People begin asking questions almost as early as they begin to speak. Questions solicit information for the purpose of understanding something. Everyday questions are different from the questions effective teachers ask, because effective teachers formulate questions with an eye to increasing someone else's understanding. Questions designed to drill for rote answers require little art; but questions that help teach students how to think are like a dance between the teacher and student.

Before -- During -- After

There are three opportunities to pose pedagogical questions to students: before they receive a class, during the class, and reflective questions after the class. Questions before a class provide a framework that will orient the student in advance to what is important in the assignment. Questions during class give the teacher an indication of how well students understand; and classroom questions also give students the opportunity to ask the teacher clarifying questions. Reflective questions that require no immediate answers, but that are designed to get students thinking more deeply about a topic, and even to question their own assumptions, can be asked at the end of a class. Each opportunity is important to more quickly facilitate the student's understanding of a subject.

Arc of Questioning

Artistry implies a degree of skill and creativity. Simply asking prepared questions may be effective, but it does not creatively and respectfully engage the student in her own learning process. Dennis Palmer Wolf, in his essay "The Art of Questioning," discusses skillful improvisation by teachers in the classroom as creating an "arc of questioning." During an arc of questioning, each student response gives rise to another question from the teacher that demands a deeper interpretation of the topic. This requires close attention to student responses, from which follow-on questions are developed, and it directly and respectfully involves students in the learning process.

Moving Into the Conceptual Domain

As with reflective questions that compel the student to think more deeply after studying something, certain kinds of questions are important during class to move students from simple rote answers to a greater conceptual grasp of the subject. Teachers can ask questions about what something infers, about what something means, about comparisons and analogies. Teachers can even ask for predictions based on what they have learned.


Students can smell insincerity a mile away. A teacher who asks a question to embarrass, humiliate, or "catch" a student is not engaged in teaching, but domination and control. The teacher and the institution become an adversary, and performance becomes more important than learning. When the teacher adopts an attitude of genuine concern for each student and genuine curiosity about what students are thinking, that teacher will ask real questions in one-on-one exchanges, to ensure that she understands what the student means and understands.