A key strategy of formative assessment (FA) practice is questioning and facilitating discussion in the classroom.  For some teachers this practice is almost second nature, they have developed rhetorical skills through previous experiences which they utilize effectively in their classrooms.  For some teachers, however, this is a challenging practice and an area of focus for their professional development.  In either case, developing thoughtful questions in advance of teaching will facilitate fruitful learning for students.

In 1998, British researchers Harry Torrance and John Pryor investigated questioning and discussion techniques with a group of elementary school students and teachers.  They shared, that within most of the transcripts where classroom dialogues were recorded, “very few words are actually spoken by pupils.  The overwhelming quantity of talk comes from the teacher, despite the fact that the ostensible purpose of their utterances is to elicit responses from children.” (1998:106)

In thinking about the voices in my classroom, Torrance and Pryor would most likely reveal similar findings about who is doing most of the talking.  This is a practice which I’ve been trying to improve; I want my students to feel more comfortable asking questions and I want to facilitate more thoughtful discussions.

Several teachers at my school are participating in a weekly survey of their formative assessment practices.  The purpose of this action research project is to inventory their FA practices as they progress through the year.  In doing so we regularly examine the results and using the data, make suggestions for teachers to consider.  At the very least, teachers who regularly participate in the weekly survey have a record of their practice which allows them to reflect on the FA strategies they use most often and to evaluate the effectiveness of the practice.

Where the FA practice of questioning and discussion is concerned there are several techniques.  Below are some of the most common:

  1. Teacher questioning: using open questions to facilitate discussion
  2. Students writing questions in advance of teaching or in reflection of the lesson
  3. Students asking questions during instruction or in reflection of the lesson
  4. Pretest or inquiry questions (micro type questions)
  5. Discovery or driving questions (macro type questions)
  6. Follow-up or synthesizing questions

Our weekly surveys have revealed some interesting results and have me thinking about my own practice regarding questioning strategies:

  • ~85% of teachers used open questions to facilitate discussion and understanding (verbal questioning)
  • ~82% of teachers did not ask students to write questions to identify their learning gaps, e.g., ‘…think about what we were learning yesterday and write down some of the questions you may have about the lesson or about some part you didn’t completely understand.’

As I thought about my own class time last week I know that I asked many questions but I didn’t ask students to write anything down.  Often it is the same students who end up doing most of the sharing and responding to questions, and while I ask for others to respond, there are many students whose voice/thoughts are never heard or expressed.  This makes it very difficult to assess their level of understanding.

This week one of my goals is to ask students to write down their questions at the beginning of at least one lesson – this affords everyone a voice; even those passive students who don’t appear to want to have a voice in their own learning.  Obviously the benefit of good questioning is that it becomes easier to identify what the student understands in comparison to what the learning expectation is…this ‘gap’ can then be addressed and students can then learn.