Using Effective Questions

Questions can do more than measure what students know. Appropriately challenging, engaging, and effective questions stimulate peer discussion and encourage students to explore and refine their understanding of key concepts.

Why ask questions?

  • Questions can diagnose student understanding of material.
  • Questions are a way of engaging with students to keep their attention and to reinforce their participation.
  • Questions can review, restate, emphasize, and/or summarize what is important.
  • Questions stimulate discussion and creative and critical thinking, as well as determine how students are thinking.
  • Questions help students retain material by putting into words otherwise unarticulated thoughts.

Considerations for developing & using effective questions

What are effective questions?

  • Effective questions are meaningful and understandable to students.
  • Effective questions challenge students, but are not too difficult.
  • Closed-ended questions, such as those requiring a yes/no response, or multiple choice can quickly check comprehension.
  • Open-ended questions probe and elicit expanded thinking and processing of information. By discussing the questions in groups, students have the opportunity to learn from a variety of perspectives.

 Some examples of ineffective questions:

  • Too vague. Students are unsure of what is being asked and may refrain from attempting to answer.
  • Too loaded. Students may guess at what you want them to say rather than tell you what they think.
  • "Does everyone understand?" or "Any other questions?" Most students will not reply and even if they do, their answer is only a report of their own assessment of their comprehension. 

Getting started with designing effective questions

  • Determine your learning objectives and align the questions with the objectives
  • Consider which level of learning you are targeting (i.e. remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate). Refer to Bloom’s taxonomy of learning levels
  • Develop different question strategies. Examples include:
    • Ask students to explain the cause of an event or why a given situation or condition has arisen (these usually begin with "Why" (open-ended questions)
    • Ask students to explain their reasoning for a multiple choice answer and explain why the other answers are incorrect
    • Ask students to compare and contrast situations, cases, ideas, people, or objects
    • Ask students to explain how to do something
    • Ask students to use their reasoning to predict something
  • Put the question through the following filters:
    • Does this question draw out and work with pre-existing understandings that students bring with them?
    • Does this question raise the visibility of the key concepts the students are learning?
    • Will this question stimulate peer discussion?
    • Is it clear what the question is about?

Incorporating effective questions into your course

Although the most common way to ask a question is to pose it to the entire class, this may result in nobody volunteering to answer the question or only a few students attempting to answer it. Questions can be incorporated in a course in a variety of other ways:

  • Think-pair-share/Write-pair-share
  • Small group discussions
  • Online synchronous discussions
  • Minute papers or short, low-risk writing activities
  • Classroom polling systems with which students can answer questions using clickers or mobile devices. Answers are tallied instantly, and results can be displayed as they come in
  • Allow students to create their own questions, such as:
    • Ask them to write questions they have about a topic or reading. Consider asking students to post them to an online forum before class
    • Quiz their neighbor on the lecture content or readings
    • Write down one or two remaining questions a few minutes before class ends and turn them in
    • Design questions to guide a small group discussion
    • Suggest and submit exam questions

Encourage students to answer questions by creating positive classroom norms and expectations:

  • Provide enough time for students to respond to questions. Let students handle awkward silences
  • Encourage student responses even if they are wrong. If a student is wrong, inaccurate, or unclear, respond with probing questions such as, "That's interesting. What makes you say that?" or "Could you rephrase that?"
  • Ask for students to respond to each other
  • State the relevance of a student’s response to the topic or use a student’s answer to your question as a link to some part of the topic framework in order to increase interaction and participation
  • See additional suggestions on creating a positive classroom climate.