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Podcast: Asking Great Questions Can Improve Student Engagement

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Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenFaculty Director, School of Arts and Humanities

Increasing engagement in the online classroom can often be challenging for educators. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen discusses the importance of asking great questions to solicit information from students, generate more detailed discussion forums, and get students to think more deeply about a topic. Learn seven steps to develop creative and open-ended questions and advice for turning statements into engaging questions.

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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Today, I’m going to talk with you about asking great questions to up level your teaching in the online environment. Many of us know that asking questions can be a great practice. This happens in discussions. Sometimes we ask questions in our feedback. We might ask questions during a live synchronous session. There are many ways we ask questions when we’re teaching, but particularly when we’re teaching online.

In this episode, we will talk about why asking good questions is important. We will also talk about how to create great questions. And lastly, we will use a strategy to turn any statement into a question. So let’s dive in.

Asking Good Questions Helps Engage Students

Why is asking good questions important? This is a great question, isn’t it? We could debate all day about what makes a good question. What makes a great question? Whether we should ask questions? Or tell?

The bottom line is great questions involve using a question to get a student to think, explore, analyze, debate, or examine information in a deep way. Asking students questions can motivate their curiosity about the topic and it can help you understand whether or not they have learned what they’re supposed to be learning.

Questions turn the student into the teacher. There’s a well-known concept that when we teach something to others, we learn it better. The more we ask students questions, the more they master the content. However, effective questioning is about asking the right kind of questions.

There are several questions we could ask, but the distinction I want to make here is the difference between open-ended and closed-ended questions. An open-ended question allows for many possibilities. An open-ended question asks a student to contribute their unique frame of reference, but it also allows them to take one of many possible approaches to the answer.

With an open-ended question, students might all answer differently. There could be a variety of responses given. Many interpretations. Many approaches. In the end, an open-ended question invites. Open-ended questions start with what, how, why.

Closed-ended questions, in contrast, usually lead to one specific answer. Closed-ended questions might simply be a yes or no response. A closed-ended question discourages exploration. It actually just asks for a report. Usually a closed-ended question is asking about facts. A closed-ended question might begin with, do you, does it, is it. All of these could be answered in a very simple yes or no.

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Why is asking good questions important in online education? Because we have discussion boards and assignments as some of our primary feedback methods of how students are learning, and where we’re going to give the feedback, we really want to solicit a lot of information from our students. We also want to get our students thinking deeply through these activities. Asking good questions in these areas invites creativity. Exploration. It also invites students to really think about what they’re going to say in response.

Especially in a discussion area, if we ask great questions, a detailed dialogue follows. When we ask closed-ended questions or poorly created questions, all of the students respond in the same way. They provide similar responses. There’s not a lot of interaction because there’s nothing really to discuss. And it’s very difficult to get the conversation flowing.

As a faculty member or a teacher online, if you ever find a discussion falling flat, I would suggest the first step is to look at the questions asked in the beginning of this discussion. Is there something about those questions that closes it down from the get go? Is there something that could be added to fill it out? Now, those are yes or no questions. Really, it’s either effective or it’s closing things down. Think about the quality of the questions in discussion forums specifically, and whether or not you believe there’s a right answer.

When you, as the instructor approach a discussion as if there is one right answer, chances are the discussion is going to move in a very narrow, closed-up fashion. I would suggest exploring other types of questioning to open that up, and to help students generate more possibilities, more connections, and more understanding.

As you think about the role questions play in your online teaching, consider this: Each of your students is a member of a learning community. There’s a whole system in your classroom. Bigger than that, your students are each members of professional communities outside of that classroom. What can you do to open their thinking to these broader spaces? To help them feel connected in this learning community of your classroom, and also to help them feel connected to the bigger professional community that they are also a part of? What can you do to monitor your students’ learning through asking creative questions and great questions? And what can you do to find out what students know about this subject?

Many faculty members are very concerned about plagiarism, and rightly so. There are plenty of websites out there offering students quick responses, answers they can copy and paste into your course. There are even professional essay writers available to write the students’ papers and discussions for them.

Getting to know your students through their week one introductions and through their backgrounds, you can start to think about what they might already know and what they need to learn. As you’re monitoring student learning through the discussions, through the assignments and through all those other activities you might include, consider how they can uniquely apply the content. In your questions when you ask students to apply the content, there are unique responses. Doing this through great questions is a very clever and creative way to do it.

A Formula for Creating Good Questions

Now we’re going to talk about how to ask great questions. Some of the ideas I will share with you here come from a book called Everyday Instructional Coaching: Seven Daily Drivers to Support Teacher Effectiveness by Nathan Lang-Raad. This book is really designed to coach faculty so that you can go out and observe, mentor, teach, coach, and interact with a variety of faculty members on various levels.

In one section of his book, Nathan has a whole area devoted to question strategies. Now these question strategies are initially targeting the instructional coach. As a teacher and an instructor, I propose that you are also a coach to your students. This is why I’m sharing the strategies with you now. The author here suggests there is a question formulation technique created by some researchers at the Right Question Institute, it’s called the Question Formulation Process.

Step 1: Identify a Question Focus

There are seven steps to creating great questions and the first one is to identify a question focus. When you identify the question focus your thinking about the starting point. It’s not really the question itself, it’s the topic. Think about the topic, the problem, or the situation. What is it exactly you’re focusing on in your question?

Step 2: Brainstorm Many Questions

Second, follow the rules for producing questions. One of the suggestions the author makes here is to ask a lot of questions. This is the brainstorming strategy. Ask as many questions as you can, don’t stop, judge or discount any of your questions, and write them all down. Look through and consider what is going to generate the best results from your students. You can create buy-in, you can also create engagement through your questions. Brainstorming a lot of different questions you might choose will help you come up with even better questions.

Step 3: Selecting and Producing Questions

The third step is producing the questions. You take your topic that you initially started with, your topic or your problem or your situation that you’re going to focus on, and you’ve brainstormed a lot of possible questions. Here, we want to focus on what is going to generate the most open information? Produce the question that is open ended and look at the quality of this question.

Step 4: Improving Your Questions

Next, the fourth step is improving your questions. You can go back to this list of questions you created and cross off any that are closed ended. As you read them, consider: is there a yes or no answer that is easy to come with? Do you, is it, those kinds of beginnings definitely signal less effective questions.

As you go through, look at the beginning of the question. Determine would you like to phrase it differently? What might invite more? Also ask yourself, does this question have enough information to get students moving in the direction I’d like them to go?

For example, if we ask too short of a question, we might actually get totally different results in the responses. Does the question include enough information to generate true discussion about that content?

The best way to check your questions for alignment is to go back to your purpose for asking the question in the first place. Look at the topic and your goal for asking that question. Does it align with your focus? If the answer is yes, you can use that question with some confidence that it’s going to yield the results you’re looking for.

Step 5: Prioritize the Questions

The fifth step in asking great questions, and developing great questions, is to prioritize. If you’ve done your due diligence and you’ve created quite a list of questions, choose the top three. Narrow them down and determine which three are your best possibilities.

Step 6: Establish Your Next Steps

Now you can decide which questions you’d like to ask. How will you use these questions? Will you use them in a lesson, in a discussion area, in an assignment? Review the way you will use your questions.

Step 7: Reflecting

The last step is to reflect on what you’ve learned in the process of selecting your questions. Also reflect on the effectiveness of your questions. This involves using them with your students, evaluating the outcomes, and determining how effective your questioning strategies were.

In the end, effective open-ended questions explicitly tied to your topic and your instructional goals that are well suited for the ways in which you will use them such as in discussions or elsewhere, these will be great questions. Now let’s move to our last and final area today.

How to Turn a Statement into a Question

A strategy to turn any statement into a question. I share this strategy with you because I have evaluated a lot of content, a lot of programming, many course design models, and a lot of forum discussion prompts specifically.

Many times I find educators giving statements to students rather than asking questions. A statement would be something like, “Tell me what you believe to be the most important outcome of X, Y, Z concept.” When you ask someone a question instead, it opens up thinking. When you speak in terms of a statement that you want to elicit a different response, it’s very directive and often closes down thinking.

Instead of, “Tell me X, Y, Z,” this can easily be turned into a great question by saying, “What are the primary outcomes that seem most important to you from whatever this is?” You can also say, “In your opinion, and based on the evidence you’ve learned in this class, what do you believe to be the most important outcomes of this historical event?”

When you ask a question like that, it’s also helpful to follow it up with an expectation. “In your response please give reference to your sources used, the concepts you learned and make connections to application, modern day, et cetera.”

As you give students your great questions and turn statements into questions, you will become much more effective in getting students to propel their own learning, helping them teach themselves more, retain the knowledge more, and become highly engaged in everything they’re learning.

Today, we’ve covered three critical areas of asking questions. The first was, why should we ask good questions? Why is asking good questions important at all? The second, how to ask a great question. And I shared with you a seven step strategy from the book, Everyday Instructional Coaching: Seven Daily Drivers to Support Teacher Effectiveness by Nathan Lang-Raad.

And lastly, a strategy to turn any question into a statement. It’s very simple. Although sometimes it requires practice, especially if it’s a change from your current approach in your classroom.

As you consider using questions in your online teaching, it will become easier to do, and you will find a lot of positive results. From there, you can continue to use your brainstorming process to create more questions, use positive questions, powerful questions, open-ended questions, and questions that generate higher order thinking. Thank you for being here with me today and exploring this topic.

If you have suggestions for future episodes, please visit my website, bethaniehansen.com/request. I love to hear from my listeners, and I’d love to make this podcast even more effective for you. Best wishes to you in your online teaching this week.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen is a Faculty Director and Certified Professional Coach for the School of Arts & Humanities. She holds a B.M. in Music Education from Brigham Young University, a M.S. in Arts & Letters from Southern Oregon University and a DMA in Music Education from Boston University. She is an educator, coach, manager, writer, presenter and musician with 25 years of experience helping others achieve their goals.

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