Ve haf vays of making you talk!

If you can't read minds, you depend on your students to tell you what they're thinking. In the first of a two-part series, Bruce Maples explains how asking the right question can help get your students to speak up.

It’s a staple of Saturday afternoon channel-surfing: the interrogation scene in some old black-and-white spy movie. There’s our hero, bound to a chair, a bright light shining in his face. Behind the light is our villain, shouting out questions that our hero refuses to answer. In desperation, the villain finally declares, "Ve haf vays of making you talk," to which our hero replies “Never!”

Do your classes ever feel like that scene? Do you ask question after question, only to be met with stone silence and stony faces? Just like the hero, your students can choose to mutter “Never” under their breath and refuse to answer. Unlike the villain, though, you probably can’t use bright lights and rubber hoses on your students, so you’d better figure out some questioning techniques that work.

In this article, I’m going to explore a seemingly simple topic: how to use questions effectively. Next week, I’ll finish up this two-part series, and by the time we’re done, you should see questioning in a whole new light, and therefore have a whole new set of “vays” to get people to talk!

Why do you ask questions?
Why does anyone ask questions? It sounds like such a simple question itself. Almost everyone would answer, “To get answers, of course!” If that is your total response, though, you need to expand your understanding of questions and questioning.

This following list illustrates the variety of uses for questions as they relate to the phases of a normal class (discovery, introduction, content presentation, exploration, application, and review). In general, you ask questions:
  1. To obtain information from the students. This simple and direct use of questions is one with which we are all familiar. Many of us start a class by asking the students what they hope to learn in the class, along with what they already know. At other times we may need additional information in order to answer their questions or to tailor an example: “What network do you use at your place?” “Have you used this product before?” This is a normal and acceptable use of questioning.
  2. As a rhetorical device. This tool can be effective as an interest-builder, either to introduce a new topic or as a transition from one topic to another. The key is not to overuse it; if you do, you will sound like an imitation of a bad melodrama. Unlike number 1 above, you do not want any answers from the students; you merely want them to listen, awed by your rhetorical prowess.
  3. As a discussion starter. My first thought when typing “discussion starter” was to shout “Danger, Will Robinson!” So many people think all it takes to have a discussion is to simply ask some question and then look expectantly at the students. The truth is that a certain amount of skill is required to craft a question so that it provokes meaningful discussion.
  4. To probe deeper. You will often need to respond to a student comment or question with a question of your own. “What do you not understand?” “What did you do next?” Be sure your questions are clear and non-threatening.
  5. To review. At the end of the class, it is common to use a set of review questions to ascertain how well the class understood the material. These are often in the class material itself; if there are none there, make some up from the courseware headings and the primary concepts.
  6. To apply the material covered in class. Presenting a scenario and asking students what they would do is a good way to apply the material you’ve just covered. Creative situations that nonetheless have only a few right answers are the key to forcing students to apply what they’ve just learned.
The key to using questions effectively is to know the three types of questions, and then match those types with various situations and classroom settings. In next week’s article, I’ll discuss the three types of questions and give you some basic rules for their use. In the meantime, if you have any questions of your own, we’d love to hear them! Follow this link to drop me a note and I’ll do my best to respond. Also, be sure to indicate if you would prefer to remain anonymous, should I include your question or comment in a future column.

Bruce Maples is an author, trainer, speaker, and consultant living in Louisville, KY. To share your thoughts about this article, please post a comment below or follow this link to write to Bruce .

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox