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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

How to Help Students Develop Interviewing Skills

Tips for teaching students to conduct great interviews, from the Center for Urban Pedagogy's investigation curriculum.
By Bernice Yeung

This how-to article accompanies the feature "Students Investigate Local Issues Through Service Learning."

The Center for Urban Pedagogy, a nonprofit organization that helps schools produce experiential curricula, believes that when students engage community leaders in conversation, it can lead to real and long-lasting civics education. Through interviews, students, according to CUP, "realize that the world is knowable, and you can find out how anything works by asking enough people." From CUP's urban-investigation curriculum, here are ideas and techniques for teaching students to become skilled interviewers:

Review the Basics

First, convey the fundamental goals of an interview, which are to

  • gather information.
  • seek out different perspectives (in other words, remind students that an interview is not the place for expressing their own opinions).
  • "pull out as much information from your interviewee as possible."

High-Quality Questions

Remind students that asking the right kinds of questions will elicit more meaningful responses. Advise your students to

  • ask open-ended questions.
  • ask follow-up questions.
  • keep questions brief.
  • rephrase a question if the interviewee evades a question.
  • politely challenge the interviewee. (For example, students could say, "Another person said this controversial thing about you. What do you think?")
  • embrace pauses and silence, and allow interviewees time to think.

Writing the Right Queries

To write high-quality questions, ask students to first research the interviewee and decide what kind of information they'd like to learn from that person. Then, to help students develop relevant questions, describe various categories of questions that could be asked during an interview:

  • Personal ("Where were you born?").
  • Organizational ("What does your organization do?").
  • Sociopolitical ("What are the biggest challenges in your work?").
  • Ideological ("What would you like the neighborhood to be like?").

Documenting the Interview

Students can capture interviews through note taking, audio or video recordings, taking photos, or asking for collateral materials such as pamphlets, posters, or books related to the interviewees and their work. "Take everything they are willing to give you, and then ask for more," CUP suggests. "Although it may seem useless at the time, it almost always comes in handy later on."

Practice Makes Perfect

The following hands-on activities can be used to help students practice and develop their interviewing skills:

  • Screen the opening scene of Martin Scorcese's documentary Italianamerican, which can be found on YouTube, and discuss what parts of the interview went wrong and which parts worked.
  • Stage two mock interviews for the class. In the first, only ask closed, or yes-or-no, questions, and discuss how it went ("Do you want the neighborhood to be developed?"). Next, conduct another mock interview, in which only open questions are asked ("How do you think the neighborhood should be developed?"). Discuss the difference between the two interviews. Finally, create guidelines about what makes for a good interview question based on what the students have witnessed.
  • To develop students' ability to ask follow-up questions, pair students together and ask them to interview each other using a list of generic biographical questions ("What is your name?" "Where did you grow up?"). After each response, have students ask a related follow-up question that will help them understand their interview subject better ("Who were you named after?" "What's your favorite memory from your childhood?").
  • Students should take notes as they conduct their interviews. Afterward, they can share their most interesting follow-up question with the group and discuss ones that did or didn't work.
Bernice Yeung is an Edutopia contributing editor whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Mother Jones, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

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