The Not-So-Simple Task of Posing Questions During Lectures

Here’s a multiple-choice question for faculty members faced with a rows upon rows of students in large-enrollment classes.

What happens when you pose a question during a lecture?

A. So many hands shoot up I couldn’t possibly call on anyone in particular.
B. I use TopHat to collect responses.
C. Someone in the front row usually shouts out the answer.
D. Nothing.
E. Depending on the class or the day, all of the above.

Most faculty use questions to informally test for comprehension, to guide students from one concept to another related concept, to check for attentiveness, or to encourage student engagement with the material. Questioning seems such a natural part of teaching and learning that we rarely give it much thought; however, certain practices can increase faculty effectiveness, student engagement, and student comprehension.


If you pose a question to quickly check for indication that students understand material just covered, you may want to try finger or hand signals. In these cases, instructors seek an at-a-glance response.

Select a signal that stands for a response: for example, one finger for “no” and two fingers for “yes.” In the case of very large classrooms and issues with visibility, thumbs down for “no”; open hands for “yes.”

This approach allows you to check for specific understanding; keeps a lecture moving, especially when there’s quite a bit of material to cover; and avoids the at times overly broad, “Do you have any questions about this?”


In large classrooms, use of TopHat to engage students by presenting a problem or scenario then following up with a selection question (multiple choice, for example) is a highly effective way to engage students. Tips for TopHat use include:

  • Informing students as class begins that TopHat will be used and allowing them time to get their devices ready.
  • Anticipating in advance how long students will need to think and respond then building that time into your presentation.
  • Clearly indicating to students when a TopHat question is about to appear.
  • Cuing students at each stage of question response to ensure participation. 1. “Have your device ready.” 2. “I’ll give you X amount of time to consider the four choices.” 3. “Begin.” 4. “You have 10 seconds remaining to make your selection.” 4. “The question is closed.”
  • Addressing both correct and incorrect responses. If 25% of the students selected the wrong response, let them know why students typically make that error and how to correct approach or reframe thinking. This enhances the learning experience for all.

Other suggestions for asking students questions or taking questions from students follow:

  • Building in appropriate “wait time.” Once a question is posed (and repeated if it is a more complex question), allow 15 seconds to pass before calling on anyone. (We know, that’s hard to do!)
  • Using quadrants of a room to call on specific students and encourage broader participation. “Would someone in the back three rows respond?” “Would someone in this front section tackle that problem?”
  • Asking a student to summarize another student’s answer (and possibly add to it). This encourages active listening across a larger classroom and reinforces a shared learning experience.
  • Using social media to collect questions. For those who are inclined and adept at managing a back channel or feed, students can be encouraged to tweet questions during a lecture.
  • Requiring students to identify the “muddiest point” in each lecture. Close by asking, “What was the muddiest point in today’s presentation?” This reframing of “Do you have any questions?” allows students to target areas they think they understand but aren’t quite sure they’ve mastered.
  • Collecting questions about a lecture or presentation after class is over. A Q&A discussion board in Carmen allows students to submit questions to course leaders or team members, and a discussion board saves the time of responding to the same question over and over in person or via email.

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