How A Simple Question Can Be A Powerful Motivator

How A Simple Question Can Be A Powerful MotivatorAfter giving directions, it’s common for teachers to ask, “Are there any questions?”

Which isn’t a bad idea, per se, especially if the teacher follows with an extended pause.

After all, it’s good practice to allow students a moment or two to ponder the directions given and ask clarifying questions.

Doing so saves time, trouble, and confusion.

But the question itself, the way it’s asked, unintentionally targets more responsible students.

It targets those you’re least concerned about, those who are motivated, attentive, and most likely to speak up.

The rest of your class, those who most need to consider your question, are unlikely to say a word—even if they have no idea what you expect them to do.

So what’s the solution? How do you ask a checking-for-understanding question in a way that specifically targets those who need it most?

You ask a negative.

“Is there anyone who doesn’t know what to do?”

This question effectively skips past the high-achievers—who will almost never respond to it—and lands directly in the laps of those who urgently need it. It shines a spotlight on anyone daydreaming, half-listening, or blasé about the task at hand.

By flipping the script, by asking if anyone doesn’t know what to do, you’re challenging every student to consider your question. It’s a self-checking device that makes students productively uncomfortable.

It causes their brain to click on and their mind to turn and question their readiness. “Oh no, the teacher is talking to me. Let’s see, I think I’m supposed to . . . Oh my gosh, I’m not sure.”

The effect is twofold:

First, when students grow accustomed to you asking questions in such a direct and challenging manner, they become more motivated to listen.

They sit up straighter. They follow you with their eyes. They test themselves internally, so that when the question comes, they can honestly refrain from raising their hand.

Second, it compels those who aren’t sure what your expectations are to boldly raise their hand and ask clarifying questions, which tend to be better, clearer, and more pointed than before.

Now it’s important to note that both benefits are made stronger by your actions while your students are carrying out your directives. Too many teachers turn their attention away from their class to multitask with preparation, organization, and the like.

This is a huge mistake.

Your students must feel your weighty eyes upon them. They must feel the urgency to prove how well they listened. There is a surprising amount of pride in this, and you mustn’t take it away from them by turning your back.

Another cool thing about negative questions is that you can use them in so many different situations:

Is there anyone who isn’t going to have their homework completed?”

Is there anyone who doesn’t remember the recess rules?”

Is there anyone who doesn’t feel prepared for the math test?”

You can follow up your question with something like, “I want to know now, so I can help you. I don’t want to find out when it’s too late and you’ve failed the test.”

Questions that challenge students and target the pride living inside each of them have great power. They unseat lazy thinking patterns, inspire personal responsibility, and jump start motivational engines.

And far from resenting the challenge, students love it. They love being trusted and counted on.

They love proving themselves to each other and their teacher.

They love the quiet contentment of a job well done.

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18 Responses to How A Simple Question Can Be A Powerful Motivator

  1. Fatuma January 24, 2015 at 11:04 am #

    Great, simple post! Thanks.

    I recently discovered the power of negative questions by accident out of frutsratuon with students constantly talking out of turn.

    At first sign of inappropriate chatter, I got everyone’s attention and asked If there was anyone who felt incapable of following the one voice rule today after re-explaining the importance. No one raised their hand as expected and there was a lot less chatter for the rest of the period. Color me surprised! I can see the power of asking negative questions more often and will give it a try on Monday.

    • Michael Linsin January 24, 2015 at 3:25 pm #

      You’re welcome, Fatuma! Thanks for sharing!


  2. KK January 24, 2015 at 12:06 pm #

    Wow Michael, this article is so helpful! You are so right about how motivating this kind of question is? If I ask myself the negative question, I feel myself reflecting on the task at hand. It’s too easy to just say “yes” when asked ” Do you understand?” It’s hard to say “No. ” But when asked, ” Who doesn’t understand what to do?” It’s no longer a “yes” or ” no” answer. Now you have to actively think about it. So simple, yet so powerful!
    Thanks, KK

    • Michael Linsin January 24, 2015 at 3:25 pm #

      I’m glad you like the article, KK!


  3. Kathryn January 27, 2015 at 9:38 pm #

    This is my second favorite article of yours that I’ve read! My number one favorite, so far, is about giving clear directions. All of your articles are very helpful! Thank you so much for sharing your expertise!

    • Michael Linsin January 28, 2015 at 7:10 am #

      You’re welcome, Kathryn! I’m glad you like the article.


  4. Lisa January 28, 2015 at 3:46 pm #

    I have been teaching for 20 years and every year you get a group that doesn’t respond to what you have been using. Just a difficult group. Well, I have to say I after trying your advice for this year. It really works! I have so much confidence in your ideas that I have shared them with my team. Thank you!

    • Michael Linsin January 28, 2015 at 5:09 pm #

      You’re welcome, Lisa! I’m so glad to hear it. Thanks for sharing!


  5. miguel February 2, 2016 at 3:23 pm #

    Hello Michael.
    I have being reading your articles for some time and i do believe that sometimes is not so clear as it looks . as a new teacher its difficult to put order and motivate my class. I am a nice guy and i do not have the courage to make the hard choices of given detention to all class .they know the rules better than i and i do no want to appear to my head master as a weak teacher. how can i get the courage to change myself ?

    • Michael Linsin February 3, 2016 at 7:42 am #

      Hi Miguel,

      One important first step is to realize that it is best for your students. If you want to be a good teacher, you have to do things that good teachers do. Also, you can continue to be the same nice person, but one who does what they say they’re going to do.


  6. Kathy April 9, 2016 at 6:33 pm #

    Hi Michael,

    Interesting idea to use a negative question, I believe it will make students think, if not harder, then a bit differently.

    My concern is this: will students who truly do not know what to do actually raise their hands? or will they be afraid of looking stupid in front of their classmates?

    I teach high school, if you think that the age of the students might matter.

    Thank you!

    • Michael Linsin April 10, 2016 at 7:50 am #

      Hi Kathy,

      Certainly there are other factors—your relationship with your students and quality of lessons being two examples—that make it safe to do so, but yes, it’s an effective strategy that has been also tested with high school students.


  7. joseph May 1, 2016 at 3:56 am #

    Sir,I am an English language teacher in Nigeria. What can I do to improve my students interest in learning English?

  8. Rebecca October 25, 2016 at 2:48 pm #

    Thank you for this article! I’ve been using this strategy this year and I see a difference in the way my students are carrying out my directions. I teach in an int’l school in Central America where 98% of the student population spends the majority of their day learning in their second language, English. When I first started asking “Does anyone not know what to do?” – I had multiple students responding with “Yes!” even though, come to find out, they did know what to do. So, it’s taken some explanation – but they’re getting it. I had a 5th grade student tell me recently that he’s never had a teacher ask if anyone didn’t understand. In fact, he said his homeroom teacher tells the class, “I’m only going to say this once…” This student appreciated the fact that I was checking for understanding and that I am willing to take the time to explain again if needed.
    Thanks for taking the time to publish this blog – and your books! I refer back to your website on a regular basis – as this teaching gig has been one of the most challenging (classroom-management-wise) that I’ve experienced in my 15 years of teaching.

    • Michael Linsin October 25, 2016 at 4:28 pm #

      It’s my pleasure, Rebecca! I’m so glad you like the website. Yes, I think it definitely communicates to students that you care about them and their success, first and foremost, while also shifting responsibility to carryout your instructions onto their shoulders—where it belongs. Thanks for sharing.