Key questioning strategies

Designing questions involves determining the purpose, and then selecting the most appropriate types of questions for that purpose. There are 4 key questioning strategies that can support teacher's effectiveness in the classroom.

The 4 key questioning strategies include:

  • designing higher cognitive questions
  • developing a sequence of questions
  • increasing wait time
  • responding to answers - redirecting, probing, reinforcing.

1. Designing higher cognitive questions

It is important for teachers to be able to design different questions to meet different cognitive demands.

Higher cognitive questions are:

  • open-ended
  • interpretive
  • evaluative
  • inquiry
  • inferential
  • synthesis questions.

For example, asking students to manipulate bits of information previously learned to create an answer or to support an answer with logically reasoned evidence.

Lower cognitive questions are:

  • factual
  • closed
  • direct
  • recall
  • knowledge questions.

For example, asking students to recall verbatim, or in their own words, material previously read or taught by the teacher.

Some frameworks and tools

There are several frameworks and tools available to assist the process of designing higher cognitive questions including:

  • Weiderhold's Question Matrix comprises 36 question starters asking what, where, when, which, who, why and how. These questions are asked in present, past and future tenses, ranging from simple recall through to predictions and imagination or single questions depending on the task.
  • The Questioning Toolkit is a comprehensive range of question types based on McTigh & Wiggins’ essential questions.
  • Thinker's Keys is a strategy to develop creative and critical thinking, designed by Tony Ryan. There are 20 keys, or questions, that challenge the reader to compose their own questions and responses.
  • Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning, Teaching and Assessing organises questions into 6 categories according to whether they involve knowledge, comprehension, analysis, application, synthesis or evaluation.
  • De Bono's Six Thinking Hats encourages students to look at a topic, problem or idea from more than one perspective, with each hat representing a different kind of thinking, encouraging new questions.

2. Developing a sequence of questions

Consideration should be given to planning a sequence of questions in a lesson or for lessons over a period of time. This is to ensure that there is a range of questions that make increasingly challenging cognitive demands on students.

Scaffolding questions allows repetition without being repetitive. Each time you lead the students to a different level of question on a topic, students have the opportunity to revisit what they know, and use it in a different way. This helps students to remember and at the same time it keeps them engaged because you are not simply repeating the same question. Even though it is the same topic, it is new.

Closed questions are useful for establishing the core material of a unit, while open questions advance students into manipulating, extending and transforming this material. That is, ask knowledge and comprehension questions about new material before asking questions requiring analysis and evaluation.

Tips and tactics

When planning your lesson:

  • create a spreadsheet/ table with concepts you wish to develop listed in the first column
  • add 3 additional columns: knowledge/ comprehension, application/ analysis and synthesis/ evaluation
  • write several questions for each column for each concept.

These actions provide you with: questions for building a vocabulary foundation of the concepts, questions for helping students relate to the new knowledge to what they know already, and questions to help students establish the value of this knowledge. It also creates a useful question bank for assessing student knowledge.

Students in small groups, answering all the questions from easy to hard, is an effective way to engage all students.

3. Increasing wait time

Research shows that increasing the wait time after questioning improves the number and quality of the responses - 3 seconds for a lower-order question and as much as 10 seconds or more for a higher-order question.

Pausing, or wait time, before and after asking, and after a response, encourages students to extend their answers.

Researchers on questioning strategies have identified 2 kinds of wait time:

  1. Wait time 1 refers to the amount of time the teacher allows to elapse after they have posed a question and before a student begins to speak.
  2. Wait time 2 refers to the amount of time a teacher waits after a student has stopped speaking before saying anything.

Research findings include:

  • The average wait time teachers allow after posing a question is a second or less.
  • Students whom teachers perceive as having learning difficulties are given less wait time than those whom teachers view as being more capable.
  • For lower cognitive questions, a wait time of 3 seconds is most positively related to achievement, with less success resulting from shorter or longer wait times.
  • There seems to be no wait time threshold for higher cognitive questions - students seem to become more and more engaged and perform better and better the longer the teacher is willing to wait.
  • Increasing wait time beyond 3 seconds has been found to positively improve these student outcomes:
    • improvements in the student achievement
    • improvements in student retention, as measured by delayed tests
    • increases in the number of higher cognitive responses generated by students
    • increases in the length of student responses
    • increases in the number of unsolicited responses
    • decreases in students' failure to respond
    • increases in the amount and quality of evidence students offer to support their inferences
    • increases in contribution by students who do not participate much when wait-time is under 3 seconds
    • expansion of the variety of responses offered by students
    • decreases in student interruptions
    • increases in student-student interactions
    • increases in the number of questions posed by students.

Tips and tactics

  • Give students 30 seconds to share their answer with a partner before feeding back - this also promotes confidence as it is a ‘joint effort’.
  • Use teaching ideas such as think, pair, share or snowballing at key points for ‘big’ questions.
  • Ask the question, move to another part of the room and repeat it before taking any answers.
  • Set a timer, or ask a student to time the wait time.
  • Play some thinking music.
  • Point to a classroom sign that says: ‘THINK TIME’.

4. Responding to answers using redirection, probing and reinforcement

A positive response to any answer is essential, with the response falling into 2 broad categories:

  1. extending responses through follow on questions
  2. responding to incorrect/ inappropriate answers.

Professor Dylan Wiliam emphasises the need to move away from IRE (initiate, response, evaluate) and to think more carefully about the way we ask questions and respond to students' answers.

Several studies have confirmed that nearly half of student answers are at a different cognitive level than the teacher question, yet teachers generally accept these answers as sufficient without probing or prompting correct responses. (Walsh & Sattes)

Research findings include:

  • Redirection and probing (often researched together) are positively related to achievement when they are explicitly focused, for example on the clarity, accuracy and plausibility of student responses.
  • Redirection and probing are unrelated to achievement when they are vague or critical, for example 'That’s not right - try again' or 'Where did you get an idea like that?'
  • Acknowledging correct responses is positively related to achievement.
  • Praise is positively related to achievement when it is used sparingly, is directly related to the student's response, and is sincere and credible.

Tips and tactics

When extending responses through follow on questions, or when responding to incorrect/ inappropriate answers, use Socrates' probing questions. They include:

  • Questions for clarification:
    • Why are you saying that?
    • What exactly does this mean?
    • How does this relate to what we have been talking about?
    • What do we already know about this?
    • Can you rephrase that, please?
  • Questions that probe assumptions:
    • What else could we assume?
    • You seem to be assuming ...
    • How did you choose those assumptions?
    • How can you verify or disprove that assumption?
    • What would happen if ... ?
    • Do you agree/ disagree with …?
  • Questions that probe reasons and evidence:
    • Why is that happening?
    • How do you know this?
    • Can you give me an example of that?
    • How might it be refuted?
    • Why is ... happening?
    • Why? (keep asking it – you'll never get past a few times)
    • What evidence is there to support what you are saying?
    • On what authority are you basing your argument?
  • Questions about viewpoints and perspectives:
    • Who benefits from this?
    • What are the strengths and weaknesses of...?
    • How are ... and ... similar?
    • What would ... say about it?
    • How could you look at this another way?
  • Questions that probe implications and consequences:
    • What are the consequences of that assumption?
    • How could ... be used to ... ?
    • What are the implications of ...?
    • How does ... affect ... ?
    • How does ... fit with what we learned before?
    • Why is ... important?
    • What is the best ... ? Why?
  • Questions about the question:
    • What was the point of asking that question?
    • Why do you think I asked this question?
    • Am I making sense? Why not?
    • What else might I ask?
    • What does that mean?

Questioning ideas and tactics

The following questioning ideas and tactics are from a range of sources and not in a particular order.

Select the questioning ideas and tactics that best suit your purposes. They are loosely organised into 2 categories:

  • Hands down questioning
  • Engaging all students questioning.

Hands down questioning:

1. Whiteboards - students have small white boards at their desks or tables and write their ideas, thinking or answers on the whiteboard and then hold it up for teacher and/or peer scanning.

2. Pose, pause, pounce, bounce - the teacher poses a question, pauses to allow students time to think, pounces on any student (keeps them on their toes!) and then bounces the student’s response onto another student. For example, Teacher: How might you describe a hexagon? Student: It’s a shape with 6 sides. Teacher: (to second student) How far do you agree with that answer?

3. Hinge questions - hinge questions are based on the critical concept in a lesson that students must understand before you move on in the lesson. A hinge question should fall about midway during the lesson, with every student responding to the question within 2 minutes. You must be able to collect and interpret the responses from all students in 30 seconds.

4. APPLE (ask, pause, pick, listen, expound/ explain):

  • Ask: questions should be prepared in advance in your lesson plan.
  • Pause: let the students think about what you are asking by giving them 3-5 seconds to respond.
  • Pick: pick a student by name to answer the question, do not always pick on the first student that raises their hand, and you can also pick someone that hasn't raised their hand in order to force participation.
  • Listen: listen to the answer, make eye contact with the student, provide praise and encouragement when the answer, or an aspect of the answer, is provided. Ensure you mix your effect words as nothing sounds more phony than an teacher that always says 'very good' whenever a student answers a question.
  • Expound and explain: generate a dialogue based on the student's response. If the student's response was incorrect, redirect the question back to the other students with 'That's an interesting response, can anyone else provide a different answer?'

Engaging all students questioning:

1. Cold call:

  • Name the question before identifying students to answer it.
  • Call on students regardless of whether they have their hands raised, using a variety of techniques such as random calls, tracking charts to ensure all students contribute, name sticks or name cards.
  • Scaffold the questions from simple to increasingly complex, probing for deeper explanations.
  • Connect thinking threads by returning to previous comments and connecting them to current ones. In this way, listening to peers is valued, and after a student’s been called on, they remain part of the continued conversation and class thinking.

2. No opt out - requires a student to (eventually) correctly answer the question posed to them. When a student gives an incorrect or partial answer, call on other students for an answer - take a correct answer from students with their hands raised or cold call other students until the right answer is given - and then returning to the student who gave the incorrect or partial answer for a complete and correct response.

3. Think or ink pair-share:

  • Students are given a short and specific timeframe (1-2 minutes) to think or ink (write) freely to briefly process their understanding/ opinion of a text selection, discussion question or topic.
  • Students then share their thinking or writing with a peer for another short and specific timeframe, for example, a minute each.
  • Finally the teacher leads a whole-class sharing of thoughts, often charting the diverse thinking and patterns in student ideas. This helps both students and the teacher assess understanding and clarify student ideas.

4. Turn and talk - when prompted, students turn to a shoulder buddy or neighbour and in a set amount of time, share their ideas about a prompt or question posed by the teacher or other students. Depending on the goals of the lesson and the nature of the Turn and talk, students may share some key ideas from their discussions with the class.

5. Hot seat - the teacher places key questions on random seats throughout the room. When prompted, students check their seats and answer the questions. Students who do not have a hot seat question are asked to agree or disagree with the response and explain their thinking.

6. Fist-to-five or thumb-ometer - to show the degree of agreement or commonalities in ideas, students can quickly show their thinking by putting their thumbs up, to the side or thumbs down. Alternatively they can hold up a fist, or place their hand near their opposite shoulder, for 0/ disagree or 1-5 fingers for higher levels of confidence or agreement.

7. ABCDE cards - the teacher asks/ presents a multiple-choice question, and then asks students to simultaneously (“on the count of 3”) hold up 1 or more cards, labelled A, B, C, D or E, as their individual response.

8. Voter’s choice - give students a choice of possible answers to a question and have a vote on the correct option.

9. Scatter questions - scatter questions over the whole class and move around the room to ensure questions are evenly distributed. Often teachers question students in their direct line of vision so using scatter questions counters this.

10. Who has answered? Distribute slips of paper or card at the beginning of the lesson, and as students answer a question, they hand over one of their cards. Teachers can clearly see who still has all their cards and can target an appropriate question. This technique also allows teachers to engage reluctant students, who may be given fewer cards.

11. Bouncing ball - address a question directly to a named student, and keep others involved by asking them to consider what else they could add or whether they agree. For example, “John, do you think that Macbeth really wants to kill the King at this point? Sam, do you agree? What evidence can you find? Does anyone think something different?"

12. Audience choice - ask a student who often answers to select 2 or 3 other students to answer - thus keeping them involved.

13. What's the question? "The answer is 42 - what could the question be?" or "The answer is Henry VIII, how many questions can you think of that this could answer?"

14. Quiz programs - use quiz-program type/ formats on the whiteboard, for example, Who wants to be a millionaire, Family feud and so on.

15. Four corners - students form 4 groups (vary the number as required) based on commonalities in their responses to a question posed. In their groups students discuss their thinking and one student shares their ideas with the class. Students in other groups/ corners can move into that group/ corner if they change their thinking based on what they hear.

16. Thunks - clever questions, or 'thunks' such as: “If I ask if I can steal your pen and you say yes, is that stealing?” Or “Can I ever step on the same beach twice?” are fun and thoughtful starters. They can used simply to spark thinking or dialogue, or they can be more targeted towards the topic or the subject at hand.

Finally, ensure you don't get so involved in the ideas/ tactics that you forget why they're being used. Remember to be creative with these ideas and adapt, re-organise and modify them to suit your purposes. It's vital to always remember that the quality of the question asked is more important than the idea or tactic.


  • Cotton, K. (2001). Classroom Questioning. Retrieved October 26, 2014, from School improvement research series.
  • Walsh, J. A., & Sattes, B. D. (2005). Quality Questioning: Research-Based Practice to Engage Every Learner. California: Sage Publications.
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