Repository logo

The questioning process in the development of knowledge.

Thumbnail Image



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



The aim of the present study is to investigate the role of questioning in the learning-teaching process, with particular reference to English second-language students studying the disciplines of the Human Sciences. The broad context for the study is the imperative for higher education institutions in South Africa to meet the learning needs of those students previously disadvantaged by the Apartheid schooling system. The focus of the research is on how particular kinds of questioning may serve to mediate between the historically constituted disciplines of textual knowledge characteristic of the Human Sciences and the worlds of knowledge and understanding of new, underprepared learners. The study was conducted in two phases. In the first phase, the subjects were students (n=117) admitted to the University of Natal through an alternative selection process, the Teach-Test-Teach Programme. The selection procedure was designed to reveal the academic potential of students who did not meet the standard academic criteria for admission. In order to develop and consolidate their identified potential, selected students were required to participate in a foundation course. The data for this first phase were drawn from aspects of students' performance on the foundation course, in particular, their responses to tasks designed to elicit different kinds of questioning engagement. The second phase of the investigation was situated in a context of curriculum development in the Department of Psychology, necessitated by the changing learning needs of substantial numbers of underprepared students. The primary subjects in this phase of the study were the second-language students of the first-year psychology class (n=274). The study explores the nature of their engagement with the task demands of different kinds of examination questions. In addition, the task engagement of these students was compared with that of a group of failing first-language students (n=88) in order to establish whether the academic difficulties of the two groups could be explained in the same way. The framework of analysis incorporated a combination of quantitative and qualitative elements. However, given the textual nature of the tasks in the Human Sciences , the usual relation of the quantitative and qualitative modes of analysis was reversed , with established general quantitative trends providing the context for more detailed qualitative analysis . Categories for analysis were derived from the data drawing on theoretical analyses of the mediated nature of both tasks and cognitive functioning. Tasks conducted in the first phase of the study were of three kinds: questioning text; modeling appropriate questioning of text; and analysis of academic questions. Contrary to the received view that students are passive or inactive, analysis of their responses to these tasks reveals a highly active process of cognitive engagement. The data show that because underprepared students do not understand the implicit questioning epistemology of text, the question posed by a textual task is transformed and reconstructed . This reformulated question then provides an inappropriate framework for the construction of a possible answer. In the second phase of the study, the investigation focuses on students' engagement with conventional academic assessment questions. The transformation of given questions was again evident; inadequate answers could be interpreted as very effective responses to entirely different questions than those posed. The analysis of engagement with different kinds of academic questions (factual, relational or conceptual) reveals that the particular formulation of the question provokes varying kinds of inappropriate engagement. This finding provides a strong indication of the mutually constitutive nature of tasks and cognitive processes. Finally, a comparative analysis of students from different educational backgrounds reveals that the phenomenon of underpreparedness can be distinguished from other sources of failure. The study concludes that the nature of academic tasks, the process of instruction, and the cognitive engagement of students are all implicated in the problem of underpreparedness and must, therefore, be addressed in the design and implementation of effective intervention strategies.


Thesis (Ph.D.)-University of Natal, 2000.


Questioning., Theses--Psychology., Knowledge and learning., Educational tests and measurements., Psychology--Study and teaching., Educational evaluation.