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Tuesday / April 25

Quality Questioning: A Formative Focus

Most of us can remember our reactions to teacher questions when we were students. Do I know the answer? What is she looking for? Should I raise my hand? What if he calls on me? These same questions continue to flash through many of our students’ minds when we pose questions to them, suggesting the dominant student mindset: Teachers have an answer in mind when they ask a question; their interest is in finding a student who knows their answer. Reinforcing this belief in many classrooms are these patterns: questions that evoke one-or two-word recall answers; calling on volunteers who raise their hands to answer; quick dismissal of wrong answers; and a dominance of teacher over student talk.

Quality questioning counters this right-answer oriented view of questioning by framing questioning as a process that activates student thinking and generates responses teachers can use to assist students in moving to the next step in learning. In these classrooms, students silently react to teacher questions by reflecting: What is this question asking? What do I think I know related to the question? What makes me think this? What questions do I have? What’s next in my learning? These are questions of self-monitoring learners who know how to self-assess and understand that their responses—right or wrong—are important feedback to their teachers to decide next steps in instruction.

Four key practices anchor quality questioning as a potentially powerful “in real-time” formative assessment strategy:

  • Align questions with learning intentions and frame questions to activate student thinking above the simple recall level
  • Advance accountability for all students by selecting response structures that scaffold the participation of each one
  • Afford time for both student and teacher reflection to support deep listening, processing, and follow-up questioning
  • Sustain continued student thinking by posing follow-up questions to scaffold or offering explicit feedback that helps them know what to do next

Each of these requires planning on the part of teachers and intentional dialogue with students about their new role and responsibilities as partners in the learning process.

Quality questions support student progress toward a daily learning intention.

Most daily lessons require 2-4 such questions that teachers prepare in advance as part of overall lesson design. Dylan Wiliam refers to these questions as hinge questions because they help teachers decide whether to go forward in a lesson or swing back by re-teaching or providing additional practice.

DOK 2/Understand is the threshold level for questions that provide sufficient understanding of student thinking to enable teachers to formulate feedback that advances learning. Why is it important for these questions to be above the recall level? These more complex questions activate thinking beyond a one- or two-word response and provide insight into both the student’s knowledge and reasoning, providing teachers with the information they can use to determine missing links in the student’s understanding.

Listen in on two teachers who are using formative feedback from a previous class to create questions to extend the learning of those students who have mastered the related standard:

Appropriate response structures replace hand-raising.

It’s not enough to know if a few high-achieving students are moving along the learning progression. If classroom questioning is to provide reliable formative feedback, then teachers need to access and assess the thinking of all students.

A hallmark of quality questioning classrooms is the absence of the waving hands volunteering to answer teacher questions. In these classrooms, students have learned that all are expected to use questions to connect their knowledge and prior experiences to the content under study rather than seek to guess the answer. Thus, teachers select response structures that hold all accountable for thinking. Such structures should provide time for individual thinking—oftentimes through writing, sometimes on whiteboards or laminated desktops, and sometimes just on sheets of paper. When appropriate, individual reflection is followed by collaborative responding; for example, via think-pair-share to ensure that every student has the chance to speak and receive feedback from a peer.

Finally, teachers need to guarantee that students have an opportunity to assess their responses in either whole-group sharing or through teacher monitoring. At times, teachers find it more appropriate to question in a whole-class setting. All student response systems—whether electronic (e.g., clickers) or low-tech (e.g., white boards) can be especially useful. When oral responding to more complex questions is required, teachers decide who will respond by matching a student with a question or using a random response method (e.g., popsicle sticks).

Think times 1 and 2 support formative assessment by both students and teachers.

If we expect all students to think and respond to our questions, we must provide time for them to do so. Think time 1, the 3-5 second pause after the posing of a question, offers an opportunity for students to self-assess what they know about the question and prepare to share.

Students process at different rates that have nothing to do with intelligence. Some students, for example second-language learners, may require more than the standard 5 seconds. While students are processing the question and formulating their responses, the teacher is calling to mind the criteria for a successful response, preparing to provide formative feedback.

Think time 2, the 3-5 second pause following a student response, affords time for the responding student to reflect on his answer and decide whether to add to or modify it. Meanwhile, listening classmates are comparing the spoken response to their thinking, deciding whether they agree or disagree and why, and the teacher is using this pause to listen carefully and to get behind the student’s thinking, preparing to offer formative feedback.

Follow-up questions provide powerful formative feedback to sustain student thinking.

Whether a student responds incorrectly or correctly, their answer requires teacher feedback. A right answer does not always convey a correct understanding—incorrect reasoning can lurk in the background. A simple follow-up question—What makes you say that?—can reveal reasoning (right or faulty) and, for correct responses, lead to elaboration. In the case of incorrect answers, teachers can also be ready to scaffold new and correct understanding, especially if they have planned for this possibility.

A valuable collaborative planning activity is the anticipation of likely misconceptions and erroneous responses and preparation of questions to address these. Quality questioning takes the stance that the most powerful formative feedback to students is a well-turned question that causes students to reflect on and rethink their response, followed, if necessary, by questions that serve to scaffold. See how this teacher and his students are using these strategies:

Among the classroom practices found by John Hattie (2012) to have high effect sizes on student achievement are providing formative evaluation (d=0.90), formative feedback (d=0.75) , and discussion (d=0.82). In quality questioning, these three converge with other impactful practices to support student learning, moving them beyond right answers to deep understandings.


Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers. New York: Routledge.

Walsh, J.A., & Sattes B.D. (2017). Quality questioning, 2nd Edition. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.

Written by

JackieA. Walsh, Ph.D., and Beth D. Sattes focus their writing and consulting on quality questioning for teachers and school leaders. Former teachers, long-time researchers, and professional developers, they are passionate about partnering with clients to adopt questioning practices that support both student and adult learning. They are co-authors of Quality Questioning, 2nd Edition (Corwin, 2017), Questioning for Classroom Discussion (ASCD 2016), Thinking Through Quality Questioning (Corwin, 2011), and Leading Through Quality Questioning (Corwin, 2010). Follow Jackie @Question2Think and Beth @BethSats.

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