There are many good teaching techniques and methods available to instructors. One technique commonly found to really increase effectiveness is the use of verbal questions. The time, study, and effort necessary to develop good verbal questioning techniques are easily justified by their positive results for both instructors and class members.

An important point when an instructor is developing and using verbal questioning skills is the understanding that verbal questioning cannot be used for good or effective testing.

Although there are many attributes of good quizzes and tests, the ability of a quiz or test to differentiate or reliably rank class members is among the most important. Since it is virtually impossible to ask verbal questions of equal difficulty of each class member, instructors are prevented from using verbal questions to test or rank. This is a critical point. Instructors must make sure that class members are aware that verbal questions are not quizzes or tests.

Note:. An instructor may read a short list of quiz questions for a class to write down. This is not verbal questioning, and it is also a very difficult way to test.


Why use verbal questions? It`s easy to say that instructors ask questions to see if class members know anything. And that is one of the reasons–but only one of many. A thorough understanding of the benefits of good verbal questions is paramount to accepting the challenge of adding this technique to your program. As we review the reasons to use verbal questions, it`s evident that most instructors would not use all of them, and certainly not in a single class. But seeing the scope of verbal questions allows instructors to select those that fit their teaching style. Questions are preceded by a “Q.”

Determine class members` entry level. Asking a few low-key questions is an excellent way to say hello to a class and learn how much background members have in the subject to be covered. This is a particularly valuable approach for regional instructors; they can build on facts class members already know. It`s disappointing to spend 10 minutes on quick attack with “Jiffy Lines” only to discover that the class thinks of preconnects as “Big Boosters” … and has missed your major point while mulling over “Jiffys.”

Q: What type of preconnected lines are used by your department? (Remember, a booster and a soft-suction are both preconnected lines.)

Accumulate data. This is related to the preceding objective, except that it can be used anytime to determine class preferences as to what type of equipment should be covered, those who want to go on to the next phase, and so on.

Q: Have any of you operated a circular rescue saw? If so, please raise your hand.

Start or close discussion. “Seed” questions can start a lively discussion. A thought-provoking inquiry can cut off discussion and make a smooth return to the lecture.

Q: Which of these nozzles would you select for the fire we are discussing?

Transition. All too often, the transition between sections in a lesson sounds like “next, we`ll cover U.” More stimulating is to challenge the students to discover the next subject themselves.

Q: After reaching the third floor, what two things should we be concerned with?

Confirm understanding. Are you the number one ladder instructor? Have you just spent 60 minutes in lecture and demonstration on the 35-foot extension ladder? How many of the firefighters understood you? Ask several pointed questions. You might be shocked to find that some of your words of wisdom didn`t get through.

Q: Is the beam on this ladder a truss or solid type?

Emphasize. Don`t repeat a pertinent point. Ask a class member to repeat it. In conjunction with the previous item, confirming understanding, this is a great double-header. Confirm and emphasize understanding with one question:

Q: We discussed two items on page 7 in detail. (Pause.) Brad, what was one of those items?

Review. Review questions are similar to those asked previously, but they are asked later in the class or at a later date. Use a question that challenges the whole class to think. Be patient. The material is not fresh in their minds. It may be helpful to introduce the subject with a short lecture before asking your first question.

Obtain another view. Horrors! Who wants another opinion? Advanced instructors do. They welcome input. Only the confirmed “lecturer” doesn`t have room for another viewpoint.

Q: Does anyone have another idea on the method we just discussed?

Caution: Don`t encourage other points of view on a requirement spelled out in a regulation. Remember: To be legal, a person who plugs a haz-mat leak must be a technician according to OSHA 29 CFR 1910.120(q). Discuss when to plug the leak and how to plug the leak but not whether the person doing the work needs to be a technician. If class members don`t agree with the regulation, explain how to change it–after class.

Help the needy. Don`t wait until test time; then it is too late. Discover the class member in need of help by asking the review and emphasis questions. Help before the test.

Evaluate your effectiveness. Seeing a lot of blank stares instead of hearing answers to your questions? Maybe it`s the talking and not the listening that`s faulty. Have you been lecturing for 20 minutes without a question being asked? Someone is asleep!

Return to the subject. Once in a while, by accident or with agreement, classroom discussion drifts from the assigned subject. Instructors who direct discussion back to the subject with a positive question will be far ahead of those who shout, “Let`s get back on track.”

Q: Barb, that`s an interesting thought on puncture wounds to responders at vehicle extrications. (Pause.) What tools are we studying that could cause such an injury?

Give gold stars. Acknowledge and compliment class members who are reading ahead. Every group has members who are out in front. As you gain confidence, you can ask questions to let these special class members demonstrate their accomplishments and motivate others to read ahead also. Caution: This is a difficult purpose to master. It can backfire; use it carefully and sparingly.


Some questions have no place in professional teaching. Some of the greatest offenders are the following.

Catch questions. Don`t talk about ladder locks for two days and then ask a class member to point out the “dogs.”

Irrelevant questions. Searching questions on red vs. yellow apparatus may be of value in a safety course but out of place in a basic class on types of apparatus.

Leading questions. They are often asked to help a class member having difficulty, but they usually take up time and probably don`t help.

Q: You wouldn`t connect the siamese to the three-inch line, would you, Pete?

Even if Pete did know, he may be so nervous about your efforts to help that he probably won`t remember it.


Q: Who operates the pump panel while what other operation is going on?


Q: What evolutions can you perform with a two-engine, one-truck, one-squad response in the business district?


Q: Should the gauge read “144,” “155,” “180,” or “205”? vs. The gauge reads “155.” Is it correct?


Q: Well now, take the pressure/capacity transfer lever, usually about here on the pump panel, which is where you should be at. Would you change to pressure or capacity if the compound gauge were pulsing and all discharges were closed U er U or what else would you do?


Distribute evenly. Keep class members on their toes, and locate the slow learner by asking many questions and going all around the room. It`s difficult to do. The new instructor may wish to put a mark behind the names of the class members after each session or use a seating chart.

Address class members by name. It`s easier to ask questions if you know class members` names. Use first names. Have class members write their first names on a folded 3 2 5 name tent. The name tent is a good method for promoting polite discussion, especially when class members are not from the same organization or geographical area. Addressing another by name adds dignity to the discussion. Use first names only, printed in large letters. If you forget the official name tent forms, fold and tear plain copy paper.

Allow sufficient time. Pause after each question. Allow the whole class to think before calling on someone. Don`t rush responses. In particular, be careful to squelch “group” answers or arm waving, which pressures the individual class member who has been called on. Watch your body language while you wait. Don`t appear to be pressing for an answer.

Be considerate. Address all class members with respect, and compliment each effort.

Instructor: Q: What would be the next step in this preplan? Bob, develop this for us. (Pause)

Class member: E-501 drops both sides at the loading dock for a sprinkler connection backup to E-507.

Instructor: Thanks, Bob. You`re right in line with our action plan. However, in some cases, the officer may wish to take one other step before that action. (Pause) Q: Sam, what might that be?

Keep everyone awake. Speak to the whole class, and then select one student to answer:

Q: Point out the compound gauge on this panel. (Pause) Barb, will you please take this one?

Q: What additional outlet can we use for a backup line on E-501? (Pause) Jim, cover that for us, please.

Make notes. To start using questions, add notes to your lesson plan and question marks in your text. This is half the battle, and you`re on the right track. Now, let`s be sure that the questions are good.


Class members` questions are asked to clear up a misunderstanding, to gain points by anticipating the next phase of teaching, or to go beyond the planned level of coverage. None of these are bad reasons unless you let the class members run your class. In the history of public speaking, some public speakers may not have asked questions, but probably all have been asked questions. Instructors may escape the need to ask the class any questions but will need to respond to questions from the audience. Sooner or later, someone will raise a hand or just shout out a question.

Let`s hear it. First, repeat all class members` questions, rephrasing them if necessary to make them good questions. Loud answers to mumbled questions mean little to those in the back row.

Fold it back. If the question relates to a point already covered or that can be answered from course content, it`s a good practice to fold back the question to the class. (Review. Reinforce. Keep awake.)

Class member: Q: Why did you tell us to take two standpipe rolls into the Hawthorne Apartments?

Instructor: Q: This is a good area for review. (Pause.) Fred asked, “Why does E-102 take two standpipe rolls into the Hawthorne?” (Pause.) Jim, that`s in your district. What is the reason?

Be honest. Have you just been nailed by the chemistry major with a question on trichlorethylene? Hemming and hawing only keeps you on the hook longer. Be honest if you don`t know, and say so. (If the class has several members with good technical backgrounds, you might try a fold-back U or a coffee break.)


Short and direct. Good verbal questions are short sentences with one subject. Compound sentences or multiple subjects confuse class members (who are confused enough without tongue-twister questions).

Q: What are the hazards in this photograph?

Ask for the information you want. Q: What are the three steps to put Engine 206 in pump gear? Can you point out the blocks and pully in this picture?

Vary types. Intersperse how-to, name-the-types, show-places, list-the-kinds-of, point-out, and other types of questions. Add “Key questions” on your lesson plan. Every component in a lesson has room for questions–whether the purpose is to motivate, make a transition, review, or whatever. The pride you will experience in your professional work will be enough reward for the time spent adding questions to your lesson plan.

Good questions are short, are direct, and elicit specific answers. They help the class and the instructor. n

n JOHN B. SACHEN is the training and hazardous materials officer for the Delta (MO) Fire Protection District in Cape Girardeau County, Missouri. He is the chief instructor and hazardous materials specialist with Fire Tech-nologies, Ltd., which produces fire training videos and specializes in on-site delivery of foam, hazardous materials, and structural fire training. Sachen is the former chief of fire protection and chemical response with Mallinckrodt Chemical Company in St. Louis, Missouri. He is a member of the Fire Engineering advisory board and FDIC educational advisory board.

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