The importance of asking the right questions

Asking the right questions, in the right way, at the right time, is the single most important thing you can do in a lesson.

The right questions engage your students, identify their reasoning and challenge their viewpoints. Great questions enable students to analyse and evaluate their own and other students’ positions. Perceptive questions drive self-improvement and improvement in others.

High-quality questioning significantly improves student progress over time. This week I explore how we can all use high-quality questioning to drive student progress to raise achievement and to promote a love of learning.

What questions should we ask?

There are two types of questions that we ask: closed questions and open questions. Closed questions are ones where there is a predefined response. For example, if I asked “Is London the capital city of England?” your answer would be either “yes” or “no”. My question doesn’t require you to go beyond that short response, so the information I can gather from closed questions is very limited.

Open questions allow for more extended answers. For example, if I asked, “What do you think of London?” the person answering could go in an infinite number of directions, explaining their answer at great length and in whatever way they wanted. Open questioning is very useful for finding out great breadth and depth of information, that you may not even have known to look for.

What does “open questioning” look like?

In lessons, I always begin with an open question. I teach Religious Studies and Law. Open questions are plentiful when it comes to morality, justice, and belief! Last week I asked this question to a group of 16 to17-year-old Law students: “How fair is the law on murder?” I expected some fairly short responses, as we’d only been studying the topic for a few lessons and so hadn’t delved very deeply into an evaluation of the topic. How wrong I was.

Their responses were fantastic! Students took the basic legal rules that I had taught them and began to create thought-experiments where the current laws would lead to absurd court decisions. They egged each other on, over and over, asking each other “What if…?”, “Yeah, but what if…?”, “No, but what if…?” It was magical. Once I took the students over to the Law Blog I had set up for their homework, they took the debate even further once they had left the classroom! You can read more on how to use WordPress blogs to teach in this post.

One simple question about fairness had led to twenty minutes of sophisticated thought, critical analysis, argument, counter-argument and eventually to the beginnings of an evaluative conclusion. They had explored, by questioning each other, every nook and cranny. They began with a naive and basic response to the question and by the end had arrived at complex and thought-provoking conclusions. I had given no direction and I introduced no further content to stimulate the discussion. Everything they came up with had originated in their own minds. Powerful stuff!

Question Thought Bubble

Here are some question styles to encourage depth in debates

Use them in starter activities, or during feedback sessions, to keep students thinking and to encourage them to go into greater depth. Design your questions so that they can’t give a superficial response!

  1. What do you think of…?
  2. How far would you agree that…?
  3. To what extent is…?
  4. How similar is…?
  5. What do you think caused…?
  6. Why do you think [name] is correct/incorrect?
  7. Why are you persuaded by…?
  8. Why are they wrong to say…?

Enhanced questioning techniques…

Don’t worry, this isn’t a CIA interrogation manual! However, the word ‘interrogation’ does make me reflect on some students who see questioning, especially in whole-class feedback sessions, as intimidating. Questioning doesn’t have to intimidate. Many students fear questions because they don’t want to give the wrong answer. You can address this in a number of ways.

  1.  Ask students who are particularly quiet open-ended questions that don’t require a ‘right’ answer. By getting them to engage just once or twice, even with a basic response, they will begin to lose the anxiety which many of our students face.
  2. Ask a variety of questions and then allow the students to choose the one they would prefer to answer. By allowing them to take ownership over their learning, their engagement (see the common theme here?) will increase over time. They won’t be able to hide behind the myth that they are ‘forced’ to learn in a particular way. They are choosing the way themselves!
  3. Try questions like “Why might some people agree with…?”. That way, the student doesn’t have to give their personal view, which they may be terrified to reveal! There are likely to be several different ways they can give a good answer, thus reducing their fear of failure.

Over time, keep going back to the “quiet” students, asking progressively more challenging questions. Once they begin to realise that they have nothing to fear, they will open up more and give deeper and more sophisticated responses, which is more likely to lead to a rise in attainment when it comes to exam time.

Tips on getting students to ask high-quality questions

There are a number of resources that you can use with your students to create high-quality questions. I know a lot of people use question-dice, where each side contains a question or even just the starter to a question, much like the list above. There is also the question matrix, which is excellent for demonstrating the different levels of questions that students can ask. They range from “What is..”, to “Who would…”, to “How might…?”. Students can choose a level of questioning they are comfortable with and gradually move from one side of the grid to the other as they challenge themselves over time.

Question Dice

In order for students to begin to create more sophisticated questions, they must have a good level of subject knowledge. A simple way to add depth to students’ knowledge of a topic, even early on in the topic, is to encourage independent learning beyond the classroom. Independent learning, as I’ve written about a number of times, is absolutely crucial for deepening the understanding of all students. Not only that, but it stretches the ‘most able’ (I have mixed feelings about this label) students to ‘go beyond the exam’ and to see the importance of the topics they study. When this becomes a regular feature of the students’ experience of a subject, they will naturally begin to ask a wider variety of questions. In turn, the whole class will be exposed to a much broader and deeper curriculum than if they had relied simply on teacher-directed learning.

Final thoughts…

From my own experience, students who ask sophisticated questions are more likely to give sophisticated answers. If you want more sophisticated answers, then you should model more sophisticated questions in your teaching. The students learn from us first!


I’d love to hear about how you use questioning techniques in your class. Please leave a reply below.

Follow me on Twitter and on Pinterest too. 

And don’t forget to click on the share buttons below!