Use Questions Effectively in Teaching and Presenting: Why Ask?

Nowadays, teachers are constantly reminded to favor student-centered activities over teacher-centered presentations of learning materials.

Nevertheless, you may still be forced, as a teacher,  presenter, or public speaker to deliver traditional lecturing because of a variety of reasons—such as, for example, dealing with a very large audience, limited time to prepare learning activities, or even a request to teach asynchronously online rather than synchronously.

Do you know that, even in these mentioned cases, you can still do a lot to steer your lesson away from the tedious presentation of a stream of overflowing content?

This is because there is a simple and effective method to grab your audience’s attention, interact with them, and put them in the center by asking questions. In addressing students with questions, they can be made to feel engaged no matter the group’s size or location (if online).

Accordingly, using questions allows you to switch from a teacher-centered to a student-centered perspective, and it is equally effective in synchronous as well as in asynchronous contexts (e.g., many cases of online learning and teaching).

Discovering the power of asking questions is thus a significant achievement for any teacher or presenter, and will be useful in most teaching situations as well as in any presentation setting.

In this article, we are going to see why you can use questions in your teaching and presenting activities to effectively engage your students and audience while promoting active learning and critical thinking. Knowing the cognitive impact of asking questions will make you choose them wisely to guide your audience according to their learning needs, keeping them on the edge of their seats.

Why ask? The cognitive function of questions

How often do you present a question to your audience when you are presenting any topic or subject? More importantly, should you worry about doing that? I want to convince you that your answers matter.

Indeed, asking questions during a lesson—and, significant ones, even when you are simply presenting learning materials—allows you to distinctly manipulate the learning experience of your students.

As long as you are concerned with maintaining your audience’s attention, and driving learning through a series of conceptual steps, you should master the power of posing the right questions at the right time. In order to achieve this, the first step is to be aware of the variety of outcomes that you can obtain by posing a question to your audience.

Let’s discover how many different cognitive processes you can trigger in your listeners by asking a question:

01 – Perception

Asking is an important part of any conversation, that is, social activity. Hence, when you ask a question, you are prompting your audience to take part in social interaction. This is the first benefit of asking a question: it interrupts the unidirectional flow of speech in traditional lecturing and opens up a channel for audience participation.

Thus, even without considering the form and the content of a question, asking questions ignites the attention of the audience, makes them perceive they are socially involved, and increases their engagement in the learning activity

02 – Comprehension

A question is a form of verbal communication. If successful in grabbing your audience’s attention, a good question will get those listening to try and make sense of it. This is the second cognitive outcome of asking questions; because it requires active language processing, it will make your audience focus on the terms and expressions which are mentioned in the question.

If these concepts refer to personal experiences, the question will then have the potential to increase your students’ engagement by linking to their past memories.

On the other hand, if these concepts identify a significant part of what you are trying to teach, mentioning them in your question will immediately force your audience to reflect on whether they really understood your presentation so far. Thus, asking a question, with carefully selected vocabulary, will make your audience familiarize themselves with new words and technical jargon.

03 – Reflection

Most questions presuppose an answer—rhetorical questions are a significant exception, don’t you think? Hence, this is the third positive (and slightly trivial) outcome which you can trigger by posing questions to your students: if your learners felt engaged by your question and understood its meaning, then they will look for the answer!

This is the most traditional function of questions, and it is the reason why questioning is so strongly associated with summative assessment—i.e., the evaluation of a learner’s performance which is the goal of most tests and exams at school.

Interestingly enough, however, by posing a question, you not only put yourself in the condition of evaluating your students’ knowledge acquisition, you also make them reflect on the contents you just delivered in your lesson, think actively about the subject of the question, and organize their just acquired knowledge and skills.

04 – Evaluation

Good questions are engaging and do not presuppose only one answer—if you are interested in this, you may want to examine the difference between open, semi-open, and closed questions. Either you ask your learners to openly answer your questions, or ask them to keep their answer silently to themselves. They may be not satisfied with their first answer, and they may look for possible alternatives through their silence—the fourth cognitive effect of resorting to questions in your learning activities!

If your students generate multiple answers, they will be prompted to scrutinize them individually and compare them with each other to evaluate and select the best alternative. Thus, asking questions initially triggers an attempt to answer, and subsequently starts a process of critical examination of provided answers.

05 – Self-Awareness

Answering a question (like asking it) is a part of conversation, that is, a social activity. However, there is more to an answer than that. If you have heard about the seminal work of Lev Vygotsky, you will also know that speaking has an important cognitive function of every speaker—as it is happening in the case of “self-talk” or “private speech”. You are, indeed, the first listener of what you say! Here is the fifth cognitive achievement of making questions: it allows learners to objectively view the progress of their effort, hence put them in the condition to evaluate it.

The answer to a question creates an objective—i.e., a sentence written on a paper, a verbal utterance—that is perceivable to the learner which may work as an external input. Consequently, by observing their answers, learners may realize they knew (or did not know) how to answer, and that they have learned something. This is the Eureka-like, exciting moment where one says to themselves, “I know that I know!” Such a “formative” assessment (see here to understand its difference with respect to summative assessment) is of fundamental importance in learning.

It concretely shows to a learner that effort pays off, and thereby creates motivation, and reinforces attention. It also rehearses one’s just acquired knowledge thereby strengthening its memory, and scaffolding its retention over a longer period of time.

How making questions impacts the cognitive processes of your learners

To sum up, questions trigger several distinct cognitive processes in your learners or audience:

  • they engage your audience, make them perceive they are socially involved, and increase their attention;
  • they familiarize your learners with new words and technical jargon;
  • they ask your listeners to think actively about the subject of your presentation, and organize their just acquired knowledge and skills;
  • they make your students critically evaluate their answer, and compare it with valuable alternatives;
  • they promote self-assessment, thereby increasing one’s motivation and attention as well as strengthening the memory and retention of just acquired knowledge.

Have you ever thought you were reaching too much when you were engaging your students with questions? Now that you are aware of the power of questions, you can exploit them to your benefit in your teaching activities.

Whenever you need to engage your students, focus on what most benefits their learning at that particular point of your lesson, or presentation, and ask a question accordingly.

This technique can be useful in face-to-face interaction with your students, but even more when delivering online teaching, which tends to suffer more from the difficulty of engaging an audience.

Conclusion

What are you going to remember about this reading? For your own benefit, spend a few moments to realize your personal take-away message from this article.

How are you going to modify your teaching or presentations now? It doesn’t need to be a major change: if you benefitted from your time reading this, even in a minor way, it may have been worth your effort.

If you feel like sharing your impressions, please write in the comments below! You can tell others what you liked, share your experiences, as well as express critical evaluations, doubts, or… questions!😀

Follow-up

Please leave a comment especially if you want to see more content on similar topics!

I would like to dedicate some time to expand this article writing about:

  • How to ask? Different questions for different answers;
  • When to ask? Pacing your questions to your learning activities;
  • What to ask? A question for every activity.

Which subject is more interesting to you? Answer below!

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Written by Marco Fenici, Academic Director and Teacher Trainer in Florence


15 thoughts on “Use Questions Effectively in Teaching and Presenting: Why Ask?

  1. Gostei do artigo e de alguma forma ja~´a o faço.
    se são perguntas interessantes ? Por vezes questiono-me.
    Mas si quando são os jovens são questionados envolvem-se mais.

    I liked the article and somehow I already do it.
    Whether they are interesting questions? Sometimes I wonder.
    But when they are, young people are asked to become more involved.

    1. Thanks Sandra Maria for your comment!
      Of course, the subject of the question matters a lot. In this initial contribution, I wanted however to focus on how many things we can do with a question. We’ll have time to talk about what to ask as well!

  2. I think this is a nice introduction to the topic but I am especially interested in the follow-up topics, all three of them.

    1. Many thanks, Sara!
      I am already writing the second article on “how to ask”, and I’ll mention it here after it goes online.

  3. Great article! So much usefull information! I agree that the question is very important in our teeching!
    Hug from Osijek in Croatia!

    1. Thank you very much, Margareta!
      I hope you’ll find the next articles even more interesting!
      Hugs from Florence!

  4. Very useful and interesting article. I am interested in the topic: what to ask? A question for every activity.

    1. Hi Egle,
      I’ll likely touch the “what” question after first discussing the *form* of questions. It may be thought that a question is just a question, but in fact you can ask the same thing in many different ways, each of them actually prompting different reactions, and fulfilling different functions.
      We’ll discuss about this in the next post…
      … thanks for your feedback!

  5. Great article with very useful tips.
    I also think it is important to let students make questions. There are tools, such as Kahoot that most students are familiar with and allow us to see how well they understand a subject, if they can select the important information and if they not only know the correct answer but also if they choose appropriate options.
    For teachers, this article makes us aware of the way of asking the most suitable questions.
    Thanks a lot,
    Maria Luísa Veiga

    1. Thanks Maria Luísa!
      Your reference to Kahoot is very useful. Have you seen this https://www.teacheracademy.eu/blog/online-education-tools/
      Thanks for your suggestion: I also have in mind to talk about the use of questions for summative assessment… who knows how I will develop the topic in this series?
      Thank you for your feedback, your reply (as well those of the other users) really motivates me to expand this subject. Best regards!

  6. Thank you for your reply.
    Iam looking forward to seeing you soon,
    Maria Luísa Veiga

  7. Thank you for approaching the crucial role of asking questions in teaching!
    I am very interested in the follow ups as it comes more “natural” with adults but can be really challenging with kids!
    Looking forward to hearing from you soon.
    Best regards
    Maria Paola Zabaglia

    1. Dear Maria Paola,

      thank you for your feedback.

      I started thinking about this topic while creating a course on how to create online courses for distance asynchronous learning, and then realize that the same ideas would work also in presence.

      Thus, I wasn’t thinking about kids at start, but now I am! I believe that some discussion on cognitive load in the next article may become useful to this subject… I’ll try to think about it more in depth.

  8. Dear Marco Fenici,

    I think it’s a very important topic and this is a very useful and interesting article about it!
    I’m relly interested in it because I try to do it at primary school (and sometimes at home,too) and I would be so glad if you give me more information, ideas about asking questions.
    So I am interested in all of the topics.
    I am looking forward to reading about them,

    Orsolya

    1. Dear Orsolia,

      the primary school audience has indeed specific needs.

      Although I haven’t focused at length on children in this article, here is an idea. The second highlighted feature may be relevant in this case. You can use simple questions to introduce new words.
      1. You first ask a question thus engaging your pupil’s attention (perception).
      2. Since they did not understand a word in it, you then ask a second question making them reflect on the meaning of the new expression (comprehension).

      This use can be useful also for foreign language teachers, actually. What do you thinnk?

      Your comment made me focus on one important aspect. I will try including more extensively reference to children in the future articles. Many thanks for your feedback!

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