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Using Questions in Instruction

Asking questions is one of the most powerful teaching tools for both face-to-face and online learning. As an intentional learning strategy, questioning techniques can be used to assess needs, check understanding, promote deeper analysis and synthesis, promote discussion and dialogue, facilitate learner engagement, or change the pace, tempo, or focus of a discussion.


Asking questions is one of the most powerful teaching tools for both face-to-face and online learning. As an intentional learning strategy, questioning techniques can be used to assess needs, check understanding, promote deeper analysis and synthesis, promote discussion and dialogue, facilitate learner engagement, or change the pace, tempo, or focus of a discussion. Using questioning strategies helps faculty members expand their range of skills as learning facilitators because most questions invite learners to share knowledge and pose creative solutions rather than rely solely on the instructor's expertise.

In the following section, we describe different types of questions and different ways to frame questions. We also examine a useful model for applying different questioning strategies -- Situational Questioning. We conclude with some useful tips for using questioning strategies effectively.

Types of Questions

The following table prepared by Paula Beltgens summarizes various types of questions. As illustrated in this table, an instructor can use different types of questions to achieve different instructional goals. Matching question type to a specific instructional goal or outcome ensures that a question is used appropriately. Using different types of questions helps to promote learner interactivity and engagement and prevents this approach from becoming too routine and predictable.

Table 1: Types of Questions

Closed QuestionsOpen Questions
Closed questions can be answered with a yes/no response or with a single word or brief phrase:
  • "Did you like the presentation?."
  • "Do you want to work in small groups?"
Open questions invite a longer answer:
  • "What did you like about the presentation?"
  • "How would you like to work on this?"
Low Level QuestionsHigh Level Questions
Low level questions require memorization, paraphrasing or summarizing:
  • "Who were the main characters in the film
  • "Mrs. Doubtfire?"
High level questions require higher-order thinking - application, analysis, evaluation, synthesis:
  • "How were the different characters affected by Daniel Hillard's choice to disguise himself as Mrs. Doubtfire?"
Convergent QuestionsDivergent Questions
Convergent questions imply there is one right answer:
  • "What is the reason that colleges & universities offer the ISW?"
Divergent questions suggest there are many possible answers:
  • "What are some possible reasons that colleges & universities offer the ISW?"
Unstructured QuestionsStructured Questions
Unstructured questions are non-specific and vague. An unstructured question gives learners a lot of scope in how they can answer as long as they know how to interpret the question.:
  • "What is happening in Pakistan?"
Structured questions provide some orientation and focus and, usually, require specific knowledge from learners:
  • "What are some of the issues being faced by relief organizations in Pakistan?"
Straightforward/Single Direction QuestionsMultiple Questions
Straightforward questions are clear and address one issue:
  • "What underlying themes do you see in Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings'?"
Multiple questions contain several questions and may include elaborations or tangential information:
  • "What is the deeper meaning behind Lord of the Rings? Do you think that Tolkien is exposing environmental issues? Speaking of which, did you know that many environmentalists actually have taken the time to learn how to speak Elfin...Elvish really. There are even Tolkien Linguists! After all there was Entish, Westron, Naffarin, and Khuzhul...well, anyway... So, what do you think?"

Purposes of Questioning

These types of questions listed above can be used in a variety of different ways, depending on the specific purpose of the instructional activity. David (1993, p.83) compiled this useful collection of purposes associated with different questioning strategies:

Exploratory - for probing facts and basic knowledge: "What research evidence supports the theory of a cancer-prone personality?"

Challenge - for examining assumptions, conclusions and interpretations: "How else might we account for the findings of this study?"

Relational - for comparing themes, ideas, and issues: "What premises of Plessy vs. Ferguson did the Supreme Court throw out in deciding Brown vs. Board of Education?"

Diagnostic - for probing motives or causes: "Why did Jo assume a new identity?"

Action - for coming to a conclusion or committing to action: In response to the sit-in at California Hall, what should the chancellor do?"

Cause and Effect - for developing causal relationships between ideas, actions, and events: "If the government stopped farm subsidies for what, what would happen to the price of bread?"

Extension - for expanding the discussion: "How does this comment relate to what we have previously said?"

Hypothetical - for posing a change in facts or issues: Suppose Greg had been rich instead of poor; would the outcome have been the same?

Priority - for identifying the most important issue: "From all that we have discussed, what is the most important cause of the decline of American competitiveness?"

Summary - for creating opportunities for synthesis and closure: "What themes or lessons have emerged from today's class?"

Situational Questioning

Developed by Susan Chandler and Estelle Paget at Royal Roads University, situational questioning (SQ) refers to the intentional implementation of various types of questions to enhance learning. It involves asking the "right" question, at the "right" time, to bring about a desired learning outcome.

Situational questioning prompts instructors to consider the various types of questions that could be implemented to enhance student learning. Keeping in mind that questioning should be used purposefully to achieve well-defined goals, an instructor should ask questions that will require students to use the thinking skills that the instructor is trying to the students them develop. Bloom's Taxonomy (1956) is a hierarchical system of ordering thinking skills from lower to higher, with the higher levels including all of the cognitive skills from the lower levels.

Below are the levels of the taxonomy, a brief explanation of each one, and examples of questions that require students to use thinking skills at each level:

  • Knowledge - Remembering previously learned material, e.g., definitions, concepts, principles, formulas.
    • What is the definition of "A Divergent Question"?
    • What are the Four P's of Marketing?
    • What are the stages of cell division?
  • Comprehension - Understanding the meaning of remembered material, usually demonstrated by explaining in one's own words or citing examples.
    • What are some techniques that are commonly used to facilitate learning in an online environment?
    • What are some strategies to diffuse conflict?
    • Explain the process of photosynthesis.
  • Application - Using information in a new context to solve a problem, to answer a question, or to perform another task. The information used may be rules, principles, formulas, theories, concepts, or procedures.
    • Using the procedures we have discussed, what would you include in a summary of Parker Palmer's book The Courage to Teach?
    • How does the law of supply and demand explain the current increase in fruit and vegetable prices?
    • Based on your knowledge, what statistical procedure is appropriate for this problem?
  • Analysis - Breaking a piece of material into its parts and explaining the relationship between the parts.
    • What are the major points that this learner used to develop the thesis of his essay?
    • What factors in the American economy are affecting the decisions taken in Canada?
    • What is the relationship of probability to statistical analysis?
  • Synthesis - Putting parts together to form a new whole, pattern or structure.
    • How might the author's previous work experience and the thesis of her major project be related?
    • How are long-term and short-term consumer loan interest rates related to the prime rate?
    • How would you proceed if you were going to do an experiment on the level of toxicity of this chemical to the soil?
  • Evaluation -As the most advanced level of thinking, evaluation involves using a set of criteria, established by the learner or specified by the instructor, to arrive at a reasoned judgment.
    • Does Addison use examples effectively to build her argument in favour of genetically modified crops?
    • How successful would the proposed federal income tax cut be in controlling inflation as well as decreasing unemployment?
    • How well does this article demonstrate the validity of the author's main thesis?

Using situational questioning effectively is a developed skill, and the following explanation may help instructors to identify his/her own comfort zone, as well as new forms of questioning that could be integrated into the existing questioning style:

Tips for Asking Questions

  • Plan in advance how you expect to use questions in your instructional activity. However, be open to asking different questions "on-the-fly", depending on the flow of discussion or responses. Consider keeping a couple questions handy as back-up resources to take advantage of serendipitous opportunities to stretch learners' thinking.
  • Give learners enough time to think about responding to questions. This will help ensure that learners provide thoughtful answers and gives the less assertive learners more time to process their thoughts. ? Avoid using biased or leading phrasing, such as "Do you agree . . .", "Would you say . . .", to ensure that learners view their contributions as meaningful as possible. ? To assist in learner comprehension, ask questions in a clear straightforward manner and avoid using two-part or multiple questions in the same sentence to reduce any potential confusion for learners on how to respond.
  • Deeper learning can be achieved by scaffolding questions, i.e. asking questions in a series that build upon the responses of the previous question. Using a variety of questioning strategies in sequence can enrich this scaffolding. ? Be mindful of how you ask questions. Is your tone or body language sending a message that you are co-inquiring with your learners or holding an interrogation?
  • Use active listening strategies, such as paraphrasing, acknowledging, and probing to help you attend effectively to learner responses. Probes, in particular, often lead to enhanced discussions and deeper learning. Probes can be used to seek further specifics or clarifications, check understanding, build bridges to other issues or perspectives, and explore reasoning and underlying assumptions.
  • Use questioning strategies to make the conversation or discussion as inclusive as possible. This can be achieved by intentionally linking one learner's response to another's, asking learners to describe any common themes that tie together the responses, or by using questions to expand the diversity of responses (e.g. "What's another perspective on this issue?" or "What other suggestions do you have for resolving the challenges that Acme employees are facing?")
  • Be careful how you correct wrong information or responses. Responding to questions involves some risk-taking by learners -- the last thing you want to do is unwittingly discourage future engagement! Sometimes, this dynamic can be avoided by changing the type of question (i.e. using open-ended questions instead of closed-ended). You can tactfully redress a wrong response by using thoughtful probes that help the learner re-examine his or her response or you can ask another learner to help out. Always acknowledge the effort that someone displays in responding to a question.


Bloom, B. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Handbook I Cognitive Domain New York: David McKay Co. David, B. G. (1993). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.