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Asking Students Five Key Questions Can Make Them Better Learners

By Brian P. Gatens May 16, 2016

One of my favorite responsibilities is watching teachers work with students in the classroom. One of the things I watch closely is the questions teachers ask their students to help them understand their classwork better and see things more clearly.

These are five of the best questions teachers should use with students:

‘How’s that working out for you?’

Asking specific questions can help students resolve difficult problems and chart new courses if necessary.To become conscientious thinkers and doers, students need to be able to pause mid-work and think about whether their course of action is succeeding. We want to help them overcome the tendency to pick a course of action and (somewhat blindly) move in that direction without considering whether it is working.

This is especially helpful for work that includes multiple parts, such as completing an essay or preparing a report, because it teaches the students to intermittently stop, look backward at the quality of the work and try to figure out the direction it’s going in. A natural extension of this question is helping the students to realize that they need to sometimes scrap their current course of action and restart the process. Helping them to put aside their pride to do it is a very helpful skill to develop.

‘If you could do it again, how would you do it differently?’

This question has academic and social dimensions. Academically, it refers to rethinking a decision about a work assignment or project. It’s most helpful when a final product is submitted and evaluated. Looking back critically at one’s performance and being able to figure out what should be different is not only helpful in the moment, but it also extends into the next assignment.

From a social perspective, this question is helpful after a student has made a poor decision. Attempting to sort through and grow from a mistake is a complex emotional task, and giving the student the chance to reimagine a different action is important for the next time it comes up. When you’re expecting an answer, it is best to have the student say out loud the steps necessary to avoid a repeat of the behavior.

‘How is it your fault?’

When things turn sideways and it’s all one big mess, it’s human nature to try to shift blame to other people or circumstances. While that may be partially true, I’ve learned over the years that no one (present company included) is completely blameless when things go wrong.

Helping your student to see their part in what went wrong (while keeping that understanding free of guilt and blame) is essential if you want something to not happen again. Owning one’s mistakes is necessary to avoid repeating them. Otherwise, you’ve pretty much guaranteed that they are going to happen again.

‘Who can you ask for help?’

We sometimes mistakenly assume that skills and ability come naturally to our students. In reality, the line from ignorance to understanding is very often up and down, with the student building their understanding over time.

And a large part of that understanding comes from reaching out to those who know and understand better. When working with students, help them to understand that they need to get into the habit of asking for help from those who know more than they do. People, online resources, hard-copy books and even fellow students are often essential to fully develop understanding. Getting students into the habit of turning to others for assistance is a helpful life skill.

‘How can you now help others?’

Every student, regardless of ability or work ethic, has the opportunity to help out. Helping students to see themselves as a resource and then reaching out to others in need helps to build self-esteem and pride into their attitude.

This question helps them to say out loud what they can and can’t do, and you should follow it up with encouragement to go and help others. Being part of the solution to another person’s challenges is essential if we are to continue helping each other grow and improve.

Asking the right questions — and guiding students to the right answers — is a key part of our work in the classroom. Avoid questions that offer easy answers and instead use your unique position as a guide to your students to help them see themselves and the classwork in different ways.

Keep asking questions!

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