Using Questions in Science Classrooms

Using Questions in Science Classrooms


One objective of science teaching is the development of higher level thinking processes in students. To achieve this objective, teachers need to facilitate communication with and among students. One of the methods for encouraging students to communicate is to ask them questions. Teacher questions can serve a variety of purposes:

  • to manage the classroom ("Have you finished the titration?" "How many have completed problem 17?")
  • to reinforce a fact or concept ("The food making process in green plants is called photosynthesis, right?")
  • to stimulate thinking ("What would happen if...?")
  • to arouse interest
  • to help students develop a mind-set

Any teacher can create his/her own list of additional functions questions can serve.

Science teachers are concerned about helping students to become critical thinkers, problem solvers, and scientifically literate citizens. If we want students to function as independent thinkers, we need to provide opportunities in our science classes that allow for greater student involvement and initiative and less teacher domination of the learning process. This means a shift in teacher role from that of information-giver to that of a facilitator and guide of the learning process.

Central to this shift in teacher role are the types of questions that teachers ask. Questions that require students to recall data or facts have a different impact on pupils than questions which encourage pupils to process and interpret data in a variety of ways.

The differential effects of various types of teacher questions seem obvious, but what goes on in classrooms? In one review of observational studies of teacher questioning, spanning 1893-1963, it was reported that the central focus of all teacher questioning activity appeared to be the textbook. Teachers appeared to consider their job to be to see that students have studied the text. Similar findings have been reported from observational studies of teachers' questioning styles in science classrooms. Science teachers appear to function primarily at the "recall" level in the questions they ask, whether the science lessons are being taught to elementary students or secondary school pupils.

Why doesn't questioning behavior match educational objectives? One hypothesis is that teachers are not aware of their customary questioning patterns. One way to test this hypothesis is to use a question analysis system. One commonly-used system is that of Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives, ranging from knowledge to evaluation. Other systems categorize questions as higher-order or lower-order. Lower-order questions are those of cognitive-memory thinking and higher-order questions involve convergent thinking, divergent thinking, or evaluative thinking.

Blosser developed a category system for questions used in science lessons. In this system, questions are initially classified as:

  • number of acceptable responses
  • Open...greater number of acceptable responses
  • Managerial...facilitate classroom operations
  •, reinforce a point

Questions which are classified as being either Open or Closed can be further classified relative to the type of thinking stimulated: cognitive memory or convergent for Closed Questions and divergent or evaluative thinking for Open Questions. This system has been used successfully with both pre-service and in-service science teachers to help them analyze their questioning behavior.

Investigations have been conducted to see if pre-service teachers could improve their questioning behavior through question analysis. From these studies, it has been concluded that the use of models (audio, video) is helpful, that skill in the use of science processes appears to be related to the complexity of questions asked, that the use of a question category system can be learned, and that the number of divergent and evaluative questions asked in lessons can be increased.

Research involving in-service teachers has produced mixed results. When in-service teachers learned to use questions at different levels of complexity, their students achieved at a higher level than did pupils of teachers who experienced instructional modules designed to improve their questioning skills asked a wider variety of questions. However, some teachers found it difficult to allocate time to working with the modules provided.

Teachers who want to improve their questioning behavior (e.g. ask a wider variety of questions) can do several things. They need to locate a question category system they can use comfortably and then apply it, during lesson planning and in post-lesson analysis. Because of the variety of things that go on during a lesson, a post-lesson analysis is best accomplished by tape-recording the lesson or at least those parts of the lesson containing the most teacher questions. Start with the class in which the lesson and activities seem to flow most smoothly. After getting accustomed to hearing yourself and analyzing the questions you ask, tape your problem class(es). Are the kinds of questions you ask and the context in which you ask them different in these classes? Are some patterns of teacher-student interaction more effective (than others) for you?

Don't forget about the value of written questions as well as oral ones. If a teacher's oral questioning behavior involves using a variety of question types and promotes different levels of thinking, so should quiz and test questions. Students quickly determine what the teacher values by the type of questions used to formulate their grade.

The kinds of questions science teachers ask, the interaction strategies they use, and the students of whom they ask questions have not been the focus of many science education studies. The cognitive aspects of questions have been researched more than have the affective aspects. More collaborative (school-university) research needs to be done on the impact of questions on students' attitudes toward science and science classes. The following questions are worthy of consideration. Do science teachers customarily direct higher-level questions to their more able students? Do they distribute the opportunity to respond equally among students of different ability levels, and of different social and cultural backgrounds and between male and female students? Do teachers react differently to similar responses from different students? Are some communication strategies more effective than others for promoting student participation and thinking? What kinds of questions do students ask?

by Patricia E. Blosser, Professor of Science Education, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH