George Lucas Educational Foundation
Communication Skills

Learning to Interview Builds a Range of Communication Skills

Tips from the PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs help students develop skills that are useful across the curriculum and in project-based learning—both now and when they are back in schools.

April 20, 2020
High school student participating in a virtual interview on her laptop
damircudic / iStock

There’s nothing like the smile on a student’s face after they complete an interview with an expert. When done right—with preparation and practice—such a conversation gives teenagers a sense of accomplishment, relevance, and agency in the world.

Interviewing requires students to listen, focus, think on their feet, and react appropriately to what the other person says. When students plan for an interview, they need to assess what they don’t know—a metacognitive skill—and learn a lot about the interview subject because otherwise the interview will be awkward. This is real life, with real consequences if they’re unprepared and a real payoff if they do well—the heart of project-based learning.

Listening and really trying to appreciate where the other person is coming from is also an exercise in empathy and discovering how to connect. These life skills will help prepare students for college and jobs, and interviewing is a great way to address high school ELA and NGSS standards around communication, evaluating pertinent information, pulling important quotes, and emphasizing salient points, as well as ISTE and media literacy standards of digital production and multimedia presentations.

The interview is a core component of the PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs (SRL) program that I created 10 years ago to empower teenagers through the production of video stories on important issues in their lives and communities. SRL is in 150 schools in 46 states, and more than 15,000 students have produced videos published on public media broadcast and digital platforms.

Here’s an example of a remote interview conducted in April 2020 with an epidemiologist working on Covid-19. Notice the student interviewer’s questions and poise during the interview.

Students in SRL are coached by NewsHour youth media producers and local PBS station journalists, but there are activities teachers can use to emulate this kind of coaching in any high school classroom.

Practice General Interview Skills

Before taking students through the process of crafting good questions, make sure they know the basics of interviewing. You can give them practice with interview skills by having them work in groups of three: Two students role-play an interview while a third, the evaluator, offers coaching and suggestions on the points below as they practice.

They should practice several skills:

  • Prepare a list of questions, realizing that they don’t have to ask every one of them
  • Maintain good eye contact, including looking up again if they look down to consult their list of questions
  • Ask follow-up questions when a response leads them to think of a question they didn’t plan for
  • Write open-ended questions, using the five Ws—who, what, where, when, and why (plus how)—to encourage the interview subject to speak at length.

An interview is not just a conversation, though, so let students know that they need to control the flow of the back-and-forth. If the discussion is moving to a topic they don’t want to talk about, they can change things up by asking a different question from the list, or move to a different topic. The interviewer student can practice asking the subject to restate an answer if it goes on too long, or seems incoherent.

Exploring the Art of Asking Questions

A lesson plan on how to ask questions, which indicates the Common Core standards covered, is one of SRL’s most popular activities. It provides a scenario with a hypothetical reporter and source and describes the three-student protocol—interviewer, subject, and evaluator—described above.

Guide students to think about how improving their questions can lead to getting more interesting answers. SRL teacher Mike Conrad of Royal Oak High School in Michigan has a good exercise for this. He leads students through the process of digging a little deeper to come up with better questions:

  • Do you like pizza?
  • Do you like pizza? Why?
  • What’s your favorite pizza?
  • Tell me about your favorite pizza or pizza restaurant.

Students should also practice composing and asking questions using sentence starters like, “Tell me...,” “Describe...,” “Please explain...,” and “Help me understand....”

A really fun and engaging way to give students practice composing better questions is to have them reverse engineer Humans of New York, a project that started when photographer Brandon Stanton decided to tell the stories of 10,000 random people. Stanton meets people on the street, takes their picture, and interviews them. He publishes each picture with a snippet of the interview in which the person describes something significant from their life. Iowa English teacher Sarah Brown Wessling uses a reverse-engineering exercise that I love—she asks her students to read a post and try to figure out: What question did Stanton ask to get the person to tell that story?

Rev Up the Feedback

SRL has resources to help students record high-quality video. In the classroom, when students record simple phone videos of their interviews, the teacher or their peers can give “warm” and “cool” feedback on the questions and communication style. Warm feedback is positive and acknowledges strengths. Cool feedback offers comments and suggestions to help the learner reflect and improve.

Receiving feedback is a great life skill, but it’s hard—who likes to hear that they did something wrong? At SRL, we talk about the feedback sandwich: strength, criticism, strength (or warm, cool, warm in the model above). Offer something the student did well (e.g., “great eye contact” or “you asked a good follow-up question”) and then give specific, constructive suggestions for next time. End with encouragement and positive feedback about effort or originality.

Try a Virtual Interview

As schools moved to remote learning over the past several weeks, the SRL team created a curriculum called Making Sense of the Coronavirus Through Storytelling and Media Making. It includes a guide to remote interviews, and we’re hearing from educators that experts of all kinds are generally receptive to spending time talking to students now that most are working from home, so encourage your students to follow their curiosity.

“I have found ‘famous people’ are very willing to talk to high school students,” Trina Moore, a journalism teacher at Rouse High School in Leander, Texas, told SRL. One of her students is conducting a Zoom interview next week with Damon Lindelof, Emmy-winning producer of the series The Watchmen, The Leftovers, and Lost.

“Encourage students to branch out beyond the walls of their own school for interviews.... There are so many experts who want to share their knowledge,” Moore said. “They just need to be asked."

To help students record these conversations, SRL producer Eli Kintisch created a guide to recording interviews and a webinar with step-by-step instructions. Our hope is that learning to do interviews is the sort of positive discovery students can take with them into post-pandemic life.

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  • Communication Skills
  • Online Learning
  • Project-Based Learning
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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