this and I walked round and listened to the conversations.

Then I nominated people to answer the questions. All the people I chose were girls. I purposefully chose girls who I knew had the right answer because I had heard them talking to their partners. When they got it right, I praised them carefully and asked a follow-up question. I hoped this would build their confidence in speaking in front of the class.

Then I asked a more general question, ‘How do you think we can prevent diseases?’ I deliberately asked, ‘How do you think …?’ to make it clear that I was interested in their ideas and was not expecting them to know the answer from the textbook. When they had discussed it in pairs, I asked a boy to give us one way of preventing disease and then three different girls. I realised that they knew quite a bit about vaccinations. Some understood the importance of hygiene in preventing infection but very few made the connection between good diet and staying healthy.

I have been using this technique for a few weeks now, and yesterday I reverted to my old strategy of asking for volunteers. I was pleased that more girls were volunteering, but it was not as many as I had hoped. I will need to find more ways of building their confidence!

Mrs Gandhi is using one technique to involve all her students in questions. There are other techniques which you might like to try. One technique is to allow all of the students one or two minutes to write down their answer to the question. Then ask particular students or ask for volunteers to offer the answer. Another technique is to wait for a few seconds after asking the question. Both of these techniques give students time to think and to evaluate. Then your students’ answers are likely to be longer and more thoughtful. It also means that all students have the chance to think about the answer rather than the few that always put their hand up.

1 Thinking about different types of questions

3 Encouraging students to ask questions