The only stupid question is the one never asked
Hélène Bonsall looks at the value of student questions, and asks why they are not asked more frequently in class.
All questions tell us something
“Miss, aren’t kestrels what popcorn’s made of?” Even the wackiest questions provide insight that can help shape our teaching to meet student needs (this one highlights a vocabulary issue confusing kernels and kestrels – no point in continuing until that’s sorted!). The benefits to students of asking questions far outweigh the possible drawbacks of the inevitable one or two irrelevant contributions. Even the exasperating “Shall I underline the title, Miss?” suggests that this student needs help in developing their independence. However, although student questions give real insight into student progress, an abundance of research points to a paucity of student questions in many classrooms.
Why students don’t ask questions
Recent interviews with Sixth Form (Grade 11 and 12) students revealed myriad reasons for this reticence, ranging from lack of self-esteem to poor student engagement. However, two prevailing inhibitors recurred in discussions: a student’s perception of their teacher and a student’s perception of their peers. Even the most approachable teachers might quash questions when racing through the syllabus to get it all covered in time for exams. This well-meaning approach could be perceived as a dislike of student questions. Problematically, even a teacher explicitly encouraging student questions might encounter difficulties.
Fear of looking stupid
Students could be holding back their questions to preserve their self-worth, as suggested by this individual: “… if the one question you ask in, like, three weeks happens to be stupid, then that sort of gives a bad impression and that’s going to discourage you from asking more questions.” It seems some students think their questions are perceived as a sign of intellectual weakness and would prefer to clam up rather than show themselves up in front of their teacher.
Show offs and wallflowers?
Interviewees frequently spoke of peer influence: “People don’t want to ask a question because they’re embarrassed that the whole class will, like, laugh at them.” Just as we might not raise our hands to admit confusion in an INSET presentation, these students appear to care deeply about how their peers might react to their questions. It can feel vulnerable to admit you don’t ‘get it’. Hence, we arrive at the ‘dominant student’ effect. An individual at ease with their peers and with high self-worth might not hesitate to ask their question: “Another thing that would encourage me to ask a question is if I think the question actually sounds clever. . . . To show off, to put it simply.” Meanwhile, less confident students, whose questions are arguably more important for developing their understanding, become wallflowers.
Busting the myth
Maddeningly, these perceptions of peers and teachers seem unfounded. Video interviews shown in Lower Sixth (Year 12 / Grade 11) and Year 9 (Grade 8) assemblies to encourage student questions, indicated that teachers regard students who ask questions as confident, bright and engaged. Furthermore, anonymous polls following the assemblies revealed the large majority of students find peers’ questions beneficial to their learning.
Giving the confidence to ask
So, how do we combat the entrenched myth that teachers and peers don’t appreciate student questions? There are some straightforward steps we can take during lessons. Circulating the classroom and checking in with each student demonstrates an encouraging teacher demeanour and reduces the number of peers able to listen in. As one student put it: “I think people are a lot more inclined to actually ask a question when it’s one-on-one.” Anecdotally, simply passing by a student’s desk appears to encourage them to assess their own understanding and consider questions they want to ask. Encouraging student questions seemingly goes hand in hand with encouraging student reflection, a form of higher-order thinking.
Creating an environment for questions
Explicitly praising questions should also confirm appreciation of them. Without being disingenuous, regular praise negates the longstanding perception of questions as a sign of intellectual weakness. It works for this student: “… when [the teacher] praises you, it . . . . it counters the environment around you and your peers, so you don’t feel as bad asking the question.”
Allowing pair or small group discussion, before opening the floor to questions, can bolster confidence in the validity of a student’s question too, as indicated by another participant: “… the more you get that [small group discussion], the more questions you’ll ask because also you feel like you’re helping other people and also feeling like people are similar to you, you’re not like, the only person who doesn’t understand.” We feel safety in numbers.
More student questions do not have to mean more work for the teacher. We are not encyclopaedias of our subject knowledge and there are several ways to help a student answer their question. A direct answer may be required but, often, guiding students to use a textbook, or revisit class notes, is equally helpful as it promotes research skills and helps students become more independent learners. Alternatively, directing the question to the rest of the class can foster a more collaborative learning environment, as students work together to develop their understanding, whilst providing the teacher with even more feedback about student understanding. If insufficient students were confident enough to answer, perhaps the concept should be reviewed with the whole group.
The question never asked
In my experience, a question usually signifies an attentive, reflective student who provides their teacher with immediate feedback about their learning progress. Students withholding questions prevent their teachers from fully assessing their understanding and helping them develop further. Quod erat demonstrandum, the only stupid question is the one never asked. Let’s make sure our students know it.
Hélène Bonsall teaches Biology at Sevenoaks School
More information on this study can be found in Innovate, the annual academic journal from the Institute for Teaching and Learning: https://www.sevenoaksschool.org/teachinglearning/research/innovate/
All images kindly provided by Sevenoaks School