Best Practices for Field Days E-Tips for Environmental Educators
Welcome to this edition of the EE E-Tip for Field Days - the quarterly source for practical tips to raise the impact of field day programs. We want to hear your suggestions for improving this resource. Send your ideas to Nate Meyer.
EE E-TIP: Ask great questions throughout your presentations.
How can you uncover your learners' previous knowledge and experience? Check whether they are following your presentation? Provoke them to make sense of what they are learning? Good questions are your tool. "What's in a question, you ask? Everything. It is a way of evoking stimulating response or stultifying inquiry. It is, in essence, the very core of teaching." -John Dewey, influential education philosopher.
Participants in our workshops learn to use and create a variety of good questions throughout their field day and water festival presentations. They learn to ask questions that allow learners to voice what they already know or just learned. They practice creating questions that challenge participants to apply knowledge to new situations and think critically about issues.
According to a summary of research by Patricia E. Blosser, questions serve a variety of important roles in effective science education:
- Provoking interest in a topic or idea;
- Stimulating thinking about information and issues;
- Helping learners develop a certain mind-set;
- Reinforcing information and ideas; and
- Managing activities and learner behavior.
Try to ask open-ended and thought-provoking questions that serve a specific purpose.
Typical classroom teachers ask hundreds of questions every day. But studies consistently find that they predominately ask learners closed-ended, low-order questions - questions that require learners to recall memorized correct answers. Field day and water festival presenters are probably not atypical. You can improve your presentations by asking more focused, open-ended, and thought-provoking questions. To prepare questions for your next field day, try the following:
- Focus your questions. Building from our previous tip on learning cycles, you should start by identifying your essential question. What is the big question that you really want learners to be able to answer at the end of your presentation? Then brainstorm other questions you can ask throughout your presentation to help your students learn from each other and work their way toward discovering the answer to the essential question.
- Know why you are asking each and every question. Will your question provoke learners' interest in what comes next? Will it reinforce key ideas or skills? Will it direct students to further analyze or synthesize the topic? If the question doesn't seem to serve a specific purpose, don't ask it. Likewise, you should add a question where purpose dictates. Visit the PBS TeacherLine worksheet or the Questioning Toolkit in the From Now On journal for examples of questions that serve a variety of important purposes.
- Make sure your questions target a variety of learning-levels. Do you ask your learners to demonstrate, construct, calculate, diagram, or predict? Bloom's Taxonomy defines six different levels of intellectual behavior, with "action verbs" you can use in writing questions for your field days. Low-order questions ask learners to recall information or reproduce skills from memory. "Who can show me the first step in properly planting a tree seedling?" exemplifies a low-order question. High-order questions prompt learners to interpret, analyze, synthesize, evaluate and apply ideas and skills in new situations. "How did you decide that this is a good spot to plant your tree seedling?" or "What are the strengths and weaknesses of this forest management plan?" are both high-order questions. Low-order questions are fine for reinforcing ideas or managing activities. But high-order questions are usually better suited to provoke or stimulate thinking and help students make connections
- Make sure your questions have an appropriate structure. Open-ended questions are broad in nature with many potential and varied answers. "How would you change the forest around us here to attract more deer? What about grouse?" are examples of open-ended questions. Alternatively, closed-ended questions are limited to one or a few specific "correct" answers. "What are two different branching patterns that we use to identify trees?" is an example of a closed-ended question that might be asked at a forestry field day. Closed-ended questions are good for reinforcing information and ideas, or managing activities. Open-ended questions serve well to provoke and stimulate thinking.
Once you have a good set of questions, you can use a few tactics to deliver them effectively.
Many resources describe how to deliver questions effectively. The Use Experiential Teaching Methods section of the Best Practices for Field Days: A Program Planning Guidebook for Organizers, Presenters, Teachers and Volunteers - page 72 - and Developing Questioning Skills by Karron Lewis offer practical suggestions. Try the following to improve your next field day or water festival presentation:
- State your questions clearly. Use as few words as possible. Minimize technical language. Deliver your questions as if you are in conversation with your students.
- Spread your questions around. Don't be afraid to call on a student to answer your question. Ask everyone to raise hands, or shout out an answer. Try to get every learner involved in answering some questions during your presentation.
- Encourage students to risk answering your questions. Say things like "I am looking for an adventurous person to tackle this question." or "Can someone take a shot at answering this question?" Let students know when you don't expect them to know a predetermined answer but are seeking thoughtful guesses or reflections.
- Resist the urge to answer your own questions. Count 3-5 seconds after asking a question before asking for an answer. Wait 10-15 seconds (about the time it takes to sing Mary Had a Little Lamb) for learners to volunteer an answer. Attempt to simplify or clarify your question if no one seems able to answer.
- Use follow-up questions to spur your learners to further explore and explain. Ask "Why?" or "Can you tell me more about that?" to encourage deeper explanation. Encourage your learners to comment on each others' answers.
- Encourage your learners to think out-loud and in small groups. Use cooperative learning strategies to help your learners work together in answering questions.
- Repeat answers to the whole group. It is often hard to hear individual students at outdoor field days and water festivals. Repeat the answer to make sure everyone knows what was said.
- Create a positive tone. Do not interrupt learners who are attempting to answer a question. Give a little help if they are having trouble, asking others "How can we help answer this one?" Try to reward learners who risk answering your questions with positive reinforcement: "Great answer" or "Nice!"
In summary, well planned and delivered questions will help you make the most of your presentations.
In the words of Cathleen Galas: "A good question leads to more new questions, new discoveries, new realms never even considered before.... Teachers should share the excitement of asking questions and finding answers to personally relevant questions." The steps for developing effective questions resemble the backward design process we discussed in our earlier tip on presentation planning. As part of an effective presentation plan, well prepared questions help your students navigate toward the big ideas and tasks you intend them to learn. Well delivered questions encourage their excitement and active engagement in learning. They help you run your activities smoothly, stimulate thinking, provoke interest and check progress.
For more information on using effective teaching methods for field day presentations, review the Use Experiential Teaching Methods section of the Best Practices for Field Days: A Program Planning Guidebook for Organizers, Presenters, Teachers and Volunteers - pages 61 to 73. Curriculum copies, workshop and other information are available online at Best Practices for Field Days.
Use the new Best Practices for Field Days Events Calendar to promote your field days and festivals, connect with presenters and volunteers. Learn more about the calendar and get started at
Field Days Event Calendar.
Learn more about evaluating field days and water festivals with the Best Practices for Field Days Observation Assessment Tool.
To learn more about the Best Practices for Field Days, read our short article in the online Journal of Extension.
Best Practices for Field Days is a University of Minnesota Extension program. The information given in this publication is for educational purposes only. Reference to commercial products or trade names is made with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by the University of Minnesota Extension is implied.
Bloom, B. et al. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. Handbook 1. Cognitive Domain. New York: D. McKay.
Blosser, P.E. (1990). Using questions in science classrooms. Research Matters - To the Science Teacher, No. 9001.
Galas, C. (1999). The never ending story: Questioning strategies for the information age. Learning and Leading, 25(7).
Lewis, K.G. (1999). Developing questioning skills. Section 5. Teachers and Students: A Sourcebook for UT-Austin Faculty. The University of Texas at Austin Center for Teaching Effectiveness.
McComas, W.F., & Abraham, L. (n.d.). Asking More Effective Questions.
N.A. (1997). A questioning toolkit. From Now On: The Educational Technology Journal, 7(3).
PBS TeacherLine. (2006). Developing Mathematical Thinking with Effective Questions.