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Questioning Sequences in the Classroom

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Ask targeted questions to enhance students’ reasoning skills and increase rigor in classrooms. Use a four-phase questioning sequence to help students make claims, build sound arguments, and provide evidence to support their points. You’ll discover how to coordinate sequences to elicit students’ prior knowledge, prompt the discovery of new information, and deepen and extend students’ learning in all content areas.

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Introduction

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Questioning Sequences in the Classroom is part of a series of books collectively referred to as The Classroom Strategies Series. This series aims to provide teachers, as well as building and district administrators, with an in-depth treatment of research-based instructional strategies that can be used in the classroom to enhance student achievement. Many of the strategies addressed in this series have been covered in other works, such as Classroom Instruction That Works (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001), Classroom Management That Works (Marzano, 2003), The Art and Science of Teaching (Marzano, 2007), and Effective Supervision (Marzano, Frontier, & Livingston, 2011). Although those works devoted a chapter or a part of a chapter to particular strategies, The Classroom Strategies Series devotes an entire book to an instructional strategy or set of related strategies.

We begin with a brief but inclusive chapter that reviews the research and theory on questioning. Although you may be eager to move right into those chapters that provide recommendations for practice in schools, we strongly encourage you to examine the research and theory, as it is the foundation for the entire book. Indeed, a basic purpose of Questioning Sequences in the Classroom and others in The Classroom Strategies Series is to present the most useful strategies based on the strongest research and theory available.

 

Chapter 1: Research and Theory

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Despite its popularity as an instructional strategy, classroom questioning has been the subject of educational debate in the United States for more than one hundred years. To the surprise of many, the extant research does not clearly describe the exact nature of effective questioning.

The debate regarding questioning began in 1912, when Romiett Stevens investigated teachers’ questioning practices. One of the variables she examined was how many questions teachers ask each day. She reported that “the average number of questions for a day’s activity is 395” (p. 15) with questions consuming “eight-tenths of the school time” (p. 6). Since Stevens’s work, various researchers have examined the frequency of classroom questions and reported similar results (see table 1.1). Obviously, the sheer volume of questions asked each day renders questioning an important variable in the classroom.

Table 1.1: Research Findings Regarding Number of Questions Asked by Teachers

 

Chapter 2: Questioning Sequences

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One generalization supported by the research described in chapter 1 is that accurately classifying a single question in terms of whether it elicits higher-order or lower-order cognition in students is difficult if not impossible. This is necessarily the case because a question will require lower-order cognition (such as recall) from a student if that student already knows the content, regardless of its complexity. For example, consider the following question: Why is it that tides are equally high on both sides of the earth when the moon’s gravity is pulling from only one side? If a student has not been previously exposed to the answer to the question, he will need to engage in higher-order reasoning, such as the following:

I know that the moon has gravity and that high tide occurs on opposite sides of the earth at the same time. When the moon’s gravity pulls on the water in Earth’s oceans, it probably causes high tide on the side of the earth closest to the moon. But what about the side of the earth that isn’t facing the moon? Maybe the moon’s gravity is also pulling on the earth’s core, creating a counterforce pushing away from the earth on the other side. That would also explain spring and neap tides: when the sun, moon, and earth are in a straight line, the pull is stronger, creating greater tidal fluctuation, or spring tides; when the moon is at a right angle to the sun with the earth at the vertex, the pull is weaker, creating less tidal fluctuation, or neap tides.

 

Chapter 3: External Sources of Information

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Students have two sources of information with which to answer questions: their prior knowledge and external sources. When students have the requisite prior knowledge to answer a question, their response time is quite short, even immediate. When students do not have this knowledge, they must obtain the information elsewhere—from an external source. This can occur during the detail phase but more commonly occurs during the category, elaboration, and evidence phases of the questioning sequence. For example, consider the following category question: What are examples of stars that are G-type main sequence stars?

Students might have to search for examples externally unless they are very familiar with G-type main sequence stars. Now consider the following elaboration question: What effect does nuclear fusion have on G-type main sequence stars?

Again, students will typically need to search for new information in external sources to answer this type of question. Similarly, consider the following evidence question: Do G-type main sequence stars ever not become red giants when they exhaust all of their hydrogen?

 

Chapter 4: Response Strategies

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Every question a teacher asks is designed to elicit a response from students. The process by which students respond should not be left up to chance or expediency. Rather, teachers should provide structured activities that maximize the usefulness of students’ responses. Teachers can think of response strategies as falling into two categories: (1) strategies to be used when students respond individually and (2) strategies to be used when students respond in groups. Additionally, teachers can use specific strategies to help facilitate productive collaborative work among students.

Individual students often respond to questions that are posed during whole-group discussions or activities. Specific response strategies can allow teachers to call on multiple students for each question, give students the chance to rehearse their responses before being called on, ask students to defend their responses, call on students randomly, ask students to record their responses, or allow students to challenge each other’s responses. Strategies for individual student responses include chaining and voting, paired response, peer instruction, random names, short written responses, and accuracy checks.

 

Chapter 5: Preparation for Questioning Sequences

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At its core, a questioning sequence is a fairly straightforward process. As previously explained, a questioning sequence contains four major parts. As a review, these are briefly outlined in table 5.1.

Table 5.1: Four Phases of a Questioning Sequence

•  Asking students to identify examples in the category

•  Asking students to describe general characteristics of the category

•  Asking students to make comparisons within and across categories

•  Asking students to explain reasons for a characteristic (Why? questions)

•  Asking students to describe the effects of specific characteristics

•  Asking students to project what might occur under certain circumstances (What if? questions)

•  Asking students to identify sources that support their elaborations

•  Asking students to explain the reasoning they used to construct their elaborations

•  Asking students to qualify or restrict some of their conclusions

 

Epilogue

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The basic premise of this book is that logical, intentional, ordered sequences of questions have a far better chance of enhancing student achievement than isolated questions (even “higher-order” ones). Although taxonomies for classifying individual questions are popular in schools, sequencing various types of questions—such as detail, category, elaboration, and evidence questions—is a far more effective way to promote deep understanding and cognition. Rather than avoiding detail questions, the questioning model presented in this book uses them to build a base of factual information that students can subsequently use to answer deeper and more complex questions. As students progress through the questioning sequence, they engage in increasingly complex levels of thinking. During the category phase, they generate lists of examples and identify important characteristics of a category. During the elaboration phase, students use these lists to form claims and conclusions. Finally, in the evidence phase, students engage in argumentation and evaluation as they find evidence to support their claims and revise their conclusions to exclude misconceptions or errors in reasoning.

 

Appendix A: Answers to Comprehension Questions

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1.   Why are detail questions so important to the questioning sequence? What is the most important consideration when designing detail questions?

Details are the building blocks of complex ideas and mental constructs. They provide the material for students to use as they engage in higher-order thinking. If students aren’t clear about the details of a topic, they will have trouble with more complex questions because they are missing key information. When designing detail questions, teachers should try to draw out what students already know about a topic. Additionally, detail questions can be designed to surface students’ misconceptions about a topic so that the teacher can correct them or help students clarify their thinking.

2.   During the category phase, how should teachers select appropriate categories for questioning sequences?

The categories that a teacher decides to focus on should be determined by the learning goals for the unit. If the learning goals highlight several categories, the teacher might decide to focus on multiple categories during this phase. If this is the case, the teacher may want to divide students into groups, allowing each group to focus on one category as they proceed into the third and fourth phases of the questioning sequence.

 

Appendix B: Examples of Questioning Sequences

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As explained in chapter 2 and expanded on in chapter 5, questioning sequences should always be tied to a learning goal or a standard. However, standards are often stated in such a way as to include a wide range of knowledge and skills, which teachers must separate to create questioning sequences that focus on just one aspect of knowledge or skill contained in a standard. For example, consider the following math standard.

2.NBT.A.3: Read and write numbers to 1000 using base-ten numerals, number names, and expanded form. (NGA & CCSSO, 2010c, p. 19)

When this standard is broken down into its component parts, it becomes clear that it involves many aspects of knowledge and skill. For example:

•  Students will understand what base-ten numerals are.

•  Students will understand the names for all the numbers to 1,000.

•  Students will understand what expanded form is.

•  Students will be able to write every digit from 1 to 9.

Additionally, teachers should consider knowledge and skills that are not explicit in a standard but are important prerequisites to achieving the standard, such as:

 



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