Expert Corner: Fostering Inquiry through Effective Questioning

Laura Chervenak PicLaura Chervenak has been with ExploreLearning since 2010 as the VP of Professional Development. She has taught high school science, and is the founder and former director of GOAL Digital Academy. Laura is National Board Certified in Science/Adolescence and Young Adulthood, with a B.A. in Zoology and an M.S. in Anthropology.


Inquiry learning centers around exploration, asking questions, and building understanding of the concept at hand. Teachers’ good questioning strategies support the work students are doing in the classroom by arousing curiosity and motivating students to seek out new knowledge.

Effective questioning in an inquiry classroom follows several key principles:

1. Plan questions ahead of time that will support inquiry.

  • To make the most of questioning in a whole class lesson, plan key questions prior to class so that you can word them with precision. Clear questions mean that students don’t have to spend as much time processing the question, but can instead focus on formulating an answer.
  • Think about your lesson objectives as you plan questions. They should be ordered logically to move students towards those objectives, supporting their learning along the way.
  • Ask open-ended questions that invite multiple interpretations. Ask “What are your observations?” instead of “What color is the bug?”
  • As you plan your questions, keep a Bloom’s revised taxonomy reference handy. Be ready with questions from the higher levels of Bloom’s. Asking questions from the lower levels on the fly is relatively easy, but it can be much harder to spontaneously come up with a good Analyze or Evaluate question.

2. Ask questions in ways that include everyone.

  • In the February Expert Corner article, we discussed how to engage all students in a whole class lesson. In addition to the methods mentioned there, a strategy I’ve seen recently is to count the number of students with hands raised before calling on one, “One person has an answer. Two, three.” When students see that you want to know how many people have an answer before selecting one, more will join in.

3. Give students time to think.

  • Provide students with ample wait time so that they can process the question and formulate an answer. Mentally, count off 3-5 seconds at a minimum before taking an answer.

4. Avoid judging students’ responses.

  • Research (Rowe, 1974) shows that when teachers respond to students’ responses with negative or even positive comments such as, “Good job!” or “Not quite,” students will respond less often. Rather than offering judgment in your responses to students, reply with neutral comments such as, “Thank you.”

5. Follow up students’ responses in ways that encourage deeper thinking.

  • One of my favorite follow-up questions is to ask, “What evidence supports your answer?” This prompts students to provide not only the ‘why’ behind their answer but also specific support.
  • In addition to asking the responding student follow-up questions, it is beneficial to ask the rest of the class to weigh in with a hand signal. Use a thumbs up to indicate agreement, thumbs down for disagreement and a thumbs to the side if the answer is okay, but there is something missing that would allow for full agreement. With this strategy, all of the students are thinking deeper about the answer given, and not just the responding student.

As you work on building your own questioning skills to support inquiry, set incremental goals for yourself and monitor your progress against those goals. Don’t try to master everything at once! For example, begin with improving your wait time after asking a question. Once you have mastered wait time, you can work on eliminating judgmental comments to student responses, and then asking more questions from the higher levels of Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy.

To monitor your progress, you can videotape your inquiry lessons and analyze your question types, wait time, or other metrics for effective techniques. If a video camera isn’t available, ask a colleague to observe a lesson and collect data on your current questioning goal.

Because teacher questioning is key during whole group instruction, ExploreLearning provides great questions at various levels of Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy in our Student Exploration Sheets included with almost every Gizmo. Teachers can also refer to the Teacher Guide discussion questions and even the assessment questions for more inspiration. To see a demonstration of the power of good questions with a Gizmo, watch our video, Teaching with Gizmos: Function Machines.