Improving Questions, Part 1

I’ve been thinking over an idea since I saw this tweet from David Wees which linked a very well-written article defending the Common Core standards.

I found myself a little jealous that a group of math teachers was using StackExchange as a forum for education discussion. If you’re not familiar with the platform, it is a question/answer forum that relies on two things: credibility and crowdsourcing. Anyone may ask a question and as you engage with the community, you are granted more and more privileges. For instance, to leave a comment on a question, you have to earn x number of points. Answering questions, accepting answers, up- or down-voting questions and answers – each action comes from having a good reputation within the community.

This helps the community both ask good questions (interesting questions will be up-voted and have higher visibility) and provide reliable feedback (you can’t troll on the site because you need points to interact).

What does this have to do with education?

The Research

Observations in research literature show that teachers are usually the ones asking the questions, students are responding. Additionally, when students ask, the questions are “informative” or “unsophisticated” (Harper, Etkina, & Lin 2003; Hofstein, Navon, Kipnis, Mamlok-Naaman 2005). This can be boiled down to the fact that students “are schooled to become masters of answering questions and to remain novices at asking them” (Dillon 1990).

I think part of the struggle in helping students become better askers of questions is that we, as teachers, are rarely trained in methods which can be used to help develop those skills.

Dori & Herscovitz (1999) decided to improve questioning with an inquiry-based approach. The students were given a problem to solve (cleaner air) by asking questions to guide their learning. The research used the jigsaw method so no single group was faced with an overwhelming number of items to handle. At the end of the experiment, they saw a significant increase in the number of high-level questions asked by students. Interestingly, there was no difference in the number of low-level questions asked by either group.

This illustrated that the inquiry group did not move entirely away from low-level, informative questions, but rather added higher-level questions in their exploration. The students were also not asked to identify why certain questions were high-level and others were not. Metacognition is important to the learning process, so there needs to be an additional layer of intervention.

Koch & Eckstein (1991) performed a study which analyzed physics students’ ability to comprehend written text using questioning as a basis for learning. They note that the typical question/answer format – in which students are given questions during or after reading the text – is “suitable only if there is a teacher or other guide available to formulate the questions.” To “prepare students to assume a more active role in the learning process,” Koch & Eckstein developed the “question formulation strategy.”

This is broken into two parts: answer/questioning (A/Q) and peer feedback (PF).


Developed specifically for teaching questioning skills, students summarize text, and the summary consists of questions, not facts like they’ve done for years and years. The students create three columns:

  1. Column 1 – Questions with answers in the text and the student believes they understand. The student also answers these questions on another piece of paper (or whatever medium you’re using).
  2. Column 2 – Questions with answers in the text but the student does not understand the idea.
  3. Column 3 – Questions related to the text, but are not discussed in the text itself.

Do you see what’s happening? There are three processes:

  1. Identifying what they understand and what they don’t (metacomprehension).
  2. Identifying content explicitly stated in text.
  3. Identifying causes for their lack of understanding (metacognitive). From the authors, “…was the answer never stated in the text and not understood, or was the answer not given in the text at all?”

Peer Feedback

Questions can be asked at length, and students can use the A/Q method explained above to improve their questioning habits, but there is little external quality control to the process. Traditionally, the teacher was responsible for giving quality feedback, but peer feedback can be just as helpful, which mitigates the workload and helps students expand on ideas more rapidly.

In short, students would read their questions out loud to the group and receive feedback on the spot. This process not only “helped students clarify fuzzy questions,” (1991) but it also increased comprehension through discussion.

The Implications

The study showed that students who used the A/Q format through the course had statistically significant higher performance on assessments than the control group. There was a second experimental group which layered PF on top of A/Q, and they had statistically significant gains over both of the other groups. These methods, when used in conjunction, help students not only ask better questions, but take and give qualitative feedback on the questions they are asking of the teacher and their peers.

I think StackExchange can work as a peer feedback for questions identified in the A/Q process.

Discussion in class is a powerful process. But questions come up when the class is not meeting. With question and answer forums like StackExchange, students can push the peer feedback portion of the process into an asynchronous environment. They are able to maintain the open forum and also – as a group – decide on the most important questions based on the voting process outlined earlier.

There is definitely an argument for this advocating a use of technology for the sake of using it, and I would agree in some cases. But, with the expansion of access points for students, using an online platform to help not only ask questions, but also develop the quality of the questions they’re asking, it becomes a much more compelling use of technology expanding the classroom opportunities rather than substitution only.


Dillon, J. T. (1990). The practice of questioning. London: Routledge.

Dori, Y. J., & Herscovitz, O. (1999). Question‐posing capability as an alternative evaluation method: Analysis of an environmental case study. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 36(4), 411-430.

Harper, K. A., Etkina, E., & Lin, Y. (2003). Encouraging and analyzing student questions in a large physics course: Meaningful patterns for instructors. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 40(8), 776-791.

Hofstein, A., Navon, O., Kipnis, M., & Mamlok‐Naaman, R. (2005). Developing students’ ability to ask more and better questions resulting from inquiry‐type chemistry laboratories. Journal of research in science teaching, 42(7), 791-806.

Koch, A. (2001). Training in metacognition and comprehension of physics texts. Science Education, 85(6), 758-768.

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