Question Types and Methods

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Many of us are inclined to see audience response systems only as a way to deliver multiple-choice and true-false questions. While this may be true in a literal sense, such a restricted conception can divert us from myriad possibilities for deep and meaningful learning in our classrooms.

The following list of 39 question types and methods is provided to show the breadth of possibilities. It is distilled from 85 pages of detailed recommendations in the white paper, Questioning Strategies for Audience Response Systems: How to Use Questions to Maximize Learning, Engagement, and Satisfaction, available free by clicking here.

NOTE from Will Thalheimer (2017): The report is focused on audience-response systems — and I must admit that it is a bit dated now in terms of the technology, but the questions types are still a very potent list.

1. Graded Questions to Encourage Attendance

Questions can be used to encourage attendance, but there are dangers that must be avoided.

2. Graded Questions to Encourage Homework and Preparation

Questions can be used to encourage learners to spend time learning prior to classroom sessions, but there are dangers that must be avoided.

3. Avoiding the Use of One Correct Answer (When Appropriate)

Questions that don’t fulfill a narrow assessment purpose need not have right answers. Pecking for a correct answer does not always produce the most beneficial mathemagenic (learning creating) cognitive processing. We can give partial credit. We can have two answers be equally acceptable. We can let the learners decide on their own.

4. Prequestions that Activate Prior Knowledge

Questions can be used to help learners connect their new knowledge to what they’ve already learned, making it more memorable. For example, a cooking teacher could ask a question about making yogurt before introducing a topic on making cheese, prompting learners to activate their knowledge about using yogurt cultures before they begin talking about how to culture cheese. A poetry teacher could ask a question about patriotic symbolism, before talking about the use of symbols in modern American poetry.

5. Prequestions that Surface Misconceptions

Learners bring naïve understandings to the classroom. One of the best ways to confront misconceptions is to bring them to the surface so that they can be confronted straight on. The Socratic Method is a prime example of this. Socrates asks a series of prequestions thereby unearthing misconceptions and leading to a new improved understanding.

6. Prequestions to Focus Attention

Our learners’ attention wanders. In an hour-long session, sometimes they’ll be riveted to the learning discussion, sometimes they’ll be thinking of other ideas that have been triggered, and sometimes they’ll be off in a daze. Prequestions (just like well-written learning objectives) can be use to help learners pay attention to the most important subsequent learning material. In fact, in one famous study, Rothkopf and Billington (1979) presented learners with learning objectives before they encountered the learning material. They then measured learning and eye movements and found that learners actually paid more attention to aspects of the learning material targeted by  the learning objectives. Prequestions work the same way as learning objectives—they focus attention.

7. Postquestions to Provide Retrieval Practice

Postquestions—questions that come after the learning content has been introduced—can be used to reinforce what has been learned and to minimize forgetting. This is a very basic process. By giving learners practice in retrieving information from memory, we increase the probability that they’ll be able to do this in the future. Retrieval practice makes perfect.

8. Postquestions to Enable Feedback

Feedback is essential for learners and instructors. Corrective feedback is critical, especially when learners have misunderstandings. Providing retrieval practice with corrective feedback is especially important as learners are struggling with newly-encountered material, difficult material, and when their attention is likely to wander—for example when they’re tired after a long-day of training, when there are excessive distractions, or when the previous material has induced boredom.

9. Postquestions to Surface Misconceptions

We already talked about using prequestions to surface misconceptions. We can also use postquestions to surface misconceptions. Learners don’t always understand concepts after only one presentation of the material. Many an instructor has been surprised after delivering a “brilliant” exposition to find that most of their learners just didn’t get it.

10. Questions Prompting Analysis of Things Presented in Classroom

One of the great benefits of classroom learning is that it enables instructors to present learners with all manner of things. In addition to verbal utterances and marks on a white board, instructors can introduce demonstrations, videos, maps, photographs, illustrations, learner performances, role-plays, diagrams, screen shots, computer animations, etcetera. While these presentations can support learning just by being observed, questions on what has been seen can prompt a different focus and a deeper understanding.

11. Using Rubric Questions to Help Learners Analyze

In common parlance, the term “rubric” connotes a set of standards. Rubrics can be utilized in asking learners questions about what they experience in the classroom. Rubric questions, if they are well designed, can give learners practice in evaluating situations, activities, and events. Such practice is an awesome way to engage learners and prepare them for critical thinking in similar future situations. In addition, if rubrics are continually emphasized, learners will integrate their wisdom in their own planning and decision-making.

12. Questions to Debrief an In-Class Experience

Classrooms can also be used to provide learners with experiences in which they themselves participate. Learners can be asked to take part in role plays, simulations, case studies, and other exercises. It’s usually beneficial to debrief those exercises, and questions can be an excellent way to drive those discussions.

13. Questions to Surface Affective Responses

Not all learning is focused on the cold, steely arithmetic of increasing the inventory of knowledge. Learners can also experience deep emotional responses, many of which are relevant to the learning itself. In topics dealing with oppression, slavery, brutality, war, leadership, glory, and honor, learners aren’t getting the full measure of learning unless they experience emotion in some way. Learners can be encouraged to explore their affective responses by asking them questions.

14. Scenario-Based Decision-Making Questions

Scenario-based questions present learners with scenarios and then ask them to make a decision about what to do. These scenarios can take many forms. They can consist of short descriptive paragraphs or involved case studies. They can be presented in a text-only format or augmented with graphics or multimedia. They can put the learner in the protagonist’s role (“What are you going to do?”) or ask the learner to make a decision for someone else (“What should Dorothy do?”). The questions can be presented in a number of formats—as multiple-choice, true-false, check-all-that-apply, or open-ended queries.

15. Don’t Show Answer Right Away

There’s no rule that you have to show learners the correct response right after they answer the question. Such a reflexive behaviorist scheme can subvert deeper learning. Instructors have had great success in withholding feedback. For example, Harvard professor Mazur’s (1997) Peer Instruction method requires learners to make an individual decision and then try to convince a peer to believe the same decision—all before the instructor weighs in with the answer.

By withholding feedback, learners are encouraged to take some responsibility for their own beliefs and their own learning. Discussions with others further deepen the learning. Simply by withholding the answer, instructors can encourage strategic metacognitive processing, thereby sending learners the not-so-subtle message that it is they—the learners—who must take responsibility for learning.

16. Dropping Answer Choices

There are several reasons to drop answer choices after learners have initially responded to a question. You can drop incorrect answer choices to help focus further discussions on more plausible alternatives. You can drop an obviously correct choice to focus on more critical distinctions. You can drop an unpopular correct choice to prompt learners to question their assumptions and also to highlight the importance of examining unlikely options. Each of these methods has specific advantages.

17. Helping Learners Transfer Knowledge to Novel Situations

“Transfer” is the idea that the learning that happens today ought to be relevant to other situations in the future. More specifically, transfer occurs when learners retrieve what they’ve learned in relevant future situations. As we’ve already discussed, the easiest and often the most potent way to promote transfer is to provide learners with practice in the same contexts—retrieving the same information—that they’ll be required to retrieve in future situations. But questions can also be used to prepare learners to retrieve information in situations that are not, or cannot, be anticipated in designing the learning experience.

18. Making the Learning Personal

By making the learning personal, we help learners actively engage the learning material, we support mathemagenic cognitive processing, and we make it more likely that they’ll think about the learning outside of our classrooms, further reinforcing retention and utilization. Questions can be designed to relate to our learners’ personal experiences, thus bolstering learning.

19. Making the Material Important

Sometimes we can’t make the material directly personal or provide realistic decisions for learners to make, but we can still use questions to show the importance of the topic being discussed.

20. Helping Learners Question Their Assumptions

One of our goals in teaching is to get learners to change their thinking. Sometimes this requires learners to directly confront their assumptions. Questions can be written that force learners to evaluate the assumptions they bring to particular topic areas.

21. Using the Devil’s Advocate Tactic

In a classroom, when we play the devil’s advocate, we argue ostensibly to find flaws in the positions put forth. The devil’s advocate tactic can be used in a number of different ways. You can play the devil’s advocate yourself, or utilize your learners in that role. From a learning standpoint, when someone plays the devil’s advocate, learners are prompted to more fully process the learning material.

22. Data Slicing

Data slicing is the process of using one factor to help make sense of a second factor. So for example, through the use of our audience response systems, we might examine how our learner’s socio-economic background affects their opinion of race relations. Data slicing can be done manually or automatically. It is particularly powerful in the classroom for demonstrating how audience characteristics may play a part in their own perceptions or judgments.

23. Using Questions for In-class Experiments.

For some topics, in-class experimentation—using the learners as the experimental participants—is very beneficial. It helps learners relate to the topic personally. It also highlights how scientific data is derived. For example, in a course on learning, psychology, or thinking; learners could be asked to remember words, but could—unbeknownst to them—be primed to think about certain semantic associates and not others.

24. Prompting Learners to Make Predictions

Prediction-making can facilitate learning in many ways. It can be used to provide retrieval practice for well-learned information. It can be used to deepen learners’ understandings of boundary conditions, contingencies, and other complications. It can be used to engender wonder. It can be used to enable learners to check their own understanding of the concepts being learned.

25. Utilizing Student Questions and Comments

Our learners often ask the best questions. Sometimes a learner’s question hints at the outlines of his or her confusion—and the confusion of many others as well. Sometimes learners want to know about boundary conditions. Students can also offer statements that can improve the learning environment. They may share their comfort level with the topic, add their thoughts in a class discussion, or ar
gue a point because they disagree. All of these interactions provide opportunities for a richer learning environment, especially if we—as instructors—can use these questions to generate learning.

26. Enabling Readiness When Learners are Aloof or Distracted

Let’s face it. Not all of our learners will come into our classrooms ready to learn. Some will be dealing with personal problems. Some will be attending because they have to—not because they want to. Some will be distracted with other stress-inducing responsibilities. Some will think the topic is boring, silly, or irrelevant to them. Fortunately, experienced instructors have discovered tricks that often are successful. Audience response technology can help.

27. Enabling Readiness When Learners Think They Know it All

Some learners will come to your classroom thinking they already know everything they need to know about the topic you’re going to discuss. There are two types of learners who feel this way—those who are delusional (they actually need the learning) and those who are quite clearheaded (they already know what they need to know). Using the right questions and gathering everyone’s responses can help you deal with both of these characters.

28. Enabling Readiness When Learners are Hostile

In almost every instructor’s life, there will come a day when one, two, or multiple learners are publicly hostile. Experienced instructors know that such hostility must be dealt with immediately—not ignored. Even a few bad apples can ruin the learning experience and the satisfaction of the whole classroom. Fortunately, there are ways to fend off the assault.

29. Using Questions with Images

Using images as part of the learning process is critical in many domains. Obvious examples are art appreciation, architecture, geology, computer programming, and film. But even for the least likely topics, such as poetry or literature, there may be opportunities. For example, a poetry teacher may want to display poems to ask learners about the physical layout of poems. Images should not be thrown in willy-nilly. They should be used only when they help instructors meet their learning goals. Images should not be used just to make the question presentation look good. Research has shown that placing irrelevant images in learning material, even if those images seem related to the topic, can hurt learning results, distracting learners from focusing on the main points of the material . One easy rule: Don’t use images if they’re not needed to answer the question.

30. Aggregating Handset Responses for a Group or Team

Some handset brands enable responses of individual handsets to be aggregated. So for example, an instructor in a class of 50 learners might break the learners into 10 teams, with five people on a team. All 50 learners have a handset, but the responses from each team of five learners are aggregated in some way. This aggregation feature enables some additional learning benefits. Teamwork can be rewarded and competition between teams can add an extra element of motivation. Using aggregation scoring allows the instructor to encourage out-of-class activities where learners within a team help each other. Obviously, this will only work if the learning experience takes place over time. In such cases, aggregation can be used to build a learning community. Learners can be assigned to the same team or rotated on different teams, depending on the goals of instruction. Putting learners on one team encourages deeper relationships and eases the logistics for out-of-class learning. Rotating learners through multiple teams enables a greater richness of multiple perspectives and broader networking opportunities. It’s a tradeoff.

31. Using One Handset for a Group or Team

Although one of the prime benefits of handsets is that every learner is encouraged to think and respond, handsets don’t have to be used only in a one-person one-handset format. Sometimes a greater number of audience members show up than expected. Sometimes budgets don’t allow for the purchase of handsets for every learner. Sometimes learners forget to bring their handsets. In addition, sometimes there are specific interactions that are more suited to group responding. When a group of learners has to make a single response, there has to be a mechanism for them to decide what response to make. Several exist, each having their own strengths and weaknesses.

32. Using Questions in Games

As several sales representatives have told me, one of the first things instructors ask about when being introduced to a particular audience response system is the gaming features. This excitement is understandable, because almost all classroom audiences respond energetically to games. Our enthusiasm as instructors must be balanced, however, with knowledge of the pluses and minuses of gaming. Just as with grading manipulations, games energize learners toward specific overt goals—namely scoring well on the game. If this energy is utilized in appropriate mathemagenic activity, it has benefits. On the other hand, games can be highly counterproductive as well.

33. Questions to Narrow the Options in Decision Making

Sometimes the audience in the room must make decisions about what to do. For example, a senior manager running an action-learning group may want to take a vote about which project to pursue given a slate of 15 possible projects. A professor in an upper-level seminar course might give students a vote in deciding which of the 10 possible topics to discuss in the final three weeks of the course. A supervisor might want her employees to narrow down the candidates for employee of the year. A primary school teacher might want to give her students a choice of field trip options. Audience response systems can be used in two ways to do this, single round voting and double round voting.

34. Questions to Decide Go or No Go

Sometimes it’s beneficial to give our learners a chance to decide whether they’re ready to go on to the next topic. You might ask, “Are we ready to go ahead?” Or, “Are we ready to go ahead, or do I need to clarify this a bit more?” Using an audience response system has distinct advantages over handraising here because most learners are uncomfortable asking for additional instruction, even when they need it.

35. Perspective-Taking Questions

There are some topics that may benefit by encouraging learners to take perspectives of others in answering questions. In other words, instead of only asking our learners to express their opinions, we can ask them to take a guess as to the opinions of others. For example, we might ask our learners to guess the opinion of both rich and poor people to affirmative action, the importance of education, etc.

36. Open-Ended Questions

Some people think that audience response systems lack potential because they only enable the use of multiple-choice questions. In contrast, the research on learning suggests to me that (a) multiple choice questions can be powerful on their own, and (b) variations of multiple-choice questions add to this power, and (c) open-ended questions can be valuable in conjunction with multiple-choice formats, for example by letting learners think first on their own, providing student ideas, providing more authentic retrieval practice, etc.

37. Matching

Matching questions are especially valuable if your learning goal is to enable learners to distinguish between closely related items. The matching format can also be useful for logistical reasons in asking more than one question at a time. Although the matching question has its uses, it is often overused by instructors who are simply trying to use non-multiple-choice questions. Often, the matching format only helps learners reinforce relatively low-level concepts, like definitions, word meaning, simple calculations, and the like. While this type of information is valuable, it’s not clear that the classroom is the best place to reinforce this type of knowledge.

38. Asking People to Answer Different Questions

Some audience response systems enable learners to simultaneously answer different questions. In other words, Sam might answer questions 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9, while Pat answers questions 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10. This feature provides an advantage only when it’s critical not to let (a) individual learners cheat off other learners, or (b) groups of learners overhear the conversations of other groups of learners. The biggest disadvantage to this tactic is that it makes post-question discussions particularly untenable. In any case, if you do find a unique benefit to having learners answering different questions simultaneously, it’s likely to be for information that is already well learned—where in-depth discussions are not needed.

39. Using Models of Facilitated Questioning

In the paper that details these 39 question types and methods, I attempted to lay bare the DNA of classroom questioning. I intentionally stripped questioning practices down to their essence in the hope of creating building blocks that you, my patient readers, can utilize to build your own interactive classroom sessions. For example, I talked specifically about using prequestions to focus attention, to activate prior knowledge, and to surface misconceptions. I didn’t describe the myriad permutations that pre- and postquestions might inhabit for example, or any systematic combinations of the many other building blocks I described. While I didn’t describe them, many instructors have developed their own systematic methods—or what I will call, “Models of Facilitated Questioning.” For example, in the paper I briefly describe Harvard Professor Eric Mazur’s “Peer Instruction” method and the University of Massachusetts’s Scientific Reasoning Research Institute and Department of Physics’ “Question-Driven Instruction” method.

Click to download the full report.