Questioning in Online and Face-to-Face Environments

An (ahem) 'question' of pedagogy 😏

In my last post I discussed the idea that technology could be described as pedagogically neutral - meaning that you can use the same technology to do things that support both didactic (learner as knowledge consumer) and reflexive (learner as knowledge creator) pedagogical choices - both very different approaches - and further, that technology provides us with the opportunity to make reflexive pedagogies more practicable.

Kalantzis and Cope (2017) argue that Discussion Boards, when compared to I-R-E questioning demonstrate how technology can allow us to use reflexive pedagogies more practicably in both online and face-to-face classrooms. 

I'll compare these two (Discussion Boards and I-R-E) to two other techniques; Instant Polling and No-Hands-Up, both of which are intended to increase engagement.

In assessing the techniques - by engagement I am referring to learners being required to engage in thinking, rather than simply responding, and the evidence we can see of that.

Four ways to ask questions in Online and Face-to-Face environments

I'll look at four common ways to engage in questioning a class. There are pedagogical choices behind each one. Two are described as technology-free and two as technology-enabled depending on how they are typically used - but each of the four techniques could be used with or without technology with a little thought.

Furthermore - two are described as requiring low-thinking-engagement and two described as high-thinking-engagement - and again this reflects how they are typically used rather than how they have to be used.
Four Questioning Techniques - representing how they are typically used in terms of use of technology and level of thinking required by group of learners - not representing how these techniques have to be used

Initiate - Response - Evaluate (I-R-E) questioning

Both Kalantzis and Cope (2017) and Wiliam (2015) argue that I-R-E questioning is a low-engagement pedagogical choice, yet it is the default mode of questioning in a great deal of teaching environments.

A typical scenario is as follows:

- Initiate - Teacher asks a question to the class
- Response - Some students (often same ones) indicate willingness to respond by raising their hands
- Evaluate - Teacher selects a student to respond and then evaluates the response, indicating whether the response to the question was correct/appropriate or otherwise.

Hands Raised to Answer Questions
Image from:
Familiar and ubiquitous in classrooms across the world this has some advantages - it's quick, it's familiar, it's easy, it's what students expect - supporters might argue it gives the teacher a sense of who knows what from the hands raised (and not raised) and from the response, whether the group is ready to move on.

Critics say that I-R-E means that learners are given permission to opt in/out of being engaged - they can opt out of thinking. It's easy to keep your hand down and avoid not only having to answer - but having to think about the question . When thinking is optional some in the group will continue to fall further and further behind.

Though described as technology-free - this can be replicated in the online environment using for example the Hands Up feature in Blackboard Collaborate. Whether online or face to face, I-R-E is a pedagogical choice - and Wiliam (2015) and Kalantzis and Cope (2017) argue - it's a poor one at that due to the low engagement factor.

No Hands Up

As with I-R-E this is a pedagogical choice. An alternative to I-R-E is a system of questioning that requires everyone to be engaged such as No Hands Up (Wiliam, 2015). No Hands Up means no hands up in the classroom except to ask a question - you don't put your hand up to answer one as that is opting-in to responding. In No Hands Up - every student is expected to prepare a response - and students are called upon at random to provide a response.

This can be combined with Think-Pair-Share in order to reduce risk/anxiety, followed by Basketball to pass the response around the group rather than have the teacher evaluate the response.

A typical scenario could now be:

- Initiate - Teacher asks a question to the class
- Think - Class has thinking time to consider question
- Pair - Class discuss the question in pairs
- Share - Teacher selects a person at random (No Hands Up) to share what the pair discussed
- Basketball - teacher selects more people at random (No Hands Up) to add to and ask questions about the response(s)
Strengths of this pedagogical choice are that all students are involved in considering and discussing the question - and because anyone can be called upon to share the discussion there is a much higher incentive for all students to listen to the question, think about the question and provide a response. By randomising who responds no one student or group of students dominate discussion and no-one is allowed to opt-out of engaging.

Criticisms of No Hands Up include possible anxiety produced by the extra pressure placed upon learners who would otherwise not choose to respond or speak publicly - though this can be mitigated by using additional techniques such as Think-Pair-Share, and also that this means they don't get to see who does and doesn't know the answer - though I would argue that an All Class Response System of some kind would do this better anyway.

Though described as technology free - using e.g. paddle pop sticks with names on is a type of technology to ensure random responses - and you can of course use digital technologies to randomise who is selected to respond.

Other no/low-tech high-engagement All Class Response techniques could include using mini-whiteboards, ABCD cards, finger voting or any other way of ensuring that everyone is responding - but crucially there must be an expectation that learners will be followed up with randomised questioning or there is insufficient incentive to think about the answer themselves.

Instant Polling

In a face-to-face environment we could try and get away from traditional I-R-E by using a digital technology such as interactive polling Clickers, Plickers, Kahoot or some other equivalent. This is a much better way of getting all student to respond. These are technologically enabled All Class Response Systems - and there are benefits such as seeing instant graphics representing answers, records that can be kept and investigated - but again these are small benefits compared to the gains that can be made if the learners are engaged in thinking. We must make key choices about how we use them or we risk still engaging in low-thinking-engagement pedagogy.

Turning Point Instant Polling
Image from:
For example - if we use interactive polling - perhaps everyone has to respond, perhaps we've even written excellent multiple-choice options that will tell us something about what the learners are thinking - so far so good - but participation is not the same as engagement.

How do we ensure that they are thinking about their answers and not just responding randomly or copying? Crucially - as good as instant polling can be - and while they can be used to ensure the whole class takes part - the technology does not require learners to have thought about the answer.

They could hold up B every time - or randomly respond. The tech improves participation-engagement - but responding doesn't equal thinking.

One answer might be to follow up with randomised questioning - as with no-hands-up - all learners are required to both commit to and justify a response. This small change could be the difference between learners passively responding and actively thinking.

However - even with this - a canny learner would know that the teacher can only follow up with a small number of randomly chosen students.. so how can we ensure that all learners respond to and justify their responses without it being impractical?

Discussion Boards

Kalantzis and Cope (2017) argue that Discussion Boards used well are pedagogically superior to I-R-E questioning.

If instead of posing a question to the class verbally or through instant polling, perhaps the teacher posed the question on a discussion board. On its own this technology can again support good or bad pedagogy.

If the teacher poses a question and says "if you have something to add - please respond to the question" then we are effectively back to I-R-E - with learners opting in to responding.

If however we structure the responses - saying that everyone has to respond. Everyone has to respond to say other responses using a range of positive response techniques, and everyone has to respond to responses to their own post. Then we can see evidence of thinking-engagement:

Here are a couple of Discussion Board prompts from a course I am currently engaged in, Project Based Learning in the Flipped Classroom. For each prompt we are required to respond, respond to three or more other posts and respond to each response to our original post. Furthermore there is a rubric for responses explaining how to engage in responses that continue rather than shut down the conversation.

- Initiate - the instructor posts a question on the discussion board
- Response - every learner provides a personal, justified response
- Respond to variety of responses - every learner is required to respond to three other learner responses including asking open ended questions and use of other techniques to encourage discussion
- Respond - learners respond to all responses on own post

Discussion Board that requires everyone to post and everyone to respond
Image from Course Project Based Learning in the Flipped Classroom

The key to much more learner thinking-engagement is the pedagogical choice to have all learners commit to and justify a response, to respond to others' posts and to respond to all responses on their own post.

Here you can see that a number of people responded to my response to the discussion prompt and that I then followed up with each of the people who responded. I won't post the details of people's posts - but you can see the idea.

This was done in an online environment asynchronously - so we were responding within a period of a week but not all at the same time - but the technology also enables you to do this in a live face-to-face classroom with learners instantly responding to one another's work and commenting and responding live - all of which you can see and record.

Using Discussion Boards in a live face-to-face class is an example of what Kalantzis and Cope (2017) suggest is the unifying of technologically-enabled reflexive pedagogy in face-to-face and online learning.

You could of course replicate this exact pedagogy with pen and paper - but it would be much more difficult to organise and implement and there would be no digital record afterwards.

The benefit of the technology is that it makes a good pedagogical choice easier.

The Pedagogical Question then the Technological Question

In the examples we've been looking at here the underlying pedagogical question is:

How can I ensure that when I ask the group a question that everyone is engaged, thinks about the questions, prepares a response, provides a response, and responds to others in meaningful ways?


How can I use technology to ask my students questions in different ways?

Once you've identified the pedagogical question - then it's time to move onto the Technological Question.

In this particular case:

Is there a way I can use technology to better ensure that when I ask the group a question that everyone is engaged, thinks about the questions, prepares a response, provides a response, and responds to others in meaningful ways?

Which from my previous four options is to use discussion boards in a structured way.


Technology can be used in low engagement ways; both instant polling and discussion boards can be used in pedagogically poor ways.

Technology can be used in high engagement ways; discussion boards in particular can support high thinking-engagement in all manner of environments.

Good pedagogical choices can be implemented without technology; such as using no-hands-up in a classroom instead of I-R-E.

Further... technology makes good pedagogical choices easier to implement in all environments - a Discussion Board can be used to generate more discussion and more engagement in face-to-face and online environments and both synchronous and asynchronous learning.

Therefore - no matter what the environment; face-to-face, online or both - we should be looking at ways to use technology to implement good pedagogy.


What are your experiences of using any of these technologies or techniques?
Can a better case be made for any of the technologies and techniques discussed?
Can discussion boards and other technology be effectively transitioned into face-to-face classrooms?
What alternatives to these questioning techniques should be considered?

Let me know what you think in the comments below.



Kalantzis, M. & Cope, W. e-Learning Ecologies: Principles of New Learning and Assessment, 2017
Leahy, S. & Wiliam, D. Embedding Formative Assessment, 2015


  1. You have neatly addressed a basic issue with technology. Our tendency is to find an interesting technology and ask "how can I use that?". What we should be doing is dreaming of what we would like to do and asking "can technology help us do that?"

  2. Your post reminds me of Jamie McKenzie's "The question IS the answer". Grant's comment got me thinking... I often hear the call to focus on pedagogy and not let technology drive learning and teaching solutions however after spending the last few years in a marketing and communications role I now wonder if that's always the best advice. I've learned that it's important to meet your intended audience where they are not always expect them to come to you. So if your audience is on a particular platform on a mobile device then it might be wise to start there - or at least be there sometimes. Exploring what some call "shiny technologies" for learning potential can be a worthwhile exercise. Anyway in my experience what some think are shiny new technologies are often already in use by tens or even hundreds of millions of users :-)


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