A Taxonomy of Questions: different question types for different learning situations

First posted on Tales From The Reach on 30 August 2019

The novelist and writer Margaret Atwood believes that, “The answers you get from literature depend on the questions you pose.” This statement could easily be rephrased and applied to teaching and learning by replacing “literature” with “pupils” and “you” with “teachers”. Excellent teachers, therefore, pose the types of questions that elicit the best possible responses from pupils.

This blog simply lists a variety of question types that could be applied by teachers to improve learning in various classroom situations (or to support specific activities during the lesson). Although each explanation below includes some potential benefits and pitfalls of using these question types, the blog doesn’t really cover the wider strategies of questioning, such as “think, pair, share”, “pose, pause, pounce, bounce” or “cold calling” (see these blogs by Alex QuigleyRoss Morrison-McGill and Doug Lemov, for good examples). Another key issue not addressed here is the importance of thinking time when questioning pupils – this will be in a future blog.

Closed questions

Closed questions simply have a right or wrong answer. They have received quite a battering in educational books, blogs and INSETs over the last decade or so, but are now having a bit of a comeback as current thinking advocates the importance of knowledge retrieval practice and low stakes testing. They are also relevant to recapping and conducive to certain activities and subject areas (for example, see Chris Dixon’s blog).

Useful for: starting a lesson or activity; starting group Q&A activities; recalling key facts or figures; getting a quick answer; supporting less able pupils etc. 

Less useful for: encouraging greater expansion in answers; promoting better classroom dialogue and Socratic questioning/discussion (see below); facilitating ‘higher order thinking skills’ etc. 

Open questions

Open-ended questions allow pupils to think through scenarios or articulate responses that may or may not need a correct answer. They also allow pupils to give answers that explain processes. Moreover, open questions are particularly useful if pupils’ opinions are relevant to the discussion. These questions can also allow for creativity as pupils expand and develop their answers as they speak. Importantly, open-ended questions can allow for deeper and more evaluative answers, particularly if the content discussed is abstract in nature.

Useful for: expressing opinions or views; facilitating critical or creative discussion; exploring questions that might have complicated or abstract answers; developing explanation; promoting better classroom dialogue and Socratic questioning; facilitating ‘higher order thinking skills’ etc. 

Less useful for: checking pupils know key facts and figures; getting pupils to recall basic but essential ideas; checking progress through quizzes, low stakes testing etc. 

Recall and process questions

The difference between recall and process questioning is debatable as both involve recall; however, they are used by various advisors and bloggers writing on education to denote simple recalling of facts and figures (recall) and further explanations of processes and how things work or link together (process).

This dichotomy is useful for: planning questions, particularly when deciding if answers simply need quick responses or some greater level or explanation and/or articulation. 

This dichotomy is not useful for: distinguishing between retrieval and non-retrieval based questions, as processes also include recall (unless based on opinions/emotional responses) etc. 

Hinge questions

These questions check if pupils are ready to move on from one topic or level to another during the course of a lesson. Essentially,  they are diagnostic questions that a teacher asks pupils at a “hinge point” during the lesson.  The responses allow you to judge whether pupils are ready to move on or have understood the task.

Hinge questions are often closed (or recall) and can be multiple choice.  For example, a History hinge question could be:

In which year did World War One begin?

A: 1919
B: 1938
C: 1914
D: 1909

Of course, hinge questions can be expanded to include more process based answers that explore understanding.

Useful for: checking pupils’ knowledge and/or comprehension; recalling key facts or figures etc.

Less useful for: promoting better classroom dialogue and Socratic questioning/discussion etc.

Leading questions

Leading questions are designed to direct pupils towards the answer or to engage pupils in discussion. Essentially, they prompt or encourage the answer wanted. A leading question can, therefore, be open or closed and can also work well as a strategy for behaviour management.

In a learning context, a teacher of Religious Education, for example, could ask, “If good people go to heaven, who goes to hell?”. There answer involves straight forward logic (unless we really want to get into a theological debate!) and hints at the correct answer as this dichotomy is so well known (even in a secular society).

In terms of behaviour management, a teacher may ask, “Why is it important you stop talking?” As most pupils know the rules, the answer will require a general affirmation about the importance of working quietly (if that’s the context).

Useful for: encouraging the correct answer; supporting less able pupils; building positive relationships with pupils; guiding a conversation or keeping a discussion on track etc. 

Less useful for: checking that pupils fully know key facts and figures as this relies on the teacher; checking pupils can recall basic but essential ideas without hesitation or misconceptions etc.

Probing questions

Probing questions allow teachers and pupils to dig deeper into the topics they are learning about and to uncover further information that could be useful to their overall understanding. These questions also allow teachers to ask for clarification, narrow the search for specific answers or unpack misconceptions. Probing questions may be asked as a sequence of questions – although this sequence may be hard to prepare for as additional questions often respond to pupils’ initial answers.

Useful for: exploring a topic in more depth; searching for the right answer if pupils’ are unsure; encouraging pupils to think deeper about a topic; unravelling misconceptions and potential mistakes; facilitating Socratic question and wider discussion etc. 

Less useful for: really basic answers; checking that pupils fully know key facts and figures; checking pupils can recall basic but essential ideas without hesitation or mistakes etc.

Funnel questions

These are similar to probing questions. However, funnel questions are often a series or sequence of questions that start with some wider problems or quite broad areas of study before becoming more specific in order to get to a particular point; although the sequence of questions could technically go in the other direction and start with a specific focus before fanning out into the broader realms of the topic covered.

For instance, in Geography, questions could start by eliciting responses on general river erosion, before directing the pupils to more specific aspects of the types of erosion and specific causes behind a particular type of erosion.

Useful for: searching for the right answer; linking aspects of learning together, especially if previously taught; relating a specific topic or context to a wider topic or context etc. 

Less useful for: allowing pupils’ to explore their own views and opinions through questioning and discussion; quick recaps between activities (unless the sequence is very short) etc. 

Loaded questions

These questions can often include a bias or assumption that could seen as one-sided, controversial or unfair. For instance, in sociology a teacher (or pupil) may ask, “Why are lone-parent families more dysfunctional than nuclear families?” Here, the use of the word “why” (as opposed to words like “whether” or “are they”) makes this question an assumption about something (or at least subjective) as it might not actually be the case or take into account other factors that leads some sociologists, media commentators and policy makers to think in such terms.

Of course, loaded questions are not objective and do not seem to initially encourage fair evaluative thinking. However, they may have their use as prompts for debate or as ‘hooks’ for learning (engagement) so long as teachers are careful not to offend and that they redress any biases and/or assumptions later in the class. Here, a teacher (or pupil) might play devil’s advocate to encouraging discussion and debate – or even flow against an assumptive consensus.

Useful for: teaching abstract arguments that are ideological or ethical in nature; teaching controversial issues (with caution); prompting and engaging pupils in debate etc. 

Less useful for: teaching straight forward objective content; checking that pupils fully know key facts and figures as this relies on the teacher; checking pupils can recall basic but essential ideas without hesitation or misconceptions etc.

Socratic questions

These approach is named after the Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates and, in the school classroom, ultimately rests on the teacher’s ability to facilitate challenging, rigorous and insightful questioning and dialogue amongst pupils. The idea is that the teacher sets up and/or manipulates a discussion that encourages the pupils to challenge and evaluate either the teacher’s or each other’s’ views in the same way that the ancient Greek philosophers challenged and debated each other.

Importantly, if pupils’ are taught to question and challenge each other in discussion, the Socratic style of questioning can be developed into a pupil-centred approach to learning, especially if the pupils get into the habit of discussing issues or complicated answers this way. To this end, Socratic questioning and discussion is often referred to as a dialectical approach in that pupils identify and correct the misconceptions and misunderstandings of their peers. Of course, getting our pupils to peer correct misconceptions and misunderstandings themselves is extremely helpful to learning; this could also be very useful if they decide to revise together. However, they would need to be taught to always ‘check-to-confirm’ their answers after discussion to avoid misconceptions slipping through.

Useful for: facilitating challenging, rigorous and insightful questioning and dialogue amongst pupils; debating controversial issues; practicing argumentation skills etc. 

Less useful for: checking basic recall; quick questioning that does not take up too much time; classes where pupils are still learning to show respect to each other etc. 

Thunk questions

According to Ian Gilbert, “A Thunk is a beguiling question about everyday things that stops you in your tracks and helps you start to look at the world in a whole new light.” For example, Thunks can challenge pupils thinking by asking, “If I ask if I can steal your pen and you say yes, is that stealing?” Another examples could be, “Can I ever step on the same beach twice?” They are often abstract, but not always complex. They can be excellent Do Nows or starters as well as ways to get pupils discussing things and as a hook into learning. In my own subjects, RE and Sociology, they link well with controversial issues, philosophical/ultimate questions and even deliberately loaded questions (see above).

Useful for: starters/settles/Do Nows; engaging pupils and facilitating thinking and/or discussion; teaching abstract and controversial issues etc. 

Less useful for: checking subject knowledge (unless the Thunk is subject related); quick recall questioning that does not take up too much time etc.

Rhetorical questions

A rhetorical question is really a figure of speech in the form of a question that is asked to make an obvious point rather than in expectation answer. Therefore, they are largely irrelevant to teaching and learning. However, they are often used by teachers when making points about behaviour – although this can back fire – or adding a sense of irony into explanations.

Useful for: making points related to behaviour management (if appropriate); persuading people to get on task; adding a sense of irony (if appropriate) to explanations when teaching); building engagement if used well etc. 

Less useful for: checking subject knowledge; recalling information; general teaching and learning etc.  

This list is not exhaustive, but does give you a sense that there are plenty of ways to ask questions in class. Of course, you need to consider the activities you are using as well as the context of the class and content when planning to use these different types.

Photo credit: Max Pixel (used under a Creative Commons Licence)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s