When you visit students as they work, take a minute to look at their lab and ask well structured questions that will elicit further thought and reflection. Why are good questions important?

  • Questioning is essential for two-way communication between a teacher and student, or between students themselves. Questioning…
    • helps students build their understanding,
    • promotes high-level thinking,
    • draws out what students are thinking.
  • Good questions promote student-centered teaching. Asking students thought-provoking questions makes them more aware of their learning process. They are given an opportunity to provide feedback about what they don’t understand, what they do, and what they need in order to enhance their understanding.
  • When asked a question by a student, rather than answering the question directly, consider countering with a question (or questions) of your own. Every time a student asks a question, there are at least two teaching opportunities.
    • The first is obvious: The student has some gap in his or her understanding (the point of the question), and you can help them sort this out.
    • The second is more subtle, but arguably more essential: You can help students learn how to figure out how to answer their own questions by guiding them with questions of your own.

Questions are also the essence of good science: asking well-defined, useful questions is an incredibly important skill for scientists. Demonstrate this skill to students, and point it out to them.

Broad versus Focused Questions

Broad questions require …

  • open-ended answers (“How are these two concepts connected?”)
  • analysis (“How would you interpret these results?”)
  • prediction (“What will happen if you increase the amount of this substance?” “What do you think the outcome of the next part of the lab will be?”)
  • forming opinions (“Do you think we tested this hypothesis or theory in the best way?” “What is another way we could have done it?’)

Ask broad questions when you want to initiate discussion. However, focused questions are better when you are looking for specific answers.

Focused questions require …

  • recalling facts (“What is the function of this structure?”)
  • defining terms (“What is an [acid, mollusk, quasar, lever, vertex]?”)
  • categorizing (“What characteristics do all these elements share?”)
  • confirming (“Do you remember seeing this before?”)

A common problem in lab is trying to start a general discussion by asking focused questions. Ask focused questions to verify students’ knowledge of specific facts or concepts and ask broad questions to get them to make connections between these facts and concepts. If you want to enhance discussion, incorporate both focused and broad questions into your labs.

For examples of questions that invite students to think more creatively about problems and apply course concepts, see:

Brent, Rebecca and Richard M. Felder (2014). “Thinking Creatively and Critically.” Chemical Engineering Education 48.2: 113–14. Republished with permission by Tomorrow’s Professor.