Questioning strategies: current trends in research and best practice

First posted on Tales From the Reach on 09 January 2020

We ask questions all the time in lessons; from knowledge retrieval to checking learning and whether pupils understand instructions. In fact, researchers have estimated that teachers ask up to 400 questions each day; this means many of us ask around 70,000 a year and possibly 3 million throughout our careers. Therefore, it can be argued that questioning is one of the most important strategies a teacher has to help pupils learn. Nonetheless, despite lots of advice and debate about questioning, it is clear that some questioning strategies are more impactful than others. This blog, as part of The Reach Free School’s focus on questioning, identifies some of the most consistent research findings and suggests we should reflect on them.

Open versus closed

The biggest debate seems to centre on whether we should ask closed and concise questions, which are often used to ascertain pupils’ knowledge of facts and figures, or open questions, which allow more elaborate and wide ranging answers. However, there seems to be a time and a place for both of these types. To suggest one type is better than another is a false dichotomy (unless used in a particular context), see the columns below.

Closed Open
  • Closed questions can be built into retrieval practice for core knowledge (Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger, III, and Mark A. McDaniel).
  • These questions really are crucial to identifying formative progress (Quigley, 2012).
  • Lower-attaining students benefit from closed questions, allowing them greater accuracy of response which in turn breeds encouragement (Woolfolk, 2008).
  • Samson et al. (1987) found that higher-cognitive questioning strategies have a positive effect on learning.
  • Open or divergent questions encourage greater expansion in answers and promote better classroom dialogue (Tofade, Elsner and Haines, 2013).
  • Open questioning promotes ‘higher order thinking skills’ and can be mapped against Bloom’s taxonomy (Wragg,1993; Anderson, 2001).

Thinking time

One clear area of consensus is on thinking time and many INSETs currently involve trainers referencing ‘pose, pause, pone, bounce‘, ‘cold calling‘ and ‘think-pair-share‘ amongst other strategies. There is good reason for this, as:

  • Brooks and Brooks (2001) found that a rapid-fire questioning approach fails to provide teachers with accurate information about pupil understanding;
  • typically, the time between asking a question and a pupil’s response is about one second (ibid);
  • Cohen et al. (2004) recommend wait times of at least three to five seconds for closed questions and up to 15 seconds for open-ended questions;
  • Cotton (2001) suggests encouraging pupils to think through a situation, scenario or problem before giving them the solution.

Hands-up versus hands-down

Almost all research and advice advocates hands-down as opposed to hands-up questioning. For instance, this type of questioning can:

  • be targeted to map out progress (Lemov, 2016);
  • prevents passive learning (Hannel and Hannel, 2005);
  • bypasses concerns about being a “boffin” (Galton, 2002) ;
  • can encourage equitable (equal) contributions (Harris and Williams, 2012);
  • allows for thinking time (Ingram & Elliott, 2016);
  • can be mixed with hands up, so long as pupils know they may still be chosen (Connor, 2001).

Other considerations

Researchers and writers on this also tend to argue that teachers should:

  • plan ahead — as you outline each lesson, think about potential questions to ask the pupils and at which points in the lesson (for example, when could you use hinge questions as opposed to Socratic questioning);
  • keep the language you use to ask the question straight-forward, concise and easy to comprehend (even for complex open-ended questions);
  • be supportive in your feedback; never embarrass pupils or be sarcastic;
  • stay on track — if you or a student goes off on a rambling or wide-ranging tangent, you may lose the interest of the rest of the pupils who could become passive and apathetic.


Bearing the above in mind, perhaps ask yourself:

  • what types of questions and how many questions do I typically ask pupils whilst teaching?
  • in what context do – or should I – use closed or open questions?
  • do I give pupils enough thinking time?
  • do I target questions in relation to pupils’ ability?
  • when do I use so-called ‘higher-order thinking’ and raise the cognitive stakes my questioning?
  • Is this true of my teaching across all lessons?


Anderson L.W., Krathwohl D.R., Airasian P.W., Cruikshank K.A., et al. (2001): A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. New York: Longman.

Brooks, J.G. and Brooks M.G. (2001): Becoming a constructivist teacher. In: Costa: AL (ed.), Developing Minds: A Resource Book for Teaching Thinking (pp.150–157). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Brown P. C., Roediger H. L. III, and McDaniel M. A. (2014): Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Cohen L., Manion L., and Morrison K. (2004): A Guide to Teaching Practice. London: Routledge.

Cotton K. (2001). Classroom Questioning. North West Regional Educational Laboratory.

Galton M. (2002): ‘Continuity and Progression in Science Teaching at Key Stages 2 and 3.’ Cambridge Journal of Education, 32 (2), pp 250-265.

Hannel G.I. and Hannel L. (2005): Highly effective questioning 4th ed. Phoenix AZ: Hannel Educational Consulting.

Harris D., and Williams J. (2012): ‘The association of classroom interactions, year group and social class.’ British Educational Research Journal38(3), 373-397.

Ingram J. and Elliott V. (2016): ‘A critical analysis of the role of wait time in classroom interactions and the effects on student and teacher interactional behaviours’. Cambridge Journal of Education, 46:1, 37-53, DOI: 10.1080/0305764X.2015.1009365

Lemov D. (2015): Teach Like a Champion 2.0 : 62 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College. San Francisco :Jossey-Bass.

Samson G.K., Strykowski B., Weinstein T. and Walberg H.J. (1987): The effects of teacher questioning levels on student achievement. The Journal of Educational Research 80(5): 290–295.

Tofade T.S., Elsner J.L. and Haines S.T. (2013): Best practice strategies for effective use of questions as a teaching tool. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education 77 (7) Article 155.

Woolfolk A., Hughes M., and Walkup V. (2008): Psychology in Education. Harlow: Pearson.

Wragg E.C. (1993): Questioning in the Primary Classroom. London: Routledge.

Picture credit: Pixabay (used under a Creative Commons Licence)

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