Discussion questions that enhance learning

iStock_000021006935XSmallThe study of how children construct knowledge has led to theories that students learn better and remember longer when they use their prior knowledge and personal experience to make sense of new information and ideas. At the same time, other studies have indicated that more in-depth understanding occurs when students are asked to give explanations, draw inferences, justify their statements, make hypotheses and speculate using the new material. Recently researchers have focused on finding ways to incorporate this kind of information-processing into class activities. One such instructional activity is called guided cooperative questioning.

Current study

To demonstrate the relative effectiveness of different questioning techniques, Alison King, Professor of Educational Psychology, California State University/San Marcos, conducted a study with 48 suburban students in fourth- and fifth-grade science classes. Two different guided questioning strategies and one unguided questioning format were used in lessons on the systems of the human body. Teachers learned how to teach students to explain their ideas, as well as how to formulate questions and how to use materials. The same materials and procedures with students that teachers used in their own training, including explicit instruction, cognitive modeling, scaffolding and corrective feedback. To ensure that students in both classes received the same training, teachers were given actual scripted materials for training students.

Students were randomly paired and then divided into three groups. Students in all three groups received training in how to explain their ideas. Teachers discussed the difference between merely describing something and explaining it (telling the why and how of it) and gave examples using material from previous science lessons. Teachers continued to model and to correct students’ attempts at explanation while emphasizing the importance of using their own words to explain ideas, telling how and why, and connecting the idea to something they already knew.

In addition to the explanation training, two of the three groups were trained in questioning strategies. These two groups were trained separately using content material from their science lesson. Both groups were taught to make a distinction between “memory” questions, in which they were asked to simply remember and repeat what they heard in the lesson, and “thinking” questions that asked for a process or term to be explained. Teachers gave repeated examples of both types of questions and demonstrated how every memory question could be turned into a thinking question.

For example, “What are the main parts of the circulatory system?” could become “Explain in your own words how the circulatory system works.” Students were assisted in generating samples of both kinds of questions.

Thinking questions were further classified as either comprehension questions or connecting questions. Comprehension questions checked how well students understood the lesson and were able to explain it in their own words, while connecting questions linked two ideas from the lesson together: “What is the difference between veins and arteries.” or “Explain how what happens in the heart affects what happens in the arteries?” Students were given prompt cards with question stems to practice asking and answering questions.

(Comprehension-question stems included: Describe ____ in your own words, Why is ____ important? and What does ____ mean?. Connecting-question stems included: Describe the difference between ____ and ____, Explain why…, Explain how…, How does ___ affect ___?, How are ___ and ___ similar? and What are the strengths and weakness of ___?.)

Students in both groups were told that asking and answering their own and others’ comprehension and connection questions would help them to understand and remember the material presented in lessons.

In addition to lesson-based questioning, one of the two question-trained groups was also trained to ask and answer a third category of question. These were called “experience-based” questions and used connecting questions to relate lesson material to students’ prior knowledge and experience. For example, “Explain how the circulatory system is similar to a tree,” or “How is the circulatory system related to the digestive system?” (Their prompt cards included question stems such as: What would happen if…? and How does ___ tie in with ___ that we learned before?)

Students trained in explanation but not in questioning served as controls for the two question-trained groups. Students in the explanation-only group were also given prompt cards which encouraged them to discuss the lesson fully with their partners by asking and answering each others’ questions and explained that doing so would help them understand and remember the lesson better.

Pairs of students in all three groups practiced and received corrective feedback and modeling from the teachers during the next two lessons in the unit. Along with the teachers, two researchers monitored students’ practice to ensure that all students learned to follow directions and use the explaining and questioning strategies correctly.

The purpose of the study was to compare the effects of the two guided-questioning strategies and the explanation approach on immediate comprehension of presented material, on retention of that material over time, and on transfer of the technique to new lessons without prompt cards. Pre- and post-tests based on the content of each lesson were given to all three groups. Tests consisted of ten factual multiple-choice questions and five open-ended questions that asked students to make inferences, provide explanations, integrate concepts within the lesson and go beyond what was presented. In addition, the quantity and quality of learning in all groups was assessed through tape-recording of their discussions and through the knowledge maps they constructed.


King reports that the pretest given prior to training revealed no differences between the three groups in their knowledge of material presented by the teachers. In addition, no differences were noted in the performances of fourth and fifth graders on the pre- or post-tests. Post-test results demonstrated that when students were specifically trained to ask connecting-style questions, their learning increased. However, only those students who asked questions connecting the lesson to prior knowledge performed better on the retention test administered a week after the post-test. King concludes that connecting new material to existing knowledge facilitates retention better than simply connecting ideas within a lesson. In addition, the knowledge maps constructed by students asking prior-knowledge questions were more accurate and complete than those of students in the other groups.

Analysis of the recorded discussions revealed that the groups did differ in the kinds of questions they asked. The two groups trained in questioning asked more comprehension and connection questions and gave more answers that indicated complex, connected knowledge. And when answering factual questions, question-trained students were more likely to use their own words to explain their ideas. However, the differences between the groups disappeared when the prompt cards were removed in later lessons. Because of this, King speculates that although these questioning strategies have positive effects on learning and appear to be easily mastered in elementary classes, the level of questioning declines when students can no longer refer to prompt cards. It may be that in order for these strategies to become a permanent part of elementary students’ skills, students need more instruction in generating higher-level questions and more practice with prompt cards than they were given in this study.

“Guiding Knowledge Construction in the Classroom: Effects of Teaching Children How to Question and How to Explain”, American Educational Research Journal, Volume 31, Number 2, Summer 1994, pp. 338-368

Published in ERN, September/October 1994, Volume 7, Number 4.

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