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How to use psychologically rich questions in the classroom

How to use psychologically rich questions in the classroom

4 min read
  • Questioning, Cold-Calling & Wait Times

One of the most powerful tools a teacher can use in the classroom is effective questions. Not only does this help consolidate students’ understanding; it also helps measure their progress. For these reasons, Rosenshines’ third Principle of Instruction is to ask lots of good questions.

But what constitutes a “good” question? It probably depends on many factors, such as what do the students already know, the purpose of the question and the timing of it. Let’s take a look at three types of psychologically rich questions and how to use them in the classroom…

Using psychologically rich questions in the classroom


Pre-Questions are asked before students are taught the material. Although this might seem counterintuitive, research shows that this may be a very effective technique that helps increase students’ curiosity and, as a result, the amount of attention they pay to the lesson.

In a fascinating study researchers found that the students who answered Pre-Questions not only remembered the information they were asked about better, but also the information that they weren’t tested on.

So why is this the case? Well, some explanations include:

  • Pre-Questions allow students to preview some of the material they will learn in the lesson.
  • This helps reduce students’ overconfidence, making them more open to learning new information.
  • It helps students become more curious about the topic, which helps them stay attentive when learning the content.

However, it is key to ask yourself whether Pre-Questions are appropriate in a certain situation. Although these types of psychologically rich questions are beneficial when students have some prior knowledge, they can be detrimental if students are completely new to the topic. This can lead to a time-expensive detour that veers off topic quickly.

This may be partly due to the Expertise Reversal Effect, which suggests that novices and experts learn in different ways. If students have no background knowledge on the topic, then asking these questions might be overwhelming for them. However, if they can link some of their prior knowledge, then Pre-Questions are effective to use.

Hinge questions

Once your students have some understanding of the topic, you can use Hinge Questions as a midpoint check to know if you can move on with the lesson or recap some key points. Therefore, they help gauge where students are with the lesson, and what to do next.

According to Dylan William, who is known for advocating for the use of these questions in the classroom, Hinge Questions should be used as “quick checks”. It should take students no more than 2 minutes to respond, and around 30 seconds to collect and interpret their responses.

Some methods to use these questions in the classroom include:

  • Finger voting
  • ABCD cards
  • Mini whiteboards
  • Digital voting systems

Whichever way you ask these questions, it is important that all students take part and they “elicit the right response for the right reason.” Therefore, it is important that students get the correct answer because they truly know the information, not because they guessed the answer.

The benefit of using these questions is that it helps you plan what to do next. If most students understand the topic, then you can simply move on with the lesson. You might spend some time individually talking to students who struggled with it. However, if the majority of students misunderstood the topic, then it might be worth reviewing the material and addressing these misconceptions.

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Elaborative Interrogation  

The third and final type of psychologically rich questions is Elaborative Interrogation. These are “why” questions and are used after the information is taught. For example, asking students “why this is true?” or “why do you think this?”.

Using Elaborative Interrogation helps students think more deeply about the material. This is beneficial as they gain a greater understanding of it, which helps enhance their ability to remember the information in the long term.

This was shown in another study, where students had to remember a list of random sentences such as “The hungry man got into the car”. One group only got these sentences, another group received an explanation for these sentences (for example: “to go to the restaurant”), and the final group were told to use Elaborative Interrogation to come up with an explanation for those sentences themselves. On the final test, those who used Elaborative Interrogation remembered the most information by some significant margin.

This is partly because they had to think harder about the content. As Dunlosky said: “Elaborative Interrogation enhances learning by supporting the integration of new information with existing prior knowledge”. Essentially, it helps transfer the new information from working memory and helps cement it in long-term memory by connecting it to students existing schema (i.e. with what they already know).

Final thoughts

Using psychologically rich questions can help enhance your students’ learning and get them to engage more deeply with the material. Which type of question you ask however depends on where your students are on their learning journey.

At the start of a topic, it can be helpful to use Pre-Questions. These psychologically rich questions enhance students’ curiosity and attention when they start to learn the material. During the lesson, it is useful to ask Hinge Questions, which can help you assess your students’ understanding. Lastly, Elaborative Interrogation helps students engage more deeply with the material once they already have a good grasp of it.

Overall, using these types of psychologically rich questions helps to elevate students’ understanding and encourages students to perform better academically. In the long term, this can also help them become more confident in their ability.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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