Friday, January 11, 2013

Don’t Tell the Answers, Just Ask the Right Questions

By Sharri Zachary, RME Mathematics Research Coordinator

I recently came across an interesting newsletter that highlighted 8 tips for asking effective questions in the mathematics classroom. In this newsletter, teachers are encouraged to never say what a student can say. Rather than tell students what to do, the practice should be to stimulate thinking and deepen students’ conceptual understanding of mathematical concepts. To be able to effectively do this, teachers have to make a commitment to continually develop their mathematics knowledge so that they can ask questions that will help their students make connections between concepts.

In order to improve at asking effective questions, it is suggested that math teachers consider the following tips:

1. Anticipate Student Thinking. Consider different ways or approaches students may take to solve problems, including possible errors or misconceptions, and form questions that will prompt students to be reflective about their problem solving.

2. Link to Learning Goals. Ask questions that connect back to previously taught concepts. Consider the following example:

Learning goal –Understand that a unit fraction can represent a point on the number line, a distance between two points, and magnitude.

Student problem: Represent the fraction ⅕ on a number line. 
Possible questions:
  • Why is it possible for ⅕ to be represented as both a point and a distance between two numbers?
  • How would you describe the unit interval?
3. Ask Open Questions. Open questions allow for differentiation because student responses may vary depending on the level of understanding a student has about the topic.
Closed question: Is 2/7+2/7+2/7 equivalent to 6/7 ?
Open question: What other equivalent expressions can be written to represent 6/7 ?

4. Ask Questions that Actually Need to be Answered. Avoid asking rhetorical questions because they provide students with an answer without allowing them to engage in reasoning about their answer (“Asking Effective Questions,” 2011).

5. Incorporate Verbs that Elicit Higher Levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Include verbs from Bloom’s list in your questions because they require students to tap into specific cognitive processes that engage thinking (“Asking Effective Questions,” 2011).

6. Ask Questions that Lead to Conversations with Others. Students often benefit from mathematical conversations held with their peers. However, it may be difficult for students to initiate this conversation. This allows for students to discuss the “big ideas” within a given topic.

7. Keep Questions Neutral. Avoid prefacing questions with qualifiers such as easy or hard, or offering verbal and non-verbal clues, facial expressions, or gestures. Qualifying questions may prevent a student from thinking through the question or may deter them from answering.

8. Provide Wait Time. Wait time encourages thinking and provides students with an opportunity to formulate their thoughts into words.

Summing it All Up
The goal, in asking effective questions, should be to help students focus their thinking about problems rather than lead to a solution. By stimulating their thinking, they will gain a deeper understanding about a concept that will lead them to make connections to other mathematical concepts. Don’t tell students what to do but ask questions that will lead them to the right answer.

To read the entire article:
Asking effective questions. (2011, July). Capacity Building Series. Retrieved from

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