8.3c The Art of Questioning

Of all the skills discussed in this section, questioning, according to many science educators, is one of the most important. Teachers ask sometimes over a hundred questions in a class session to encourage student thinking. Do science teacher's questions facilitate critical and creative thinking? Are some questioning strategies more effective than others. Let's examine some aspects of the art of questioning, including: types of questions, wait time, and questioning and creativity.

Categories of Questions. Examine the following list of questions. Can you assign each question to one of two categories? Please identify the criteria you used to name the categories.

1. Are all the fruit flies alike for each feature?

2. What is weathering?

3. What do you predict will happen if a jar is put over a candle?

4. Using evidence that you choose, do you think scientists should be limited in the areas they want to research?

5. How many elements are in the periodic table?

6. Which planet is largest: Mars, Venus, or Mercury?

There are many systems that teachers use to classify questions. Upon close observation, in most systems questions are typically classified into two categories. Various terms are used to describe these two categories (Figure 1). The binary approach is useful because two categories are more manageable for a beginning teacher to learn to implement than the typical approach of using systems with six categories.

Figure 1. Categories of Questions

Category 1

Category 2




Lower level

Low order

Low inquiry

Higher cognitive



Higher level

High order

High inquiry

What kinds of questions do teachers ask in the classroom. Gall reports that 60% of teachers' questions require students to recall facts, about 20% require students to use higher cognitive processes, and the remaining 20% are procedural.

If teachers want to foster critical and creative thinking in the classroom, then this pattern of questioning should be changed. Let's examine more closely how questioning strategies might be used to enhance critical and creative thinking.

Low Inquiry vs High Inquiry Questions. One way to classify questions is to determine whether they are low inquiry (closed or convergent) or high inquiry (open or divergent).

Low inquiry questions. Thse questions focus on previously learned knowledge in order to answer questions posed by the teacher which require the students to perform ONE of the following tasks:

1. Elicit the meaning of a term.

2. Represent something by a word or a phrase.

3. Supply an example of something.

4. Make statements of issues, steps in a procedure, rules, conclusions, ideas and beliefs that have previously been made.

5. Supply a summary or a review that was previously said or provided.

6. Provide a specific, predictable answer to a question.

High inquiry questions. These questions focus on previously learned knowledge in order to answer questions posed by the teacher which require the students to perform ONE of the following tasks:

1. Perform an abstract operation, usually of a mathematical nature, such as multiplying, substituting, or simplifying.

2. Rate some entity as to its value, dependability, importance, or sufficiency with a defense of the rating.

3. Find similarities or differences in the qualities of two or more entities utilizing criteria defined by the student.

4. Make a prediction that is the result of some stated condition, state, operation, object, or substance.

5. Make inferences to account for the occurrence of something (how or why it occurred).

Low inquiry questions tend to reinforce "correct" answers, or focus on specific acceptable answers, whereas high inquiry questions stimulate a broader range of responses, and tend to stimulate high levels of thinking. There is evidence to support the use of using both types of questions. Low inquiry questions will help sharpen students ability to recall experiences and events of science teaching. Low inquiry questions are useful if you are interested in having students focus on the details of the content of a chapter in their textbook, or a laboratory experiment.

High inquiry questions encourage a range of responses from students and tend to stimulate divergent thinking. Figure 2 summarizes the differences between low and high inquiry questions.

Figure 2. Differences Between Low and High Inquiry Questions

Type of Question

Student responses

Type of response



Low inquiry


• Recall, memorize

•Describe in own words

• Summarize

• Classify on basis of known criteria

• Give an example of something


How many...


In your own words...state similarities and differences...

What is the evidence...?

What is an example...?

High inquiry


• Create unique or original design, report, inference, prediction

• Judge scientific credibility

• Give an opinion or state an attitude

• Make value judgements about issues


Design an experiment...

What do you predict...?

What do you think about...?

Design a plan that would solve...?

What evidence can you cite to support...?

Wait Time. Knowledge of the types of questions, and their predicted effect on student thinking is important to know. However, researchers have found that there are other factors associated with questioning that can enhance critical and creative thinking. One of the purposes of questioning is to enhance and increase verbal behavior of students in the science classroom. Mary Budd Rowe has discovered that the following factors effect student verbal behavior:

1. Increasing the period of time that a teacher waits for students to construct a response to a question.

2. Increasing the amount of time that a teacher waits before replying to a student response.

3. Decreasing the pattern of reward and punishment delivered to students.

She has found that if teachers increase the time they wait after asking a question to five seconds or longer, then the length of response increases. In the science classroom, where the teacher is trying to encourage inquiry thinking, wait time becomes an important skill, as well as a symbol of the teacher's attitude toward student thinking. Teachers who are willing to wait recognize the that inquiry thinking requires thoughtful consideration on the part of the students. Rowe points out that teachers who extend their wait times to five seconds or longer increase "speculative" thinking. The use of silence in the classroom can become a powerful tool to enhance critical and creative thinking.

Rowe also believes that teacher sanctions (positive and negative rewards), if used indiscriminately, can reduce student inquiry. At first glance, this doesn't make sense. However, Rowe has found that when rewards are high, students tend to stop experimenting sooner than if rewards are low. When students begin attending to rewards rather than the task, the spirit of inquiry tends to decrease.

Another factor related to questioning is the attitude of the teacher. Have you ever been in a class situation in which you wanted to ask a question but feared the teacher's reaction to your question---it might be a dumb question. One classroom rule that we think is important is "there are no dumb questions." A corollary to this rule is "there are no dumb answers." Students need to believe that their responses will be accepted by the teacher; anything short of this will tend to reduce the probability of student participation.