Geoff Petty - Real-time feedback for teachers

Geoff Petty recommends assertive questioning as a teaching method that helps students and teachers track learning.

Geoff Petty is author of Teaching Today and Evidence Based Teaching and has trained staff in more than 300 colleges and schools. This article first appeared in InTuition - the quarterly journal for members of The Society for Education and Training (SET).

Assertive QuestioningStudying the research on teaching methods has given me a particular affection for assertive questioning, which can be adapted to any subject. It revolutionised my classroom, forcing my students to make sense of what I was teaching, and to think hard about it.

As I got used to the method, I realised it had a unique strength – it revealed, in real time, what all my students were thinking, what they had understood, what they hadn’t, and why. This enabled me to correct any errors or omissions in their learning, so that learning was sound before moving on to the next topic.

Many methods provide students with immediate feedback, but few provide this for the teacher. If teaching were driving a car, this method would give you the view out of the windscreen. It is most useful when students are nearing the end of a topic, or are revising. Students really enjoy it and so will you – when you get used to it.


How the method works in detail

1. You ask a thought-provoking question and ask students to work on it in small groups. You warn them that you will be choosing who will answer for their group.

2. You ask: “Anyone stuck? If so, ask me for a hint.” If a group does not respond to this offer of help they are ‘fair game’ for the next stages, and after a few trials they will know it, so will own up. Don’t give the answer away when you help a group. Later, you gauge if groups have finished by asking them: “Does anyone need more time?”

Again, if groups don’t ask for more time, they are fair game for the next stages.

3. You choose (no volunteers) a student to give their group’s answer, and another in that group to justify it: “What did your group think, Ahmed?”, “Why did you think that, Ellie?” Thank them for their answers, but crucially, you do not evaluate the answers. You could get answers from all or most of the groups one by one in the same way, but the following is often better with a larger class. After the first group gives its answer, ask “Do any other groups agree with that answer?”

If so, you choose a member of such a group to say why. Then you choose a member of a group that did not agree with the first group’s answer, to give their different answer. Then you ask another from that same group to explain why. You then ask if any groups agree with this new answer. You can, of course, delve for more answers still! In this way, you highlight the differences between groups. You have not yet given the answer away. You now know a lot about which groups think what and why.

4. You summarise the various positions of the different groups, and point out inconsistencies. If all groups agree, perhaps the question could have been more challenging, though in early practice easy questions are helpful.

5. The aim now is to get the whole class to agree with their ‘class answer(s)’. You encourage the class to discuss and evaluate each other’s answers, and to agree, and to justify their ‘class answer’. Minority views are allowed, but the aim is consensus.

6. Only when the class has agreed with their class answer do you give away the right answer, or evaluate and comment on the answers given by the groups. This method works whether there are right answers or whether different interpretations and answers are likely, for example in a critical appraisal of a painting.


What’s so special about this method?

Almost all students will participate: students think, “The teacher might choose me so I’d better have something to say that my group agrees with”. While students don’t mind disappointing their teacher with a bad answer, they don’t like disappointing their peers in front of the class. So nearly all students try to be clear on what their group thinks and why. As a result, group work is more focused than usual. If not, you can deliberately choose those students who are not participating to give their group’s answer.

Students’ understanding is checked and corrected by peers: errors and omissions in students’ learning will become apparent to their peers during group discussions, and they will correct each other, at least to some degree.

You get a representative impression of your class’s understanding. As I’ve mentioned, this feedback on students’ understanding is in real time, so you can get rid of misconceptions while you are teaching the topic. You don’t have to wait until assignments, homework or tests show up problems. You’ve fixed them long before. It models how to learn and think in your subject. How do you test ideas to see if they make sense in your subject?

When a student learns, they create their own meanings, and then must test these during the learning process. Discussions in assertive questioning encourage them to go through this process, so they learn how to think as if they are in their chosen profession.


Ground rules

It greatly helps discussions if you agree ground rules with your class. Here is an example you could adapt: We will learn best if we all work towards a ‘blame-free’ classroom:

  • It’s okay if you don’t fully understand a concept for the first time – learning takes time.
  • What counts is whether you understand eventually, not whether you get it right the first time.
  • I ask challenging questions, so it is not humiliating to make a mistake. Making mistakes is part of how we learn.
  • Mistakes are useful because they tell us where we can improve.
  • If you make a mistake, bet your life others in the class have made it too.
  • It’s good for learning to say, “I don’t understand” and to ask for clarification.
  • You should never ridicule another student for their mistakes, because you wouldn’t like it and it stops us learning. You will only learn from mistakes if you find out how to do it without mistakes next time, and really understand this. Let’s help each other! The helper learns at least as much as the helped. Such ground rules are best established early on by asking students for their class ground rules ideas.