Questioning questioning Part I

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  • Research in Science Education, 1978, 8, 157-166


    Miles A. Ne/son


    One teaching skill mentioned in every science methods book is questioning. Critical thinking is presumably triggered in students by using questions. In view of this importance it is surprising to find little experimental research on the learning effects of teachers questions. Since the 1960's many studies have described the questions used in a science classroom, but few link a teacher's questions to pupil learning (Rosenshine, 1974). This study is an experi- mental effort to change a teacher's questioning techniques in order to observe the effects on children's learning of science.

    Each type of teaching situation has a purpose and it is logical to assume that the types of questions asked should vary with the purpose. For example, a preassessment situation should differ in the types of questions asked as compared to a review situation. The questions asked in a value clarification exercise should differ from those asked in a situation where a concept is being evolved from data. Most research on questioning does not control the in- structional situation in which questions are asked (Beisenherz & Tucker, 1974). This research focuses on the class discussions which take place after a laboratory activity; hereafter called a postlaboratory discussion.

    Most of the newer primary school science curricula stress the importance of children acquiring science processes, such as observing, inferring and verifying, as well as acquiring science content. The science processes are skills, and research stresses the importance of practice and reinforcement as mechanisms for learning skills. Applying these ideas to the science classroom, postlaboratory discussions are excellent situations in which observations, inferences, and verifications can be elicited using questions. Verbal interactions can keep the learner active, provide practice, and reinforcement in the use of such skills. Unfortunately, many primary school science teachers do not have postlaboratory discussions, or if discussions are held, it is the teacher who does most of the observing, inferring, and verifying. If this is the case, one of the major goals of the newer primary science curricula will not be achieved.

    The problem

    What effects do postlaboratory discussion tactics have on sixth grade children's learn- ing of science content. The study reported here is not yet complete and is part of a larger project.

    Theoretical framework

    One criticism of past science education research is that it has no theoretical foundation (Medley & Mitzel, 1963). This research was specifically designed to test a theory generated from prior research. Space does not permit a full elaboration of the theory (Nelson, 1978). Some of the more important elements will be described.

    Any theory has a set of phenomenon which it attempts to describe, explain, and predict. At present the theory is an attempt to describe, explain, and predict children's learning

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    of science concepts and processes which have been presented through a laboratory experience. By a laboratory experience is meant each learner directly encounters the phenomenon to be learned, as opposed to reading about the phenomenon, or opposed to watching the teacher or another learner experience the phenomenon. Learning is defined as a change in behaviour from which it can be inferred that knowledge has been acquired and can be applied.

    A theory is also capable of generating testable propositions. One dictionary defines propositions as a formal statement of either a truth, or an operation to be performed. It is in this latter sense that the word proposition is used. The theory enables a proposition to be generated which describes how a postlaboratory discussion should be conducted to achieve a given instructional objective. In this research a testable proposition was developed for these instructional objectives:

    When asked, children should be able to state the attributes of (a concept)

    Given a series of unknowns, children should be able to identify examples of (the con- cept) and state reasons for their choices.

    The testable proposition is depicted in Figure 1. Its interpretation is as follows. Each block is called a tactic and depicts the verbal interaction, questions and reactions, between four or more people in the classroom. The topic of the discussion is depicted beneath the tactic.

    The first step in the postlaboratory discussion is to gather observations from the students and make them visible. This is done by writing their observations on the board. In this tactic many students are asked for their observations. In doing so, the students are practis- ing the skill of observation. The teachers reactions to student responses are Accepting and Calling for Clarification. A Rejecting reaction would be used only if the students gave infer- ences instead of observations. Writing observations on the board helps to make the transition from the concrete to the abstract and makes possible the next step in the postlaboratory discussion that of noticing regularities in the data.

    The second tactic in the postlaboratory discussion is to abstract from observations a science concept or principle. In this tactic the teacher is providing practice with inferring. Students offer inferences to explain similarities in the data. Instead of accepting any answer, the teacher reacts by Calling for Evidence, and by Asking Another to Evaluate the inference. These reactions keep students mentally active, and gives students practice in inferring, and supporting inferences with evidence. Having the data visible, that is having written it on the board, makes it easier for students to process the information. A teacher's reactions to student responses are important. Simply accepting or rejecting the actions are inappropriate. More appropriate reactions would be ones which keep the students who responded mentally active.

    After several inferences have been offered and examined for credability, the next tactic would be to summarize the proceedings, and to focus on the publicly accepted concept. Summarizing helps to make available the information for the next stage.

    The fourth and final tactic is the application of the science concept, to identify unknown phenomenon. To provide practice using the concept new examples are presented and the students must identify the example and give reasons for their identification. In the Science Curriculum Improvement Study (SCIS, 1974) one science concept presented is eco- system. The teacher either physically or verbally presents new examples of ecosystems and students are then required to tell why it was or was not an ecosystem. This tactic also provides practice in verification and towards testing a new idea in different situations. Placing these tactics in sequential order results in a proposition for a postlaboratory discussion, in which the teacher's objective is to state the concept and its attributes, and to identify unknowns as

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    examples or nonexamples of the concept. Implementation of this discussion strategy should enable the teacher to reach science content goals and to provide practice in the science pro- cesses of observing, inferring, and verifying.


    There is a positive relationship between a class' mean gain in learning selected science concepts and the teacher's use of the theoretically derived postlaboratory discussion strategy.


    The research plan was to randomly select teachers to instruct their classes using two prepared science units from the Science Curriculum Improvement Study (SCIS) - Ecosystems and Models. Initially one half of the sample taught the Models unit while the remaining half taught the Ecosystem Unit. Subsequently teachers were trained to conduct postlaboratory discussions in accord with the theoretically derived discussion strategy. The teacher= returned to their classes and taught the second science unit. Before and after each science unit, each class was sampled to determine the class learning of selected science concepts. Both before and after training in postlaboratory discussion strategies samples of each teacher's postlaborat- ory discussions were obtained.


    The population to which generalizations are being made is all sixth grade classes in the Perth metropolitan area. A random sample of seven government schools and six independent schools were selected. Thirteen teachers were involved; five taught two classes each, while the remaining eight each taught one class. Five hundred and f ifty students were involved.

    Instrumen tation

    The SCIS evaluation supplements contain tests measuring the concepts taught in the program. These were constituted into 2 one hour tests. Each class was randomly divided into three groups of about 10 students each. Each group took the SCIS tests once, either as a pre- test, a midtest, or posttest. Scores from each administration were used to estimate a class' average score. The validity of the tests was estimated by a factor analysis. The reliability was estimated using Cronbach's alpha.

    For each teacher a tape recording was made of six postlaboratory discussions. These were typed and then analyzed by trained judges using the Classroom Observational Record (COR) (Reynolds et al., 1971). The COR analysis provides data on who does the talki