Critical Thinking

Generating Effective Questions

Four ways to come up with questions that guide students to engage deeply with class content. Plus: a pop quiz for you.

August 21, 2014 Updated August 14, 2017

Teachers ask an average of 400 questions a day, or 70,000 a year, according to The Guardian. While many of these questions are generated on the fly, asking effective questions by using questioning techniques (QTs) like those described below prompts deeper answers and engages students in a wide range of critical thinking tasks.

Open-Ended Questioning Techniques

The Nondestructive Testing Resource Center recommends that teachers use the following QTs to promote effective discussions. Use prompts like those at the top of the list with “more frequency than those at or near the bottom.”

  • Seeking out evidence: “What makes you think that _____?”
  • Explaining: “What are some of the causes that led to _____?”
  • Relating concepts, ideas, and opinions: “How does that compare to _____?”
  • Predicting: “What will you do next?”
  • Describing: “What did you observe happening?”

Student-Generated Questions on Assigned Reading

Some teaching approaches, like the Socratic seminar, ask students to prepare questions on the readings as part of their homework. I ask learners to bring in one authentic and deep question about the assigned texts as part of a sketchnote visual journal assignment. It delights me to see their visual representations and questions improve as the semester continues.

Kari Lynn Wilson, a Washington State high school teacher, directs two-person student teams to write a couple of questions and share the questions with two other students sitting nearby. Next, the newly formed four-person group votes on their favorite one, which is asked during the subsequent whole-class discussion.

Questions That Motivate: The TAPN Approach

Larry Ferlazzo has shared educator and behavioral therapist Jim Peterson’s description of how robust prompts motivate students to answer questions. Note how Peterson’s second prompt provides much more information to the learner:

  1. You’re going to read the next three pages. When you finish, you are going to answer the five questions that follow the reading.
  2. When I tell you to begin, you will have one minute and 45 seconds. You are going to read the next paragraph looking for the main point. As you read, you are going to highlight any words or phrases that support what you believe is the main point. When you are finished, be prepared to share with a partner or with the entire class. You may begin.

The second set of instructions is more motivating, explains Peterson, because it addresses a series of factors that he calls TAPN:

  • Time: “You have one minute and 45 seconds.” (Takeaway: Racing the countdown clock energizes students.)
  • Amount: “You are going to read the next paragraph looking for the main point.” (Takeaway: The workload should be challenging, but not overwhelming.)
  • Public: “When you are finished, be prepared to share with a partner or with the entire class.” (Takeaway: Knowing their work will likely be made public raises the stakes and increases students’ level of concern.)
  • Novelty: “As you read, you are going to highlight any words or phrases that support what you believe is the main point.” (Takeaway: Small variations in the academic routine arouse students’ interest.)

Ultimately, incorporating TAPN into your question protocols will increase the percentage of students who actively engage with your questions.

Socratic Seminars

For my money, the best way to socialize students into asking and discussing rich questions is through the Socratic seminar, a model for facilitating collaborative dialogue. In this short video, Tyler Hester of Teach for America introduces his ninth-grade students to the Socratic seminar protocol:

Resources for Socratic Seminars

Socializing students into asking good questions on their own is the very definition of effective teaching.

Other Resources for Classroom Questioning

A Quiz for the Teacher

QTs have been the subject of hundreds of studies, many of which Kathleen Cotton summarizes (PDF). I’ve gathered some of her most insightful takeaways into this short quiz.

Question 1
Which is more effective for fostering learning?
A) Oral questions posed during classroom recitation
B) Written questions

Question 2
Posing questions before a reading should be done with students who are:
A) Older/better readers
B) Younger/struggling readers

Question 3
Increasing the use of higher-order questions to _____ percent improves student-to-student interactions, speculative thinking, length of student responses, and relevant questions posed by learners.

Question 4
Should wait time differ when asking lower- vs. higher-order questions?


Answer 1: A, oral questions
Answer 2: A, because young/struggling readers often read only the parts of the text that help them answer the questions.
Answer 3:
50 percent
Answer 4: Yes. Wait time should be about three seconds for lower-order questions, and longer for higher-order questions.

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