Deeper dive into teaching techniques: Explanation and Questioning

Deeper Dive into Teaching Techniques: Explanation and Questioning

Introduction to explanation and questioning

In a previous article, we’ve looked into the huge range of techniques which are available to teachers – from explanation and presentation to practising and discussion.

The purpose of this article is to take a deeper look at two of the most widely used techniques – explanation and questioning.

Explanation has been called “the bedrock of teaching” and almost all teachers try to use it in one way or another; questioning is similarly widely used and is a fantastic way of assessing how much students have learned, as well as getting students to form links between knowledge they already have that they didn’t realise existed.


What is explanation?

Explanation is probably the most traditional form of teaching there is. It is closely related to direct instruction, which involves the teacher standing in front of their students and presenting the relevant information to the class.

The concept of direct instruction was pioneered by Siegfried Engelmann in the 1960s, and might sound dull, past its sell-by date or ineffective.

Done in the right way, it’s none of those things and can be the most effective way of teaching certain subjects.

Direct instruction basically works on the premise that every student, irrespective of their background or level of intelligence, is capable of learning if they are taught properly.

That’s not just good news for pupils, it’s good news for teachers too.

Explanation often forms an integral part of direct instruction, as do a number of other teaching techniques – including presenting and lecturing.


What are the keys to using explanation as a teaching style?

As with all teaching styles, explanation is all about engagement. If your students don’t engage with you, then they won’t learn – it really is as simple as that.

Firstly, you need to know your subject really well and be prepared to explain it over and over in a number of different ways until the penny finally drops.

On the flip side of that, though, is that you have to ensure your knowledge of the subject doesn’t prevent you from talking about it in a clear, simple way which your students can easily understand.

One way of practicing that skill is by trying to explain the subject in question to a friend or colleague who has no prior knowledge of it. They will be able to help you decide if:

  • You’re missing something out
  • You’re making assumptions about your students’ knowledge

Secondly, be ready to demonstrate what you’re teaching or show it in action: telling a room full of five-year-olds that 2 + 3 = 5 is doubly effective if you produce two apples and then three more before demonstrating that together they make five.

It’s still true even if you’re teaching adults as opposed to children – for the students in your class who are visual learners, the use of pictures and models to demonstrate that something works will be 100 times more useful than telling them that it works.

A third method is by using analogies. Explaining a new topic by relating it to something a student already knows to be true has been shown to work whether the student in question is four or 40.

Analogies are especially useful in science, when trying to explain something which is abstract in the extreme, such as black holes.

Finally, you need to be patient.

You can’t expect your students to understand something as soon as you’ve explained it – some will inevitably learn more quickly than others and you need to be willing to reiterate key points and answer questions as needed.


How do I know if my explanations have worked?

Explanation is a fantastic technique – but only if it works. So how can we make sure that it has?

This is where questioning comes in. Targeted questions on what’s just been taught help both you and your students learn, especially if those questions are incorporated into the lesson itself.

Try asking one student a question and then inviting another to comment on their answer. This increases the likelihood of all students listening to everything they’re being taught, but also helps you as a teacher discover what has gone in and what hasn’t.

Also, be ready to keep repeating what you’ve already said and don’t forget that there are no stupid questions and that no explanation is too simplistic. It might sound straightforward to you, but it clearly doesn’t to them.

Plus, just because you taught something last week or last month doesn’t mean you won’t have to teach it again.

Back in the 19th century, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus’ research into memory showed that not only do memories weaken over time, but that a number of other factors play a part in whether or not we remember something.

His findings were nicely captured in the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, which is a handy visual reminder that we must always be ready to explain something again.


How do I best use questioning techniques in my teaching?

As Teresa Barron observes, “asking the right sort of questions is an invaluable method of inclusive teaching”.

It works particularly well in conjunction with explanation because, as we have seen, explanation is no guarantee of success, no matter how good the teacher is.

But here’s the crucial part: you’ve got to know what kind of questions to ask and how to ask them.

Asking the wrong type of questions is at best pointless and at worst harmful, knocking some students’ confidence or making them feel stupid.


What kind of questions should I be asking?

Firstly, let’s talk about what kind of questions should be avoided. Closed questions – those that can only be answered “yes” or “no” – can work if you know for a cast-iron fact that your student or students knows the answer, and you want to build their confidence, or lead onto the next question.

The huge disadvantage of closed questions is that it is often obvious what answer the teacher wants. If the student didn’t know prior to the question being asked what the answer should be, it is likely to have a negative effect on their confidence.

It’s much better to go with open questions which invite a fuller response.

That way, you discover whether your teaching has had the desired effect or whether you need to go over the subject again.

Open questions typically start with any one of the following words:

  • What
  • Which
  • Why
  • How
  • When

Open questions encourage students to think about their answer before answering, rather than taking a 50/50 shot with a “yes” or a “no”.


How to respond to answers – whether right or wrong

The way you as a teacher or tutor respond to the answers your students give can have a tremendous effect on how well they learn.

There’s no getting away from the fact that it is necessary to tell students whether they have answered correctly or incorrectly. But there is a right and a wrong way to do it.

While correct answers might seem straightforward to deal with, try not to go overboard with praise. Ensure that the answer is both correct and complete, and that the student has given an unequivocal answer, not just hedged their bets.

Responding to incorrect answers without discouraging your students is more problematic. Key reactions to avoid are:

– Making fun of answers (be cautious of using humour)

– Saying “no” and asking another student

Be empathetic, offering clues, helping them save face by using phrases such as “I can understand why you might think that” or asking for examples. Consider opening the topic up for discussion.

Crucially, ensure that the student knows where they went wrong but return to them later on and give them another chance to answer the question – maybe worded differently, thereby reinforcing the correct answer.


We hope you have found this deeper dive into Explanation and Questioning useful.

If you’re looking to pursue a career in adult education, we’d love to talk to you about the Level 3 Award in Education and Training course – the only qualification you need to teach adults in the UK.

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