Breaking up lecture with frequent questions

A lecturer who acts primarily as a “sage on the stage” for an entire class session will likely struggle to gauge or sustain student attention and energy. By incorporating frequent, purposeful questioning into lectures, instructors can keep students energized and deepen their understanding. Brett Flehinger uses factual, analytical, and overarching questions during his lectures to draw out student voices and check the class’s “temperature.”


Brett Flehinger, Lecturer on History

Student Group



Harvard College


American Populisms: From Thomas Jefferson to the Tea Party + Trump

Course Details

Fall 2016, 38 students

  • Be purposeful with your questioning. If you intend to check for understanding, you might ask a factual question, but if your goal is to stimulate critical thinking, ask students a question that requires more analysis.
  • It’s not easy to come up with varied, high-quality questions on the fly. Insert analytical, overarching questions into your lecture plan in advance.
  • Incorporate wait-time. For the highest-quality ideas and the most robust participation, students need time to process information and think about their answers, which requires the instructor to pause for a few seconds rather than calling on the first raised hand.
  • Be clear. Avoid asking multiple questions at once, leading questions, or vague questions.
  • Findings from Casteel and Bridges suggest that incorporating more components from seminar-style courses, such as instructor facilitated questions, may increase the amount of information students perceive they have learned (2007)
  • Combining content-based questions with lectures was linked to higher student quiz and exam scores (Giers & Kreiner, 2009)
  • Elder and Paul argue that thinking is driven by questions and less so by answers.  This is because questions can be used to express problems and delineate issues whereas when an instructor provides answers, this can stop student thought processes (2010).   
  • In a study to investigate the role of self-explanation in understanding, students were tested for their knowledge on the circulatory system. Students in one group were prompted to self-explain after reading a section on the circulatory system, whereas a students in a second group were asked to read the passaged twice.  The self-explanation group had a greater gain in understanding from pre-test to post-test suggesting that self-explanation can facilitate learning (Chi, 1994).