The Use of Questions by Professors in Lectures Given in English - A Study of Gender Influences

The Use of Questions by Professors in Lectures Given in English - A Study of Gender Influences

The use of questions as an interaction facilitator by instructors in tertiary education has been investigated in several previous studies. However, the issue of how gender difference influences the use of questions in academic lectures has received very little attention. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to investigate gender influences on university professors’ questioning in terms of question function and form. The corpus used in this study consists of 12 small-class English lectures collected in the Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English (MICASE). Four lectures (two by female professors and two by male professors) were selected from each of the following three academic divisions—Humanities & Arts, Social Sciences & Education and Physical Sciences & Engineering. The results of this study show both gender similarities and differences in lecture questioning. Most importantly, the findings of this study suggest that the relation between gender and language is not a straightforward one. Gender, disciplinary culture, and the lecture as an established academic genre seem to interplay, in a complex way, to influence the use of questions in academic lectures.

Key words: English for Academic Purposes (EAP), English lectures, language and gender, genre studies of language, disciplinary culture, questions

1. Introduction

As the status of English as the most dominant international language becomes well established, a concomitant phenomenon in tertiary education is the increasing use of English as a medium for instruction at universities in both native and non-native English-speaking countries. Because of this development and the appearance of large-scale corpora of academic spoken English, spoken English discourse has attracted far more research interests in applied linguistics, especially in the sub-field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP). Of the various EAP spoken genres, the lecture has been considered the most prominent format of instructional activity in higher education worldwide (Bamford 2005; Fortanet 2004a). It is even called “the central ritual of the culture of learning” (Benson 1994: 181).

Although various styles of lecture have been recognized, it has been observed that the adoption of a more interactive style of lecture (i.e. informal conversational style) is the current trend (Bamford 2005; Flowerdew 1994; Fortanet 2004a). Lectures in this style have been found to allow for a higher degree of interaction between the instructor and the student (Crawford Camiciottoli 2004, 2008; Decarrico and Nattinger 1988; Dudley-Evans 1994, Morell 2007). In addition, various linguistic features that enhance the degree of informality and interaction have also been reported to have positive effects on the lecture comprehension of non-native English-speaking students (Crawford Camiciottoli 2004) and on their learning of subject content (Northcott, 2001).

An informal conversational style of lecture can be achieved via the use of several major linguistic devices, such as the use of personal pronouns (Fortanet 2004b; Morell 2001; Rounds 1987a, 1987b), modality (Crawford Camiciottoli 2003), discourse markers (Crawford Camiciottoli 2004) and questions (Bamford 2005; Crawford Camiciottoli 2008; Fortanet 2004a; Morell 2004). Of these various linguistic devices, question seems to be among the most obvious ones for invoking interaction because a question presupposes an answer and that in order to form a complete proposition, both the question and the answer are necessary (Bamford 2005; Fishman 1978; Sacks 1972). In addition, questions have long been recognized as an important interactional device employed by teachers to activate and facilitate student participation and learning processes (Crawford Camiciottoli 2008).

Due to this crucial role of the question in the educational setting, studies on the use of questions in the classroom have been conducted by scholars from many different disciplines (c.f., Author 2007; Wu 2008). However, it is rather surprising that, as yet, the use of questions in academic lectures given in English at the tertiary level has attracted research attention of only a handful of applied linguistic and EAP scholars (e.g., Bamford 2005; Crawford Camiciottoli 2008; Csomay 2002; Fortanet 2004a; Morell 2004; Thompson 1998). Moreover, while previous studies have pointed out that disciplinary culture (Schleef 2008; Thompson 1998), class size (Crawford Camiciottoli 2005; Hansen and Jensen 1994; Lee 2009), and student level (Bamford 2005) are major factors influencing the use of various linguistic features that help enhance the degree of interactivity during a lecture, whether an instructor’s gender plays a role in the use of questions in academic lectures has not been explored yet.

On the other hand, while during the last 40 years, various differences in male and female communicative behaviors and language uses have been documented in many linguistic and sociology studies (e.g., Bergvall 1999; Cameron et al. 1988; Cameron 1992, 1995; Erman 1992; Hirschman 1994; Holmes 1988, 1995; Maltz and Borker 2007; Talbot 2005; Tannen 1994; Lakoff 1973, 1975; West 1979; West and Zimmerman 1977; Zimmerman and West 1975), only very few applied linguistic and EAP scholars (e.g., Poos and Simpson 2002; Schleef 2008; Tse and Hyland 2008) have explored gender differences in the use of academic English language, not to mention cross-gender comparisons in the use of questions. Therefore, this study aims to fill this double vacuum by comparing the use of questions by male and female professors in 12 small-class university lectures collected in the Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English (MICASE). These lectures were given by 12 professors from three different academic divisions categorized in MICASE-- Humanities & Arts, Social Sciences & Education and Physical Sciences & Engineering. Finally, the analysis of this study focuses on how questions are used by the professors in the two gender groups in terms of frequency, form and function.

2. Related studies

2.1. EAP studies on the use of questions in spoken genres

As mentioned previously, till present, the use of questions in English academic lectures at the tertiary level has attracted the research attention of only very few applied linguistic and EAP scholars ( e.g., Bamford 2005; Crawford Camiciottoli 2008; Csomay 2002; Fortanet 2004a; Morell 2004; Thompson 1998). Among the studies located during the literature search for the present study, Csomay (2002), Fortanet (2004a), and Morell (2004) only included questions as one of the interactive features in their text analyses, rather than focusing specifically on the detailed examination of the use of questions in lectures. Similarly, Schleef (2008) only included question tags ‘okay?’ and ‘right?’ as part of his analysis of lectures and seminars.

As far as the few studies that focused on question use are concerned, the corpora used in these studies often consist of mixing genres. For examples, Thompson (1998) used a mixed corpus including both academic lectures and presentations. She did not distinguish the use of questions in these two different genres. Crawford Camiciottoli (2008) compared the use of questions in academic lectures and written instructional materials collected from business studies. Her main purpose was to observe how communicative modes influenced the use of questions, and thus again did not focus on a detailed analysis of the use of questions during lectures.

The only study located that focused especially on the use of questions in English academic lectures is Bamford (2005). In this study, Bamford analyzed the functions of question/answer adjacency pairs and serial questions in academic lectures collected from the field of economics. Nevertheless, her major effort was to illustrate how lecturers used their control of both question and answer as an effective attention focalizing mechanism or hedged criticism, rather than how different contextual factors influenced the use of questions in academic lectures.

If we put aside the corpora of mixed genres, we can see that different categorizations of questions were proposed in the aforementioned studies. For example, Thompson (1998), in her study of questions used by speakers in academic talks in general (including lectures and different kinds of presentations), classified questions as having two different broad orientations. One is the audience-oriented question, to which the audience is “at least symbolically” provided with an opportunity to respond it -- verbally or non-verbally (1998: 140). The other is the content-oriented question, to which no audience response occurs or seems to be expected. Audience-oriented questions were further subcategorized by Thompson into three function categories: (1) to check if the audience can perceive and understand the speaker’s utterances; (2) to evoke an audience response; and (3) to seek audience agreement. Content-oriented questions, on the other hand, were subcategorized into two function categories: (1) to raise issues and (2) to introduce information; and both seem to expect no audience response. Later in Fortanet’s (2004a) study on university law lectures, he proposed two question types: (1) rhetorical questions, which expect no audience response; and (2) non-rhetorical questions, for which an answer from the audience is possible.
Using a corpus of lectures in English studies given at a Spanish university, Morell (2004) compared and contrasted the linguistic aspects of interactive lectures. She divided question functions into four types: (1) referential (i.e., the question that seeks for unknown information); (2) display (i.e., the question that attempts to verify students’ knowledge; (3) rhetorical (i.e., the question that expects no response from the audience and is usually answered by the lecturer); and (4) indirect (i.e., the question that attempts to elicit some kind of action from the audience). Moreover, Morell (2004) also discussed another linguistic aspect of classroom interaction which she termed as negotiation of meaning but was called question in previous literature (Long and Sato 1983). The three types of negotiations she identified include: (1) clarification requests— questions used to ask the other participant to repeat their previous utterances (e.g., ‘What did you say?’); (2) confirmation checks— questions used to confirm the other interlocutor’s previous utterances (e.g., ‘On Saturday?’); and (3) comprehension checks— questions used by the speaker to ask if the listener has understood his or her utterances (e.g., ‘Did you understand?’).

Finally, following Thompson (1998), Crawford Camiciottoli (2008) also categorized questions as either audience-oriented or content-oriented. In Crawford Camiciottoli’s (2008) comparative study on the use of questions by lecturers and material writers, the main focus was to examine if the use of questions was affected by the medium of language (i.e., spoken vs. written). Therefore, in this study, she did not take comprehension checks (e.g., ‘alright?’, ‘okay?’) into consideration. She argues that “they are not true questions, but primarily a manifestation of individual speaking habits as lecturers do not really engage with students or wait for their reaction” (Crawford Camiciottoli 2008: 1221). Nevertheless, this kind of comprehension checks were treated as questions in Thompson (1998) and Morell (2004) .

The studies reviewed above show that the classification of questions used in academic lectures can be as broad as that in Fortanet (2004) or more nuanced as that in Thompson (1998). It appears that different researchers tend to classify question functions differently depending on the nature of the lectures that they choose to study and on their different research aims. For example, Fortanet’s (2004) study focused on exploring and reporting the various linguistic devices used to create interaction during a lecture. The question was only one of the five linguistic devices investigated; therefore, only a broad distinction of two types of question -rhetorical and non-rhetorical questions -were identified to give examples of question occurrences. In contrast, Thompson’s (1998) main purpose was to compare similarities and differences in the use of questions in two disciplines. Therefore, a more delicate question classification would seem to be more useful in making a meaningful comparison.

2.2. Studies of gender differences in academic discourse

As reported in the previous section, during the last 40 years linguists have demonstrated various striking differences in male and female communicative behaviors and language uses, as shown in strategies used in compliments (Herbert 1990; Holmes 1988) and in features such as personal pronouns (Hirschman 1994), hedging devices (Dixon and Foster 1996; Holmes 1984; Lakoff 1973, 1975; Meyerhoff 1992), discourse markers (Erman 1992; Heisler 1996; Holmes 1986), tag questions (e.g., Calnan and Davidson 1998; Cameron et al. 1988; Dubois and Crouch 1975; Lakoff 1973, 1975), backchannels (Erman 1992; Tottie 1991), and silence and interruption (Hirschman 1994; Zimmerman and West 1975). Particuarly, Maltz and Borker (2007: 162) list five strikingly different characteristics in male and female communicative patterns, one of which is women’s greater tendency to ask questions in cross-sex conversations. Fishman (1978: 208) interprets this question-asking tendency as women’s efforts to maintain routine social interaction and to facilitate the flow of conversation in general. Maltz and Borker (2007: 174) further conclude that “women seem to see questions as part of conversational maintenance, while men seem to view them primarily as requests for information.”

Although previous studies on language and gender have provided us with rich insights into communication behaviors and the language use of men and women, contradictory findings regarding the use of specific features can often be seen. To use the studies on tag questions as an example, in the influential paper Language and woman’s place, Robin Lakoff (1973: 55) claimed that women tended to use more tag questions than men and that tag questions signify an avoidance of commitment, causing the speaker to “give the impression of not being really sure of himself, of looking to the addressee for confirmation, even of having no views of his own.” However, by analyzing a small set of spoken data collected from a conference, Dubois and Crouch (1975) revealed that in this genuine social context, while women did not use any tag questions at all, men did. Moreover, other researchers such as Calnan and Davison (1998) even found that there were no gender differences at all in the use of this syntactic feature.

Additionally, although several researchers have studied questioning behaviors of men and women, these studies are based only on general conversations, rather than based on data collected from academic settings. Given that previous gender studies on different genres of academic spoken English -- such as Dubois and Crouch’s (1975) study on tag questions in conference presentations, Poos and Simpson’s (2002) on hedging in various academic settings, and Schleef’s (2008) on discourse markers (‘like’ and ‘you know’) and question tags (‘okay’ and ‘right’) in seminars and lectures -- often found results that are different from those based on conversations, we are uncertain whether the same gender preferential pattern of questioning reported above will also occur in academic lectures. However, to my knowledge, few researches (if any) have examined whether male and female professors ask questions differently in their academic lectures. Therefore, this study focuses on the investigation of gender influences on professors’ questioning in their academic lectures, by examining the function and form of the questions asked.

3. Method

3.1. The corpora

Being aware of the potential influence of class size on interaction in lectures (Hansen and Jensen 1994; Lee 2009), two sets of small-class lecture corpora (i.e., male vs. female) were selected from MICASE. In the MICASE Manual (Simpson et al. 2002), a small-class lecture is defined as a lecture given to a class which contains no more than 40 students. Each of the two corpora used in this study consists of six lectures; two from each of the following three academic divisions -- Humanities & Arts (HA), Physical Sciences & Engineering (PS) and Social Sciences & Education (SS). All the lectures were given by professors who were native speakers of American English, and student audiences in these lectures were also composed mostly of native speakers of American English.

Moreover, as pointed out by Bamford (2005), the student’s academic level might also have an impact on a professor’s use of questions. This factor was also considered when selecting the lecture samples for this study. Because of the limited availability of the pertinent data, exact control was impossible. Nevertheless, generally speaking, the participant compositions in the male and female corpora in this study are similar: Three graduate classes and three undergraduate classes were included in the male corpus; two graduate classes, three undergraduate classes, and one mixed class were included in the female. Further, the total numbers of words of the two lecture corpora are also close – male corpus: 66267 words vs. female corpus: 69069 words.
To conclude this section, in order to better control the variables involved in the question use in lectures, each of the two corpora included only six lectures – a corpus size that one might consider too small. However, given the limited data sources available, this small size of corpus seems to be an inevitable outcome. In fact, Lee (2009) also encountered the same difficulty of limited data. In his paper published in the journal English for Specific Purposes which was based on an investigation into the influences of class size to lecture introductions, the number of lectures included in each of the two groups (i.e. small-class vs. large-class) was only five – a number even smaller than the one in this study.

-3.2. The analysis

Questions can be categorized on a formal level according to their structural characteristics or linguistic forms. They can also be defined on a functional level -- based on the speakers’ intentions when uttering a question (Athanasiadou 1991). In this study, a question is identified based not only on its syntactic form but also on its meaning and intonation. In order to determine both the form and function of the question asked by the professor, the transcripts were searched manually with the reference of their corresponding sound files. It should be mentioned that the following items were excluded in the analysis of this study:

1. Lecturers’ single-item responses to students’ intervention (e.g., ‘yes?’, ‘yeah?’, ‘Dennis?’).
2. Embedded questions in lecturers’ narrative passages (e.g. ‘and they talk about that right at the end where he says to her, why did you ever, start this in the first place?’).
3. Rhetorical questions which carry only the force of strong assertion without any other accompanying function, such as ‘who cares?’ and ‘who knows?’. (For more detailed discussion about this exclusion, please see section 2.2.2 in Author, under review)
These items were excluded because they do not function pragmatically as questions.

3.3. The taxonomy of question forms

The analysis of the question forms in this study was mainly based on Quirk et al. (1985) (with minor modifications) and the inclusion of one question form (i.e., Declarative/imperative + word tag) adapted from Thompson (1998) as well as another question form (i.e., Incomplete question) from Author (2007). After modification, question forms were classified into six categories (based on the lexical and syntactic features of the questions): Wh-questions, Yes/no questions, Tag questions, Declarative/imperative+ word tag questions, Alternative questions and Incomplete questions.

In Quirk et al.’s (1985) original classification, Tag questions were categorized under Yes/no questions. In this study, Tag questions were separated from Yes/no questions because the pilot study showed that unlike Yes/no questions that can be used to realize several different functions, Tag questions were used only for one specific purpose (i.e., to solicit the student’s agreement). If Tag questions were not isolated from Yes/no questions, the mapping of form and function would be blurred.

In addition, Thompson (1998: 140) used Declarative + word tag to represent a form of question which is used to check something with the audience by using a word tag, such as ‘OK’, ‘right’, ‘all right’ (e.g., ‘and this is the carbon carbon bond OK’). After a preliminary analysis of the data, this term was changed into a more precise one as Declarative/Imperative + word tag, because the form Imperative + word tag also exists (e.g., ‘notice that it is a fountain. okay?’). One thing that should be noted here is that Tag questions in this study refer to the canonical type of questions with reversed or constant polarity (e.g., ‘students are tough aren’t they’; ‘so this is the letter he sent you is it?’), while Declarative/imperative + word tag is formed by a statement or an imperative followed by a tag word such as ‘ok’, ‘alright’, ‘right’.

Finally, the question form adopted from Author (2007) is Incomplete question. In Author (2007), an Incomplete question refers to an incomplete utterance that ends with a pause, which invites the audience to complete the utterance. Table 1 provides examples for each of the question forms identified in this study.
Table 1. The taxonomy of question forms
Questions Forms Examples
1. Wh-question in this way there's a very close analogy to what? (HAF2)
2. Yes/no question you wanna stop it here? (SSF2)
3. Tag question it's very moving isn't it? (HAM2)
4. Declarative/Imperative+word tag well it depends on a lot of things right? (HAM1)
5. Alternative question is it cold or warm? (HAF1)
6. Incomplete question oh really you were? (HAF2)

3.4. The taxonomy of question functions

Following Thompson (1998), Crawford Camiciottoli (2008) also classified question functions in terms of audience-oriented and content-oriented. As reviewed previously, in Crawford Camiciottoli’s (2008) categorization, three kinds of question functions are identified to be audience-oriented: (1) eliciting response; (2) requesting confirmation/clarification; and (3) soliciting agreement. On the other hand, the functional subcategories under content-oriented question are (1) focusing information and (2) stimulating thought. In this study, Crawford Camiciottoli’s (2008) taxonomy of question functions was adopted, but two additional subcategories (classroom management/engagement and checking comprehension) were added under the category of audience-oriented questions.

3.4.1. Audience-oriented questions

1. Eliciting response
For this subcategory, Crawford Camiciottoli (2008) did not provide a clear definition. In order to make a contrast between this subcategory and the next one — class management/ engagement, an eliciting response question is defined here as a question that invites the audience to supply information related to the course content, for example:
(1) what are some examples of the specifics, when dealing with photographs? (SSM1)
(2) what kind of a cemetery might it have been? (HAF2)
2. Class management/ engagement
In contrast with the eliciting response question, when asking a class management/engagement question, the professor does not expect the audience to answer the question based on course content; rather, it is used to manage the class in order to enhance teaching flow (example 3) or as a mean of building rapport or increasing interaction with the audience (example 4).
(3) have you guys found it? it’s page nine-point-two-three. (PSF1)
(4) do people wanna take a five minute bathroom break? (SSF2)
3. Soliciting agreement
This is the type of question used by professors when they appeal for agreement with their propositions from the audience (Thompson 1998: 141). Examples 5 and 6 show that after the professor assumes a certain proposition to be true, the students are invited to confirm that this is so.
(5) i just find that so, disconcerting don’t you? (HAF1)
(6) that would be the other extreme right? (SSM1)
4. Checking comprehension
The checking comprehension question, typically formed by a word tag (‘okay?’, ‘alright?’) or by utterance like ‘Do you understand?’ , is the type of question used to ensure that the student is able to understand the professor’s message (Thompson 1998).
(7) everybody get that idea? (PSF1)
(8) in other words it actually occurs on both sides of the linguistic border. alright? (HAM 2)
5. Requesting confirmation/clarification
A rather small sub-category of audience-oriented questions is requesting clarification /confirmation (examples 9 and 10 respectively). They are originally proposed in Long and Sato’s (1983) study under the headings of confirmation checks and clarification requests. Confirmation checks are “questions which are used to check if the teacher has correctly or incorrectly understood/heard the student’s previous utterance (cited in Wu 2008: 15).” Clarification requests, on the other hand, refer to questions used to “elicit clarification of the interlocutor’s preceding utterance. Unlike confirmation checks, clarification requests imply no presupposition on the speaker’s part that he or she has heard and understood the interlocutor’s previous utterance” (Long and Sato 1983: 276, cited in Wu 2008: 15).
(9) student: uh... two-thirty-eight
lecturer: pardon me?
student: two-thirty-eight (PSF2)
(10) did- did you say “distance”? (SSM1)

3.4.2. Content-oriented questions

Contrary to audience-oriented questions, to which the audience is at least symbolically given an opportunity to provide an actual verbal or non-verbal response, content-oriented questions require no immediate response from the audience (Thompson 1998: 143). Following Crawford Camiciottoli (2008), two functions of content-oriented questions are distinguished: focusing information and stimulating thoughts.
1. Focusing information
Focusing information questions are questions that are posed but immediately answered by the professor, as illustrated in example 11:
(11) what’s gonna happen here? it’s gonna start killing the signal. (PSM2)
Bamford (2005) indicates that one of the ways in which the teacher enhances the interactive nature of the lecture is by asking questions that are immediately answered by himself/herself. These question-answer pairs may be seen as a less truly interactive choice in that it is the teacher not the student who answers the question. Nevertheless, this kind of question shows the speaker’s concern for the audience. The teacher asks the question he/she assumes would be asked by the student audience and thus uses the question to focus the student’s attention.
2. Stimulating thought
Stimulating thought questions appear to be “big” questions or issues to which there are no easy answers. The instructor does not immediately provide an explicit answer to his or her own question, though a commentary on or evaluation of the question may be provided to encourage student’s reflection (example 12).
(12) are there linguistic change that can be attributed to the , to language contact? This is a fairly controversial uh area within the area of Romance linguistics… (HAM2)

4. Results

4.1. The frequency of questions

As shown in Table 2, overall, female professors asked questions slightly more often than male professors (12.14 questions per 1000 words for female professors vs. 10.50 questions per 1000 words for male professors). At first glance, this result seems to confirm the findings reported in Fishman (1978) and Maltz and Borker (2007) that women ask more questions than men.
Table 2. Question frequency in male corpus vs. female corpus
Male Female
File # of Words N density File # of Words N density
1 (PSM1) 12,013 53 4.41 1 (PSF1) 12,295 202 16.43
2 (PSM2) 11,757 222 18.88 2 (PSF2) 11,865 86 7.25
3 (SSM1) 5,662 152 26.85 3 (SSF1) 13,831 44 3.18
4 (SSM2) 11,204 102 9.10 4 (SSF2) 7,869 14 1.78
5 (HAM1) 13,514 98 7.25 5 (HAF1) 14,910 355 23.81
6 (HAM2) 12,117 69 5.69 6 (HAF2) 8,299 138 16.63
Average 696 10.50 Average 839 12.14
N – total number of questions; density – number of question occurrences per 1000 words
However, if we take a closer look at the numbers tabulated in the same table, noticeable variations between the two groups in each of the three divisions can be observed: in SS, the two female professors asked far fewer questions than the two males (2.67 questions per 1000 words for females vs. 15.06 questions per 1000 words for males), and both females asked far fewer questions than either of the males. In contrast, in HA, the two female professors asked far more questions than the two males (21.24 questions per 1000 words for females vs. 6.52 questions per 1000 words for males); both females asked far more questions than either of the males. As far as those in PS are concerned, no gender pattern of question frequency could be detected. Given the different gender patterns in the three divisions, it seems to be difficult to conclude at this point whether female professors really ask questions more frequently than their male colleagues in academic lectures.

4.2. Question forms

Overall, Yes/no questions, Wh-questions and Declarative/imperative + word tag questions were found to be the three predominant question forms; they constitute more than 95% of all the question forms detected in this study. However, these three forms were used in different frequency orders by the two gender groups (Table 3). The Wh-question was the most common question form in the male corpus (42.39%), but it ranked third in the female corpus (27.75%). In contrast, in the female corpus, Yes/no questions ranked first among all the question forms (41.48%), but they were the third most used one in the male corpus (26.58%). On the other hand, Declarative/Imperative+ word tag questions constituted similar percentages and ranked second in both the corpora (Male: 26.58% vs. Female: 28.84%). Based on these results, we might suggest that while male professors seem to prefer Wh-questions, female professors seem to prefer Yes/no questions.

Table 3. The use of question forms in male corpus vs. female corpus
Male       Female      
Form # % density Form # % density
Wh-question 295 42.4 4.45 Yes/no question 348 41.6 5.04
Declarative/imperative+ 185 26.6 2.79 Declarative/imperative+ 242 28.8 3.5
word tag word tag
Yes/no question 185 26.6 2.79 Wh-question 226 26.9 3.27
Tag question 21 3.0 0.32 Tag question 10 1.2 0.14
Alternative question 7 1.0 0.11 Alternative question 7 0.8 0.1
Incomplete question 3 0.4 0.05 Incomplete question 6 0.7 0.09
# – number of occurrences; % – percentages; density – number of occurrences per 1000 words

However, if we examine the results shown in Tables 4 to 6, we see different gender preferential patterns across the three divisions. The use of question forms by male and female professors in both SS and PS did confirm the above pattern that males used the Wh-question more often than the Yes/no question (especially those in PS used this question form at a rather high percentage), whereas females used the Yes/no question more often than the Wh-question. However, in HA, the male professors did not appear to prefer Wh-questions over Yes/no questions. Both gender groups in this division used Yes/no questions the most often, Wh/questions the second, and Declarative/Imperative + word tag questions the third.
Table 4. The use of question forms in HA
Male       Female      
Form # % density Form # % density
Yes/no question 70 41.9 2.73 Yes/no question 229 46.5 9.87
Wh-question 50 29.9 1.95 Wh-question 145 29.4 6.25
Declarative/imperative+ 36 21.6 1.4 Declarative/imperative+ 107 21.7 4.61
word tag word tag
Tag question 7 4.2 0.27 Tag question 4 0.8 0.17
Alternative question 3 1.8 0.12 Alternative question 4 0.8 0.17
Incomplete question 1 0.6 0.04 Incomplete question 4 0.8 0.17
# – number of occurrences; % – percentages; density – number of occurrences per 1000 words

Table 5. The use of question forms in SS
Male       Female      
Form # % density Form # % density
Declarative/imperative+ 103 40.6 6.11 Yes/no question 23 39.7 1.06
word tag Declarative/imperative+ 19 32.8 0.88
Wh-question 78 30.7 4.62 word tag
Yes/no question 59 23.2 3.5 Wh-question 14 24.1 0.65
Tag question 12 4.7 0.71 Tag question 2 3.4 0.09
Alternative question 2 0.8 0.12 Alternative question 0 0.0 0
Incomplete question 0 0.0 0 Incomplete question 0 0.0 0
# – number of occurrences; % – percentages; density – number of occurrences per 1000 words

Table 6. The use of question forms in PS
Male       Female      
Form # % density Form # % density
Wh-question 167 60.7 7.03 Declarative/imperative+ 116 40.3 4.8
Yes/no question 56 20.4 2.36 word tag
Declarative/imperative+ 46 16.7 1.94 Yes/no question 96 33.3 3.97
word tag Wh-question 67 23.3 2.77
Tag question 2 0.7 0.08 Tag question 4 1.4 0.17
Alternative question 2 0.7 0.08 Alternative question 3 1.0 0.12
Incomplete question 0 0.7 0.08 Incomplete question 2 0.7 0.08
# – number of occurrences; % – percentages; density – number of occurrences per 1000 words

As far as other question forms are concerned, if we only compare the two broad gender groups, in contrast to the finding in Dubois and Crouch’s (1975) study of conference presentations (i.e., men asked more Tag questions), overall, no gender differences in the use of Tag questions or question tags (i.e., word tags) were observed in this study. However, a cross-disciplinary comparison again blurs the whole picture. If we combine the use of Tag questions and Declarative/Imperative + word tag questions, we can see that in SS it was males who used Tag questions and tag words more often; in PS it was females; and in HA no difference can be seen between the two groups. That is, the three different results reported in previous studies -- females use more tag questions (Lakoff 1973), males use them more often (Dubois and Crouch 1975), and no gender difference (Calnan and Davison 1998) – all appeared in this study. Given the results of question frequency and the use of question forms found in this study, it appears that the relation between gender and language is not as straightforward as assumed in many previous studies of language and gender.

4.3. Question functions

Comparing male and female professors’ use of questions, it can be seen quite instantly from Table 7 that while both male and female professors posed far more audience-oriented questions than content-oriented ones, male professors seemed to ask more content-oriented questions than female professors (22.8% vs. 6.0%). Accordingly, male professors asked audience-oriented questions less often than female professors (77.16% vs. 93.92%).
Table 7. The use of question functions in male corpus vs. female corpus
Male       Female    
Function # % density Function # % density
Audience-oriented 537 77.2 8.1 Audience-oriented 788 94.0 11.41
eliciting response 215 30.9 3.24 eliciting response 261 31.1 3.78
checking comprehension 167 24.0 2.52 checking comprehension 224 26.7 3.24
class management/ 85 12.2 1.28 class management/ 191 22.8 2.77
engagement engagement
soliciting agreement 54 7.8 0.81 soliciting agreement 66 7.9 0.96
requesting clarification/ 16 2.3 0.24 requesting clarification/ 46 5.5 0.67
confirmation confirmation
Content-oriented 159 22.8 2.4 Content-oriented 51 6.0 0.74
focusing information 95 13.7 1.43 focusing information 33 3.9 0.48
stimulating thought 64 9.1 0.97 stimulating thought 18 2.1 0.26
# – number of occurrences; % – percentages; density – number of occurrences per 1000 words

In terms of each of the subcategories under the two main function groups, it can be seen that both corpora share the same frequency order of question functions under both categories of audience-oriented and content-oriented questions. Because of this similarity, we can see that both male and female professors asked questions to elicit students’ responses the most often, to check students’ comprehension the second most often, and to manage their classes or engage with their students the third most often.

However, although class management/engagement questions ranked third in both corpora, this question function displays an obvious gender difference. While class management/engagement questions make up 22.8% of all the questions in the female corpus, they only make up 12.2% of those in the male corpus. In other words, the female professors in this study used nearly twice the number of class management/engagement questions as the male professors.
The fourth and fifth audience-oriented questions found in both corpora are soliciting agreement and requesting clarification/confirmation respectively; they constitute only a very small part of all the questions the professors asked. With regard to the subcategories of content-oriented questions, compared with female professors, male professors especially tend to use questions more often as an attention focalizing device to highlight the upcoming information.

Let us now examine whether male and female professors in the same division asked questions for different purposes during their lectures. From Tables 8 to 10, it can be detected that female professors in all the three divisions did ask questions for class management and engagement purposes more often than male professors. This seems to be a confirmed gender pattern common to all the divisions investigated.
However, another major difference between female and male professors reported earlier -- i.e., male professors tended to ask content-oriented questions more often (especially to focus students’ attention) -- appears to be a more complicated case. Male professors in both HA and PS did pose more content-oriented questions than their female counterparts. While both groups (especially those in PS) asked this type of questions to focus their students’ attention for the upcoming information more often than their female colleagues, those in HA asked this type of question to stimulate their students’ thoughts even more often than to focus their students’ attention. This difference between the male professors in PS and HA seems to reflect the different natures of their disciplinary knowledge structures. In PS, most of the technical procedures and theories are relatively well established; this gave the professors more control to guide their student through the technical procedures or concepts with questions in order to focus their students’ attention and to highlight the technical procedure or topic to be presented. In contrast, most of the knowledge in HA allows more freedom of thoughts. Consequently, this triggered the HA professors to ask more questions to stimulate their students’ thoughts.

Table 8. The use of question functions in HA
Male       Female    
Function # % density Function # % density
Audience-oriented 114 68.3 4.45 Audience-oriented 483 98.0 20.81
checking comprehension 39 23.4 1.52 eliciting response 176 35.7 7.58
eliciting response 31 18.6 1.21 class management/ 133 27.0 5.73
class management/ 31 18.6 1.21 engagement
engagement checking comprehension 115 23.3 4.95
soliciting agreement 10 6.0 0.39 requesting clarification/ 35 7.1 1.51
requesting clarification/ 3 1.8 0.12 confirmation
confirmation soliciting agreement 24 4.9 1.03
Content-oriented 53 31.7 2.07 Content-oriented 10 2.0 0.43
stimulating thought 35 21.0 1.37 focusing information 8 1.6 0.34
focusing information 18 10.8 0.7 stimulating thought 2 0.4 0.09
# – number of occurrences; % – percentages; density – number of occurrences per 1000 words

Table 9. The use of question functions in SS
Male       Female    
Function # % density Function # % density
Audience-oriented 230 90.6 13.64 Audience-oriented 48 82.8 2.21
checking comprehension 79 31.1 4.68 class management/ 21 36.2 0.97
eliciting response 72 28.3 4.27 engagement
class management/ 36 14.2 2.13 checking comprehension 12 20.7 0.55
engagement soliciting agreement 10 17.2 0.46
soliciting agreement 34 6.0 2.02 eliciting response 5 8.6 0.23
requesting clarification/ 9 1.8 0.53 requesting clarification/ 0 0.0 0
confirmation confirmation
Content-oriented 24 31.7 1.42 Content-oriented 10 17.2 0.46
focusing information 12 21.0 0.71 focusing information 6 10.3 0.28
stimulating thought 12 10.8 0.71 stimulating thought 4 6.9 0.18
# – number of occurrences; % – percentages; density – number of occurrences per 1000 words

Table 10. The use of question functions in PS
Male       Female    
Function # % density Function # % density
Audience-oriented 193 70.2 8.12 Audience-oriented 257 89.2 10.64
eliciting response 112 40.7 4.71 checking comprehension 97 33.7 4.01
checking comprehension 49 17.8 2.06 eliciting response 80 27.8 3.31
class management/ 18 6.5 0.76 class management/ 37 12.8 1.53
engagement engagement
soliciting agreement 10 3.6 0.42 soliciting agreement 32 11.1 1.32
requesting clarification/ 4 1.5 0.17 requesting clarification/ 11 3.8 0.46
confirmation confirmation
Content-oriented 82 29.8 3.45 Content-oriented 31 10.8 1.28
focusing information 65 23.6 2.73 focusing information 19 6.6 0.79
stimulating thought 17 6.2 0.72 stimulating thought 12 4.2 0.5
# – number of occurrences; % – percentages; density – number of occurrences per 1000 words

As far as the professors in SS are concerned, the case in hand is trickier. If we make comparisons in terms of percentages, it is the female professors in this division who used more content-oriented questions. But if we do this in terms of the occurrences per 1000 words, it is male professors who used this type of questions more frequently. However, regardless of the comparison method adopted, the gender difference in the use of this type of question was small in SS. Therefore, we could still conclude that roughly speaking, male professors tended to ask content-oriented questions more often female professors.

We are not clear why when comparing question forms and functions used in HA and PS, no matter which method was adopted (percentage or occurrence per 1000 words), gender patterns remain the same, while for certain functions, the gender patterns change in SS. Possible explanations might lie in the rather small number of questions asked in the SS female group and the small number of professors included in each of the gender groups in the three divisions.

If we compare each of the sub-categories under the two major function categories. As also shown in Tables 8 to 10, regardless of their specific rank orders, eliciting response, checking comprehension, and class management/engagement were found to be the three most common question functions used in all the other groups. However, the three most common functions found in the female group in SS were different: class management/engagement, checking comprehension, and soliciting agreement. It should be also pointed out that, in the male group in PS, apart from the three most common functions listed above, we can see that focusing information questions (used the second most frequently in this group) also appeared in the top three list.
If we put aside the female group in SS (because of the rather small number of questions), we can conclude that roughly speaking, the three most common functions found in this study were eliciting response, checking comprehension, and class management/engagement. Moreover, to synthesize the cross-disciplinary results discussed in this and the previous two sections, we could speculate that at least in the case of questioning in academic lectures, influences of disciplinary culture and gender seem to intertwine in a sophisticated way.

4.4. Top five question patterns

Generally speaking, except for the functions of soliciting agreement and request for clarification/confirmation, the most common question forms used to realize each of the other functions were similar in the two gender groups in this study (please see Table A in the appendix). Nevertheless, the major gender differences in the use of question reported previously can still be found if we approach this issue from a different perspective -- by arranging all the question patterns (i.e., association patterns between form and function) used by all the male and female professors based on their occurrence frequencies in each of the two groups. Of the five most common question patterns, four occur in both groups, although in different frequency orders. The only ones that are different (Yes/no question for class management/engagement for females, Wh-question for focusing information for males) seem to reconfirm the gender differences reported above that male professors tend to pose questions to focus their students’ attention for the upcoming information more often than female professors; on the other hand, female professors tend to use questions to manage their classes or engage with their students more often than male professors.
Table 11. Top five question patterns across gender
Male       Female    
question pattern # % density question pattern # % density
1. Wh-question for 161 23.1 2.43 1. Declarative/Imperative+ 174 20.7 2.52
eliciting response word tag for
2. Declarative/Imperative+ 140 20.1 2.11 checking comprehension
word tag for 2. Yes/no question for class 139 16.6 2.01
checking comprehension management/engagement
3. Wh-question for 82 11.8 1.24 3. Wh-question for 135 16.1 1.95
focusing information eliciting response
4. Yes/no question for class 55 7.9 0.83 4. Yes/no question for 117 13.9 1.69
management/engagement eliciting response
5. Yes/no question for
eliciting response 45 6.5 0.68 5. Yes/no question for
checking comprehension 50 6.0 0.72
# – number of occurrences; % – percentages; density – number of occurrences per 1000 words

5. Discussions

5. 1. Gender and genre: overall patterns of questioning in lectures

In this study, both similarities and differences in the use of questions by male and female professors are found. We will discuss the differences in the following section. Let’s synthesize the similarities first. The results show that the two gender groups share the following common features:
1. The three most common question forms used in both gender groups across the three divisions include the same set -- Yes/no question, Wh-question, and Declaritive/Imperative + word tag.
2. Professors in both gender groups across the three divisions ask far more audience-oriented questions than content-oriented ones.
3. Roughly speaking, the three most common question functions found in the two gender groups are the same – eliciting response, checking comprehension, and class management/engagement.
4. Except for two functions (i.e., soliciting agreement and requesting clarification/confirmation), the question forms used to realize individual question functions are largely similar and in similar orders in the two gender groups across the three divisions (see Table A in the appendix).
5. Of the top five question patterns used by both of the gender groups, four appear in both groups.
In academic settings, these similarities between the two gender groups could be attributed to the influences of lectures as an established genre in higher education. Many EAP scholars have repeatedly indicated that genres provide both frames and constraints for communicative events in a given discourse community (Swales 1990, 2004). As Bazerman (1997, p. 19) states, “[g]enres are forms of life, ways of being. They are frames for social action.” In this perspective, academic lectures as an established genre in tertiary education have their communicative purposes recognized by the expert members in the academic discourse community. These purposes constitute the rationale for the genre; this rationale in turns “influences and constrains the choice of content and style” (Swales 1990, p. 58).

As pointed out in previous studies, the major functions of academic lectures include (1) knowledge transmission; (2) guiding and encouraging students through interaction (Cammiciottoli, 2004, 2008; Morell, 2007); and (3) enculturating students into their disciplinary communities. Given the top objectives of knowledge transmission and student guiding through interaction, it is thus not surprising to see that in both gender groups, audience-oriented questions are used far more often than content-oriented ones, and that roughly speaking, these questions are used the most frequently to elicit students’ responses to content-related questions, to check students’ understanding of lecture content, and to manage the teaching flow as well as to engage with the student.

5. 2. Dominance and affiliation: overall gender patterns in questioning

Now let us switch to the differences between the two gender groups. The results of this section can be synthesized into the following:
1. Female professors tend to ask questions to manage their teaching flow or to engage with their students more often than male professors.
2. Male professors tend to use questions as an attention focalizing device and a topic highlighter (to guide their students to the upcoming information) more often than female professors.
3. Of the top five question patterns used by each of the two gender groups, four appear in both groups, while the remaining one is different: It is Yes/no question for class management/engagement in the female group, Wh-question for focusing information in the male group.

The finding that female professors tend to ask questions in order to manage their teaching flow or to engage with their students more often than male professors seems to correspond to the observations made in the conversation analysis literature that question-asking reflects women’s efforts to maintain routine social interaction and to facilitate the flow of conversation (Fishman, 1978; Hirschman, 1994). In contrast, the greater tendency for male professors to ask questions to guide students’ attention to the new information seems to reflect their greater efforts to control the topic of the lecture. As Thompson (1998) argues, questions which function to highlight the new information are more controlling than the other types of question because the speaker both asks and answers the question himself /herself. This finding thus appears to reflect the more controlling image of men depicted by Zimmerman and West (1975): They found that men use more mechanisms than women to control the topic of conversation, including both the topic development and the introduction of new topics.

In short, we could speculate that although the genre investigated in this study represents a social activity in a rather specific and professional setting (i.e., university classrooms) that has its own rules of generic practices, given that the lectures analyzed in this study were given through spoken channel, traces of gender traits characteristic to daily oral communication could still be observed – at least partly. That is, the differences in the questions asked by male and female professors found in this study seem to reflect, to a certain extent, the interaction styles of females and males in oral communication in general depicted by Tannen (1994): The speech style for females is characterized by connection and affiliation whereas that of males is characterized by dominance, display and competition.

5. 3. Gender and discipline: distinct gender patterns in different divisions

Although some of the gender differences could be interpreted as gender traits characteristic to our daily communication, some others could not. These are cases where different gender patterns were observed in different divisions. To use the result of question frequency as an example, in PS, no gender pattern of question frequency could be detected; in SS, the two female professors used far fewer questions than the two males; in contrast, in HA, the two female professors used far more questions than the two males;. However, because of the small number of lectures analyzed in each of the gender groups across the three divisions, it is difficult to reach any conclusion regarding how disciplinary culture influences the gender patterns in each of the division. Nevertheless, as stated previously, this part of the across-disciplinary results seems to tell us that there might be a complex interplay between the influences of genre, disciplinary culture and gender on the use of questions in academic lectures.

6. Concluding remarks

Few studies on EAP spoken discourse have examined gender influences on the use of various discoursal features. Of the three studies located, Dubois and Crouch (1975) reported gender differences in the use of tag questions in conference presentations. In contrast, two papers published more recently reported no gender differences in the use of features such as hedging (Poos and Simpson 2002) and question tags as well as discourse markers ‘okay’, ‘right’, ‘like’, and ‘you know’ (Shleef 2008). Both studies further concluded that gender did not seem to be a factor influencing the use of these structures, but academic discipline is (Schleef 2008: 515), as Schleef puts it:

The quantitative analysis shows the factors of communicative role, academic discipline, and speech mode – not gender – to be the most influential in the use of the structures investigated. It is argued that the lack of significant results for gender arise from global discourse restrictions in academic speech.
The “global discourse restrictions” might be related to constraints on generic practices (e.g., behaviors considered appropriate in different genres such as lectures, seminars, presentations, group discussions, or meetings) (Tse and Hyland 2008).

In spite of the findings reported by Poos and Simpson (2002) and by Shleef (2008), both similarities and differences between the two genders are detected in this study. The findings of this study suggest that the relationship between gender and language is not a straightforward one. Gender, disciplinary culture, and the lecture as an established academic genre seem to interplay, in a complex way, to influence the use of questions in academic lectures. Although we should be careful to treat the results reported in the present study as merely preliminary findings because of its small sample size, these findings could still be used as important hypotheses for future studies. Further studies with a larger sample size are needed to draw a more complete picture for the issues raised in this study.

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