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Questioning Strategies in the Classroom (page 2)

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Updated on Nov 18, 2011

Convergent and Divergent Questions

Convergent questions are those that typically have one correct answer, while divergent questions, also called open-ended questions, are used to encourage many answers and generate greater participation of students. Besides engaging students’ memory through recall, convergent questions can be used to guide students’ observations, perhaps during a demonstration. Divergent questions, on the other hand, stimulate student creative or critical thinking, encouraging students to be better observers. These open-ended questions can guide students as they discover information for themselves, analyze data, make inferences, and identify relationships.

Examples of convergent questions: 

  • How many of the pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower survived the first winter?
  • Which is smaller, 5/16 or 3/8?
  • Is saltwater denser than freshwater?

Examples of divergent questions:

  • What do you predict will happen?
  • What can you tell me about shadows?
  • What sacrifices made by settlers traveling west by covered wagon would be most difficult for you?
  • What different strategies can we use to solve the problem?

Questions That Can Derail Thinking

Teachers typically ask many more convergent questions, perhaps 85 percent of the time. A more balanced frequency will assure a value of and an emphasis on student thinking. By making audio recordings of your instructional time, you can determine the level and frequency of your question types.

Sometime teachers ask the wrong question. For instance, does a teacher really want to know the answer to the question, “Who can tell me how a sundial works?” “My dad” is probably not the answer the teacher was expecting. What about questions such as this: “Using information in the data table, can you construct a graph comparing the size of the fish in the aquarium?” There is great potential for H.O.T., but the way the question is worded, the answer is either “yes” or “no.” In each case, however, there is potentially a good question that will encourage students to think.

Another category of questions that you will want to use sparingly includes those that employ guesswork. For example,

  1. Only women have femoral arteries. True or False
  2. The average number of times college students change majors is ______. a) 2 times b) 4 times c) 6 times

There is a 50 percent chance of guessing the answer to the first question, and a 1:3 chance with the second one. If the students’ answers are correct, you are not going to know whether they guessed correctly or actually knew the information.

Of course, there are times when you, as teacher, must ask convergent questions. They are an appropriate part of the curriculum as long as you avoid limiting your questions to convergent ones.

Why? Questions

The “why?” question is a wonderful question. It can stimulate one’s thinking, encourage creative and critical thinking, and open up a whole realm of possibilities. It is a question that typifies four-year-olds but engages adolescents and adults as well. Why does thunder have to be so loud? Why don’t I understand algebra? Such questions are asking for explanations (inferences) from someone perceived to be wise or at least more experienced, or are pointing the way toward further understanding.

But why stop there? Yes, four-year-olds ask those questions that sometimes challenge adults to really think about something. Rather than stifling the questions of young people as they continue their efforts to understand the world around them, teachers can capitalize on their natural curiosity. By encouraging children to develop their own questions related to the topic of study, the search for answers becomes a great motivation for meaningful learning. Ultimately, the teacher can help the student to change those “why?” questions into questions more suited for investigation: What causes thunder to be so loud? What is preventing me from understanding algebra?

Taking their cue from the teacher, students place value on the types of questions asked most frequently or those questions that dominate the lessons. If you want to value a particular level of thinking, consider the amount of time or frequency with which you encourage that level.

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