Why do questions matter?

Have you ever been driving somewhere only to miss your exit because you got wrapped up listening to a song? Have you ever gotten to the end of a page in a book only to realize you couldn’t remember a single thing you just read because you were replaying a conversation with a colleague in your mind?

These things happen to all of us. Our attention shifts and we sort of enter a cognitive cruise control where we are looking but not seeing, reading but not thinking. This phenomenon also happens in lecture halls all over the world. You’re focused, paying attention and trying to learn, but all of a sudden you realize you’ve been daydreaming for the last few minutes.

It is extremely hard for listeners to focus on what someone else is saying if the speaker verbally steamrolls their audience. For a TED talk or keynote address, this doesn’t really matter very much. People may or may not be entertained, but whether or not they actually remember the talk is beside the point. For a lecture in a classroom, however, it matters a great deal whether or not students remember.

Do you ever remember your dreams? Can you think of the last one you remembered? The odds are that if you remembered it, it’s because you spent time after you woke up thinking about it… thinking about its meaning. You were curious, maybe confused, but you thought about it. You focused your attention on understanding the dream.

“Whatever students think about is what they will remember…memory is the residue of thought.” ~Daniel Willingham

That quote by Willingham explains why students don’t remember information delivered via lectures. Lecturing usually means that students need to take notes, read and reread those notes, memorize, cram for the test… then quickly forget the information weeks or even days after the exam. Lectures don’t compel students to think, but questions do.

However, direct instruction can still be sound pedagogy if students are continually questioned and compelled to think about the material. This is why at VoiceThread, we believe that engagement starts with questions and ends with answers.

Which questions do you ask your students to help them think? Let us know in the comments section below!


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