As teachers and tutors, we are always being told that we need to challenge our students more. Classroom learning walks and lesson observations document how well school leaders believe that we are pushing our students’ learning to the next level. Parents often want to know exactly what methods are in place to help their children excel. Advice on exactly how to do this, however, can sometimes be vague.
One of the ways that you can help your students to make visible and demonstrable progress is to use the ‘probing’ technique. This technique is designed to help students to activate their existing schema about a topic and to develop their spoken answers. You can usually see some progress being made almost instantly by using this strategy.
What Is Probing?
Probing is a form of questioning that encourages students to extend their verbal answers in the classroom. There are three types of probing questions which are particularly effective for both classroom teaching and small group/individual tuition: probing to clarify ideas, probing to expand on ideas, and probing to contextualise ideas.
Why Is Probing Important?
It is sometimes tempting, when a student gives you the right answer on the first attempt, to move straight on to the next part of your lesson or tutorial. By moving on immediately, however, you are wasting a learning opportunity for that child. They already had the knowledge you were requesting, and although their answer might have helped other students within a classroom setting, their level of understanding (and the understanding of students at the same level as them) has been left unaltered.
This is where probing comes in. Encouraging students to explain their answer or to further develop an element of their answer helps to push their own understanding (and their levels or articulacy!) to the next level. This is known as elaboration. Research suggests that this process helps your brain to form new connections between information, making it more likely that you remember and store it.
What Are Some Examples of Probing Questions?
When you ask students to clarify an answer, you are asking them to make it more clear:
- What do you mean by that?
- How would you explain that to a younger student?
- Can you give me another example of that?
- How did you work that out?
When you ask students to expand on an idea, you are asking them to elaborate on and extend their understanding of the idea:
- How do you think this would have an impact on…?
- What evidence do you have for that?
- That’s an interesting word you used there – can you explain why you chose it?
- What would this mean for… (related idea, topic, step, or process)?
When you ask students to contextualise an answer, you are asking them to place it in its correct context to discover how this might affect the accuracy of the answer:
- How did your knowledge of the time period affect your answer?
- How would your answer change if we were alive 100 years ago?
- Why do you think some people might disagree with your answer?
At Get My Grades, we have worked hard on our platform’s questions (we have over 75,000 of them!) to make sure that they probe students effectively. Many online learning platforms rely solely on multiple choice questions but at Get My Grades, we have developed questions of different formats including single word questions, short written questions, questions using images, questions relying on diagrams, and questions that become increasingly difficult as a student develops their knowledge of a concept. These questions help to probe students’ knowledge at a much deeper level than multiple choice questions ever could and helps them to elaborate on existing knowledge.
We also give students the option of testing their knowledge at a concept level, sub-topic level, topic level, and unit level. This helps them to benefit from the ‘spaced learning’ technique, where students repeatedly return to a topic at regular intervals rather than covering it once a year and hoping that they remember it.