The Key to Engaging Students in Learning: Asking Good Questions

Good questioning skills may be the world’s most unsung talent. Ask the right questions in the right way, and you’ll engage people; do it differently, and you’ll put them off.

Anyone who’s ever worked with youth knows how hard it can be to elicit information or opinions from them when they’ve got a case of the “idunnos.” Certainly, for an inquiry-based learning program there’s no more important talent, and by understanding the art of the question, you’ll not only get youth more actively involved, you’ll help them learn this important skill themselves.

Types of Questions

There are three main types of questions:

  • Factual questions have only one correct answer, like “What did you have for breakfast this morning?” The answer is not always simple, however; it depends on how broad the question is. “Why does a curve ball curve?” is a factual question that can have a very complicated answer. Factual questions usually make the best inquiry-based projects, as long as they are answerable and have room for exploration.
  • Interpretive questions have more than one answer, but they still must be supported with evidence. For example, depending on their interpretations, people can have different, equally valid answers to “Why did Ahab chase Moby Dick?” The answers are not wrong unless they have no relationship to the text at all, such as “Because aliens from outer space controlled him!” When exploring any type of text (video, fiction, nonfiction, a painting, poetry, etc.), it is important to ask interpretive questions that build on one another because youth will have to refer back to the text. Interpretive questions are effective for starting discussions, for stimulating oral and written language exercises and, sometimes, for leading to good inquiry-based learning projects.
  • Evaluative questions ask for some kind of opinion, belief or point of view, so they have no wrong answers. Nonetheless, the answers do depend on prior knowledge and experience, so they are good ways to lead discussions (e.g., “What would be a good place to take the kids on a field trip?”) and explore books or other artistic works (e.g., “Do you agree with Ahab’s views on whales?”). They rarely make for good inquiry-based projects because they are internally focused, but they can be a great way to connect with and elicit interaction from young or shy students (e.g., “What is your favorite cartoon character?”)

The Structure of Questions

In general, start questions with “how,” “what,” “where,” “why” or “when.” Think that’s obvious? Well, how many times have you begun a question with “Tell me…” or “Describe for me…”? When you frame questions in that manner, you take control of the learning process because you’re giving commands as well as asking for input. When you ask a question, however, there’s nothing more important than generating a true and honest curiosity about the answer. That’s why open-ended questions are best for most learning situations, unless you have a particular reason for leading someone to a specific conclusion or actually need a fact supplied to you.

Try to avoid yes/no questions because they’re usually a dead end. In contrast, open-ended questions:

  • invite opinions, thoughts and feelings;
  • encourage participation;
  • establish rapport;
  • stimulate discussion; and
  • maintain balance between facilitator and participant.

Leading a Discussion

Good learning programs involve everyone in planning and activities, whether it’s a discussion among your team about goals or a brainstorming session among youth planning a video project. Here are some good ground rules for leading a discussion:

  • Make sure everyone is prepared. This could mean that everyone has received the hand-outs or that you’ve read aloud the story you want to talk about.
  • Know your purpose. Is the goal to arrive at a decision or merely to brainstorm possible ideas that you’ll follow up on later?
  • Opinions should always be supported with evidence. If you’re discussing a book, for example, ask follow-up questions about why the student believes what she does.
  • Leaders only ask questions; they do not answer them.
  • Care about each question you ask. Avoid generic questions and prepare some good questions in advance.
  • Maintain a high energy level and enthusiasm. It’s contagious!
  • Spontaneous interpretive questions are an important part of all discussions. Preparing questions in advance will actually lead to better spontaneous questions as well.
  • All good questions always lead to more questions. Be aware of practical and logistical issues, such as time limits, but never squelch enthusiasm when kids are on a roll.
  • Whenever possible and appropriate, use techniques like mapping to provide a conceptual, visual structure to the ideas you’re hearing. Let people see you writing their thoughts and ideas on the map – it’s a great form of positive reinforcement and encourages creativity.