Teaching practices—3: Frequency of questioning affects performance
Who knew that more frequent questions increased attention and accuracy?
Asking questions frequently improves student's performance? What? Aren't lots of questions confusing to them? Wouldn't kids shut down, refusing to participate if the teacher went fast? Wouldn't they make more mistakes? Wouldn't they go off task, find other things to do?
Carnine (1976) tested whether young children with low skills would perform better under faster or slower questioning during reading lessons. He wanted to examine whether the rate of teacher questioning would influence students' participation, accuracy in answering, and off-task behavior.
The research plan
Children: He identified two children, both were among the lowest achieving of three first-grade classes, both were identified by teachers as "too often" off task, and had test results showing kindergarten or pre-kindergent scores in reading and spelling. He included those two children with two others for small-group reading instruction using the Direct Instruction reading materials of that time (Distar).
Outcome measures: Carnine had independent observers assess the children's behavior in alternating blocks of 10 trials each, first watching one child for 10 questions and then the other for the next 10 questions; each child was observed for approximately 30 questions each day. He assessed inter-scorer agreement between observers and found that the average agreement was > 90%.
He had the observers monitor three child behaviors:
Participation: If the child responded within 1 sec of the teacher's question, that counted as participation.
Appropriate responses: If the child answered the question correctly (even if not within the 1-sec limit, i.e., the answer was "late"), it was counted as an appropriate response.
Off-task behavior: If the child let his or her seat, moved his chair, spoke out of turn, talked with other children, etc., that was counted as off-task behavior.
Carnine converted the resulting counts into percentages. He simply divided the number of times a given child participated by the number of opportunities the child had to participate (e.g., 27 participations in 30 opportunities = 90%).
Fast or slow pace: Carnine had the teacher systematically vary the presentation rate. On some days, almost immediately after completing the previous task, the teacher asked the next question (i.e., the "fast" condition); on other days, the teacher complete the previous task, looked at the lesson plan and counted to five, then asked the next question (i.e., the "slow" condition). The researchers taught these procedures to the teachers and monitored their implementation of them.
In the fast condition, the teachers implemented a new task about every 5 sec. In the slow condition, they implemented a new task about ever 14 sec. That is, they had the students responding about 12 times per minute (fast) versus 4 times per minute (slow).
Child performance was clearly different, with higher participation and accurate answering during the fast condition and lower levels of off-task behavior during the fast condition. Here is a graph showing the data for the first participant:
Interested readers can consult the original article (see sources) if they wish to examine what happened for the second child. The graph for Subject 2 shows a very similar pattern.
Just a little more
Although this study was reported more than 45 years before the time I'm writing this post, I think the findings are not any less applicable to teaching today than when the study was conducted. The main reason to have concerns about the age of a study, in my view, is because other more recent research may have refined the findings or even contradicted them. I don't know of studies that have contradicted Carnine's (1976) findings (and I'll return to this idea in a moment).
Another factor that may concern is that were two participating children. That could hardly be a representative sample, and it makes it difficult to "generalize" the results, the argument would go. One needs to realize that this argument is a strong one when the topic being researched is focused on people—what's normal? how do children develop? how do people of one group compare with people of another group? etc.—where this study is about environmental conditions—how do different environments compare? To be sure, one could posit that it was just a lucky hit in this case and the fast and slow conditions would have different effects with different people (say, older, other learning issues, etc.); the thing is, those are all empirical questions and with single-case studies, they can be solved by replication.
And, guess what! The study by Carnine (1976) has been successfully replicated. Other research teams have examined fast and slow pace teaching practices. For examples:
Koegel et al. (1980) conducted a similar study of pacing with children with autism, finding that shorter intertrial intervals caused higher levels of correct responding than the longer intervals; and (2) that performance and rapid acquisition trended toward improvement during the shorter but not the longer intertrial intervals.
Tincani et al. (2005) examined very similar outcomes with pre-kindergarten children and reported that, although participation did not differ between fast and slow conditions, student rate of response, and rate of correct response, and , off-task behavior all improved.
Taken together, these results make a reasonable case that a faster task-to-task instructional pace is beneficial for students. To be sure, such instructional practices place demands on teachers; one has to have a detailed lesson plan or employ a curriculum that clearly specifies the questions or tasks to be asked...one can just make up questions on the fly!
Of course, with more complex questions, one wouldn't be able to ask questions at a rate of ~10 per minute. The questions might be longer or the teacher might need to allow more "think time." But the principle is the same: Long periods of a teacher yammering and only rare opportunities to respond will increase the chances of student off-task behavior and learners having too much to "absorb" before they can respond.
BTW #1: Although speakers who are speaking normally produce between 3.5 and 4 syllables per second, Griffiths (1992) compared different rates and recommended teachers reduce that rate to about 2.5 syllables per second for lower performing listeners. (To learn about why syllables per second is a wise measure, see Carroll, 1966; Cotton, 1936; Starkweather, 1960.)
BTW #2: Rate of questioning is one important aspect of what advocates of Direct Instruction call "pacing." Skillful teachers may ask questions more frequently with review material but less frequently when introducing new material. They will use pauses to have the students wait (just an extra second or two) while everyone gets a chance to prepare her answer, to create emphasis with the pauses drawing attention to the words that immediately follow ("You're listening to [pause] NPR"), and so forth. Note that there are also aspects of "pacing" related to the curriculum itself: The density of concepts introduced over a period of time or the number of built in practice cycles for individual concepts and operations across lessons. All these aspects of pacing, and other factors, contribute to what Engelmann (1997) called "mastery." Carnine (1981) investigated whether employing a cluster (pacing, corrections, signals, etc.) of these other factors (“high implementation”) produced better outcomes than using them haphazardly (“low implementation”)…and high implementation was better.
Carnine, D. W. (1976). Effects of two teacher presentation rates on off-taks behavior, answering correctly, and participation. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 9(2), 199-206. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1311925/pdf/jaba00052-0085.pdf
Carnine, D. W. (1981). High and low implementation of direct instruction teaching techniques. Education and Treatment of Children, 4(1), 43-51. https://www.jstor.org/stable/42900310
Carroll, J. (1966). Problems of measuring speech rate. Paper presented at conference on Speech Compression, University of Louisville. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED011338.pdf
Cotton, J. C. (1936). Syllabic rate: A new concept in the study of speech rate variation. Speech Monographs, 3(1), 112-117. https://doi.org/10.1080/03637753609374845
Engelmann, S. (1997). Theory of mastery and acceleration. In J. W. Lloyd, E. J. Kameenui, & D. Chard (eds.), Issues in educating students with disabilities (pp. 177-195). Earlbaum.
Griffiths, R. (1992). Speech rate and listening comprehension: Further evidence of the relationship. TESOL Quarterly, 26(2), 385-390. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3587015
Koegel, R. L., Dunlap, G., & Dyer, K., (1980). Intertrial interval duration and learning in autistic children. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 13(1), 91–99. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1308109/pdf/jaba00047-0093.pdf
Starkweather, J. A. (1960) A speech rate meter for vocal behavior analysis. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 3(2), 111-114. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1403973/pdf/jeabehav00201-0021.pdf
Tincani, M., Ernsbarger, S., Harrison, T. J., & Heward, W. L. (2005). Effects of two instructional paces on pre-k children's participation rate, accuracy, and off-task behavior in the the "Language for Learning" program. Journal of Direct Instruction, 5(1), 97-109. https://www.nifdi.org/research/journal-of-di/volume-5-winter-2005/473-effects-of-two-instructional-paces-of-pre-k-childrens-participation-rate-behavior-in-the-language-for-learning-program/file.html