6 Persp. 69 (West 1998)

Steven D. Jamar1

Copyright © 1998 Steven D. Jamar


One of the hallmarks of strong teachers is the ability to ask questions that elicit productive answers. (I intentionally use "productive" here rather than "correct," because answers that are wrong can often be more useful than those that are right.) The observations that follow come from my own experience, from discussions with others, and from reading about teaching. I do not claim that the substance of most of these observations originates with me, but, unfortunately, I cannot credit their true authors because their lineage is now lost to me.

1. Questions with Obvious Answers

When you ask a question with an obvious answer, students often will not answer. This reluctance seems to stem from their suspecting it is a trick, or from their considering it insulting (it suggests to them that you think they don't even know something that simple), or from a number of other psychological reasons. And so I generally try to avoid obvious questions. But since that is not always possible, or even desirable, when I do ask obvious questions, I try to tell them why. Usually the reason is that the answer to the obvious question sets up the more interesting (to them and to me) questions that will follow.

To get them over the anxiety of answering such questions, I say things like "you know the answer"; or "I know it is obvious, but humor me"; or "all together now ..." This sort of thing usually works and around the third week of class, students generally recognize obvious-answer questions, trust that I am not setting a trap for them, and answer in unison. (Later in the semester I will sometimes set a trap in the question, but I will do so only if I have developed enough rapport with the class that they will appreciate the joke, rather than feel betrayed by me.)

2. Time to Answer

Give students enough time to formulate an answer. This suggestion has a corollary--don't always call on the first person to raise his or her hand. Remember that you know the answer. (Or you should--after all, you are the expert and are more knowledgeable than they are about the subject.) Consequently, you don't need to think it through. Remember also that you are generally brighter than most of your students and that consequently you probably process data much quicker than most students do and you see connections more quickly even for material that is unfamiliar.

3. Rephrase Your Question

This can help fill the "dead air" time that often occurs after asking a question, and it gives students time to think of an answer as well as helping them understand just "what you are getting at." As a trial lawyer taking discovery depositions or interviewing clients and witnesses before trial, I learned how to ask the same question three, four, 10 times--as many times as needed until I got a responsive answer. (The answer may have been just the opposite of what I wanted, but I needed to know the answer to the substance of the question for trial preparation, unless it was an impeachment deposition, but that is quite another art.) Upon reflection, I discovered that what I was doing was rephrasing the question, recasting it, restructuring it, changing the words, explaining with a longer lead-in as to just what I was looking for, doing anything I could think of to communicate with the witness so that we could understand each other. This skill is valuable in the classroom, and is invaluable in individual conferences.

4. Reinforce Wrong Answers

I really mean this. Create an atmosphere of trust in which mistakes lead to learning and in which mistakes are not only expected and tolerated, but downright enjoyed and celebrated--celebrated not because they are wrong, but because they lead to insight. The psychological dimension is again important here. Students are often reassured to learn that the wrong answer they gave is not unique ("You know, I get that answer every year and here is where I think the mistake occurred. Is that anything like what you were thinking?"). One of my colleagues reports that she goes so far as to act disappointed when the first student gives the right answer. She claims that she will sometimes even give the wrong answer herself just so she can demonstrate why the wrong answer is so instructive.

Another way to reinforce a wrong answer is more paradoxical--highlight just how wrong it is. When doing this, however, tone and technique and trust are everything. "Wow! Is that wrong! Let's see if we can figure out why." Sometimes you can take some of the blame yourself. ("I guess I botched that explanation last week.") If done correctly, this approach prevents students from being embarrassed, particularly since it is likely to happen to each of them with some regularity over the course of the semester.

The best practitioners of the Socratic method reinforce wrong answers in a more standard but nonetheless effective way: they drag a student to the right answer by grabbing onto the bit of the answer that was headed in the right direction and then asking a series of increasingly pointed questions to try to get the student to come up with increasingly right answers.

5. Listen to the Answer and Respond to It

Do not overlap the student's answer with another question or another comment. A quick "that's right" is often insufficient reinforcement unless you pause immediately afterward to allow students to rethink the answer just given and what was right about it. Alternatively, highlighting the answer by repeating or restating it provides reinforcement both for the student who answered the question and for the others who have time to rethink the answer as you say it.

6. Plan an Attack on the Subject

Specific to general. General to specific. Elliptical. From left field. From the center out. No single method works for all subjects, for all students, for all teachers. I tend to like elliptical and left-field approaches because they emphasize unusual connections that, as a general matter, I like to emphasize. Nonetheless, for many topics--particularly new ones or core concepts--I use more conventional approaches.

7. Be Spontaneous

(I know this contradicts number six but bear with me.) One must be willing to seize the "teaching moment" by asking just the right question when prompted by a student comment. However, spontaneity (and sometimes even executing a well- planned attack) can sometimes lead us to become enmeshed in semantic convolutions of Gordian complexity. Even an accurate, important question can acquire this cloak when said out loud in class. Don't be afraid to admit that you made a mistake (see number four above--modeling helps create the atmosphere you want) and to start over.

8. Ask Real Questions

I believe this is critically important, but I find it hard to explain. Students know when you are asking real questions--you can see it in their faces and hear it in their answers. Part of what makes a question real is that you are genuinely interested in the answer and in the student's answer. Purely formulaic questions tend not to have the professor's psychological investment attached to them. Ask questions that you think are important--important to understanding the point you are making, important to understanding the problem, important morally, etc. Avoid asking formal questions that are intended solely to elicit information. Frequently, these are not "real questions" unless they themselves lead to real questions. (Asking set-up questions is frequently not pedagogically superior to just stating the contextual information.)

In the first year one spends a significant amount of time probing student analysis of cases by asking questions that elicit data (what are the material facts, what is the holding, etc.). This type of questioning is appropriate, I think, but is made more meaningful to the students if these questions are treated as baseline questions leading to a deeper discussion of policy and principle and justice as exposed in the particular case or set of cases. It is questions about matters such as these that will feel more real to you and to the students, if done well. Hypotheticals that ask students to apply the rule or holding to a fictional circumstance have an aura of reality as well, if the hypothetical is well crafted.


Asking effective questions is an art that can be learned by any engaged faculty member willing to make the effort to do what we ask our students to do--reflect on what was learned in class that day. For the professor, this reflection ought to focus, at least in part, on what was learned about how effective the teaching was.

By the way, why do we ask questions anyway?

n.1. Steven D. Jamar is a Professor of Law and the Director of the Legal Research & Writing Program at Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C. He is also a past president of the Legal Writing Institute (1997-1998).