Questioning to facilitate inquiry and learning

Questioning is the beginning of understanding: the thinking stuff of a brain.


Questioning is the basis of all problem solving, decision making, and learning.

Questions learners ask and questions teachers ask learners. Questions in isolation, or embedded in a discussion, activity, or sequence of learning, to inquire for better understanding of a topic or an idea.

Questions allow learners and teachers to assess what they know, seek information to verify their understanding, and progress toward better and deeper understanding.

Questions can be organized by learners or teachers for deeper understanding as in lesson plans and instructional models which combine questioning with information to facilitate learning.

Effective questions lead not only to answers and deeper understanding, but to greater understanding of how to ask better questions and inquire as life long learners.

Questioning assumptions

When learners and teachers ask questions they make assumptions, focus on a topic, are actively involved in thinking, and desire to learn something about a topic.

While learners ask questions to learn about a topic and teachers ask learners questions to assess what they currently understand to facilitate their learning.

Assumptions for both include:

  1. A lack of knowledge.
  2. A curiosity, a desire to know, a desire to please, a desire to compete, or a desire to help. All motivate a learner to ask a question.
  3. An answer.
  4. A desire for an answer.
  5. An ability to answer.
  6. A question can be asked to seek information for an answer or an answer may not be achieved.
  7. A belief there is information and resources to answer the question.
  8. A belief a question can invoke a response which may be one, all, or a combination of a mental image, linguistic or non linguistic information, emotional response, or physical sensation.

Characteristics of good questions

To increase the likelihood a questions is answered to the satisfaction of the person who asks it. It is helpful to know characteristics of a good question.

Good questions have characteristics such as:

  1. The question is understandable
  2. It is answerable
  3. It provides hints of the information and knowledge necessary to answer it.
  4. It moves the learner to higher levels of understanding.


When did humans land on the moon?

This question has these characteristics:

  1. It is understandable.
  2. It is answerable.
  3. Suggests humans landed on the moon. Hints: humans had and needed technology to land on the moon. And The answer is public knowledge.
  4. Helps the learner know more about moon landings.

The question, When did humans land on the moon?, has characteristics of a good question for which it and its answer are at a cognitive knowledge level.

Therefore, when asked alone, it won't move learners to levels of understanding higher than knowledge. For a learner to achieve higher levels, ask open ended questions. and create questions for the level of understanding desired, such as levels on Bloom's Taxonomy.


Other ways to classify questions question can also be helpful. Here are a few:

Classifications of Questions

  1. Closed (convergent) and open (divergent)
  2. Effects of questions on learners,
  3. Taxonomies - Blooms
  4. By first word and 
  5. According to the purpose of the question.

Closed (convergent) and open (divergent questions)

Educators select open ended questions to begin to focus and motivate learners.

In theory the perfect convergent (closed ended) question would have only one answer and the perfect divergent (open ended) question would have infinite answers. 

However, most questions fall on a continuum between having one answer and a finite limit. In most situations the better question is probably the one that provides the most answers.

For example: if I start a lesson on trees by making an overhead statement to involve all learners in a visualization activity, I could make the following statements: 

Close your eyes and imagine a silver maple tree. 
Close your eyes and imagine a tree. 

The first statement will have few learners create a mental image of a silver maple tree, but the second would probably have all learners with mental images of a tree.

If I were to have them describe their tree, the information would suggest the range of understanding of trees the learners have.

Open ended or divergent questions can be used to encourage greater involvement and provide a more accurate assessment than closed ended or convergent questions. 


Convergent questions (closed) have direct answers (What is 2 + 2?). They are generally used to focus on something. 

Divergent questions (open-ended) have indirect answers (How can we use this battery?). They are generally used to try and encourage a number of answers and lead to critical thinking, creativity, and problem solving. 

Effects a Question Has on the Person Answering the Question.

Below is a list of some different effects questions can have on learners.

Taxonomies - Bloom's and others

Educators select questions for different levels of understanding to assess the learners' current levels of understanding and then to plan questions to increase their levels of understanding. To do so it is helpful to use classification taxonomies to classify the type of question and possible answer by the level of cognition required to arrive at an answer and the affective response the person may have as a result of it.

The cognitive level of a question determines the level of its answer.

If a question is factual, the asker expects an answer that recalls a specific fact from memory or to find a resource with the desired information. If a question probes a person's understanding of something, the asker expects the information given to be at a higher level depending on the availability of information and the level of understanding expected.

Bloom’s taxonomy can be used to guide the levels of questions and tasks we plan for learners. If learners start with questions from the knowledge level, answer those questions, then ask questions from the comprehension level, answer those, and continue up the hierarchy to assess progress toward expected outcomes. This kind of inquiry or investigation is an inductive inquiry. Conversely if they start with an evaluation question, answer it, then ask a synthesis question, answer it, and proceed down the hierarchy it would be a deductive inquiry. This does not mean that the hierarchy needs to be moved along in a linear fashion. It could be used to evaluate a series of questions to see if other questions could be formulated to provide a more detailed analysis of a topic.

Knowledge questions.

Comprehension questions.

Application questions.

Analysis questions.

Synthesis questions.

Evaluation questions. Simple evaluation questions which can be answered with a yes or no need to have follow-up questions which ask the student to give reasons for their decision or consequences of the decision. As students begin to write reasons and list consequences new questions at different levels will arise and need to be answered. For example many students would think that all whaling should be stopped. However, they may ask the question, "Who is whaling?" (comprehension). The answer of Japan, Eskimo cultures, and Norwegian cities will lead to higher level questions and probably to an evaluation of should any or all of these continue?

Questions Classified by the First Word of the Question (Lehnert)

A. Questions that begin with whatwhenwherewhywho, and which. Most of the time these questions are divergent (open-ended).

1. What questions ask for a determination of cause, judgment, and properties. What caused something to happen (antecedent). What did something cause to happen (consequence). What enabled something to happen. What opinion does a person have for an action (judge). What are the properties of an object or concept.

2. Why questions ask for goals, expectations, and requests. Why did you do that? Why don’t you do this? A cause and effect relationship.

3. Where questions ask for location or process. Where is it? Where would you begin to solve it?

4. Which questions as for identification of a person, place, event, or object.

5. When questions ask for time of an event or process. When was he born? When do you capitalize nouns?

6. Who questions ask to identify a person or group of people. Who was the first person on the moon? Who should be elected for class president.

B. Questions that begin with how and have.

1. How questions ask for a procedure and quantity. How would you solve this problem? How much do you have?

2. Have questions ask for yes and no responses.

C. Questions that begin with is. They ask for verification, permission, and clarification. Is this the answer? Is it all right for me to go? Is this the way to solve the problem?

According to the purpose of the question. 

Categories of purposes: 

  1. Factual questions: use to get information. Usually started with: what, where, when, why, who, and how. 
  2. Explanatory questions: use to get reasons, explanations, broaden discussion, get additional information clarify a response. Such as: What other aspects are related to this issue? Should you consider...? 
  3. Justifying / Probing questions: use to challenge old ideas, develop new ideas, to gain additional background information, assess depth of understanding, provide more elaboration for an answer, reason, or judgment; to get reasoning, and proof. Such as: Why do you think so? How do you know? Probing is a strategy to move toward better understanding and a question is usually the probe.
  4. Leading questions: to introduce new ideas, and advance ideas. Such as: Should we consider this? 
  5. Hypothetical questions: used to infer what if, and if this, then what?
  6. Decisional questions: used to make decisions between alternatives, to get agreement, and to move the discussion along or close it.

Questioning process or inquiry

A questioning process is often in the context of discussions, activities, sequences, and other units of instruction or communication. They include interactions controlled by the participants: teacher and student actions which combine as discussions, activities, sequences, projects, inquiries, and other instructional units. Interactions which include verbal and nonverbal actions:

Questions often start discussions and other activities and are certainly embedded in a questioning process or inquiry to facilitate learning as determined by the participants.

Good questioning is done in an environment conducive to thinking and problem solving. Learners must feel comfortable that if they take a risk, they will not be put-down. Teachers must provide support for learners to experience this scholarly atmosphere. In this atmosphere good questions and a questioning process, consistent with learning theory, can facilitate learning. A process where the learner and teacher, or learner and learner, or learner alone with other interactions can focus and maintain attention on necessary and sufficient information at an optimal cognitive level to modify or construct new understanding which connects to previous ideas and causes a reorganization of ideas related to a question or questions in an inquiry.

A questioning process allows learners to review what they know and structure their understanding of the world according to questions they deem significant. Variables that affect learning are identified in learning theories. Some variables include:

Suggestions for questioning inquiries

Before - planning

Considerations for questions before activities.

Starting an activity

During an activity

After an activity

Suggestions to create risk free environment and develop questioning skills

Inquiry and questioning starts naturally with children when they play. As they mature play becomes more productive and when they learn to talk the incessant question of why is spoken. If their personal interest or curiosity is sustained, their questioning continues and they become more skillful at it.

If environments do not encourage play and curiosity, their questioning abilities will not develop. This happens if learners are in settings where they taught to wait for an authority (care giver, teacher, text, ...) to furnish activities, problems, questions, inquiries, and solutions. Similarly, if they are asked to remember meanings created by others, rather than being challenged to make their own meaning.

Motivation and growth in questioning

Productive questions are best asked by learners and of learners when they are interested in a topic and are in a risk free environment with encouragement to practice and improve questioning and seeking answers through an activity sequence that considers levels of cognition.

Good thinkers realize information comes from qualified people, however understanding it is personal. Good thinkers function independently, welcoming the challenge of functioning on their own. They embrace problems or the unknown, and are confident they have the skill and ability to collect, organize, and understand information to achieve whatever goal they desire.

One way to help learners is to show them we value them. To do this we ask them to think, share the processes they use, and talk about it. This sends a clear message their ideas are valuable and if they are to learn with understanding, they must own and value what they do. A professional educator's job is to facilitate reasoning and understanding based on reasoning, not to be the owner of the information and try to convince or coerce learners to value what the teacher says and does.

To achieve this educators create risk free environments. Suggestion include:

Validate learner's feelings with statements like.

Give learners credit for learning and encourage them to reflect on the strategies and habits of mind they used.

Give statements of information.

Use reflective summaries to clarify what learners say or mean.

It's not only important for the teacher to ask questions. It is important that learners learn how to ask questions to learn how to learn. You can teach the techniques that you know about questioning to your learners so they can learn the power of good questions. If they are the key performers they will see how the questions you ask improve learning and learn how to question.

learners who only see teachers question to evaluate them are robbed of experiences of learning how to form their own questions to use to discover and hence will not experience the pleasure of the quest for answers and the satori (joy) of discovery.

To achieve this teachers must accept the responsibilities associated with the following suggestions.

Silence and Wait Time


During discussion and questioning and discussion consideration of silence and wait time is often not considered, However, learners need time to think. Particularly when they are working on complicated questions or problems. They need plenty of near silent time to focus on what the problem is, what they already know about it, how they might proceed, and time to execute their plans and arrive at a satisfactory solutions. It is a good idea to let them know your expectations. Announce: Take five minutes to think about ...

This kind of time is sometimes called halt time, reserving the use of wait time for shorter times (in seconds) when a teacher waits after a response.

There are two kinds of this wait time.

  1. The time a teacher waits after asking a question.
  2. The time a teacher waits after a student responds.

Increasing both wait times increases the quality and length of learner's responses. If the amount of wait time ranges from three seconds to one minute depending on the difficulty of question being asked.

In type one wait time, Bloom's Taxonomy can be used as a guide for the length of time to wait after asking a question before moving to another action. For example, knowledge level questions having 3-5 seconds of wait time, comprehension level questions 3-10 seconds, and all others increasing with the complexity of the question and individual differences in the learners processing them.

In type two wait time the an increase in time increases the quality of the student's answer and the elaboration of their answer. Students have been shown to literally add more to their answers as the teacher waits. The second wait time should be at least 5-10 seconds and increase with the difficulty of question or depth of possible answer.

Wait Time 1

Wait Time 2 with Wait Time 1


Whenever wait time is used for the first time students may wonder what the teacher is waiting for. A simple response that they are providing time for them to think is usually sufficient.

Another problem can be getting learners involved. If they have not had opportunities to engage in conversations or discussions, it may take some time for them to become comfortable with it. For example, if you are sitting in a lecture hall listening to a lecture for 15 - 20 minutes and then all of a sudden the lecturer begins to have an interactive conversation, learners may not be interested or motivated to join the discussion. They get used to a pattern and the more comfortable it is, the less likely they will be willing to change from it. It is more comfortable listening than engaging in mind altering discussions. Be aware of change and select a strategy to ease the transition or motivate learners from a less passive role to a more involved role. One strategy to transition from listening to discussion is pair share. Then when the group is brought back together the sharing of the pairs will usually transform less interactivity to more interactivity.

Hand signals

Any response can be accompanied with a hand signal.


Dignify incorrect answers

When students answer incorrectly it is sometimes good to acknowledge they are thinking and putting forth effort. This can be done when the teacher believes they see the strategy the learner is using to answer the question.

Repeating Answers - Don't

Repeating Students' Answers Can Be Habitual

Reasons given have been:

  1. It was modeled in teacher's previous schooling,
  2. It has became an automatic behavior,
  3. It is a response that requires no thinking and therefore gives the teacher time to think before proceeding,
  4. It is based on a belief that hearing something twice increases learning and retention, See memory of basic facts and pennies.
  5. It makes students feel good because it validates their answers as correct.
Reasons Given for Repeating Answers
The best reason of all not to repeat:
Routinely Repeating Answers Can Result in Undesirable Outcomes

When teachers repeat answers, learners learn not to listen to each other. And learn to only listen to the teacher, because the teacher is the one who will say what is important. We should continually try to encourage learners to listen to each other, learn from each other, and to build on and benefit from others' contributions. Listening is one of our most underdeveloped and important skills. We extinguish learners listening to other learners when they expect the teacher to repeat whenever something important is stated. In reality, we are teaching them they don't need to listen to other learners; because only what the teacher says is important. From this they conclude that other's answers and ideas are not as important as teacher's ideas and answers.

When teachers repeat answers, shy learners are continually reinforced to withdraw and not communicate to other learners. Shy learners are given the crutch that someone else will say it for them. Also, when teachers repeat their answers, shy learners are denied the opportunity to learn to communicate to the group.

Encourage them with, "You are absolutely right. Your answer is so important, say it again so everyone understands it." can increase their interactions with other learners. Emphasis needs to be placed on value and importance, not on decibels. Most learners, given such encouragement, reassurance of correctness, and feeling of the importance of their contribution, will say it again with increased volume. Should the learner withdraw, the teacher can quickly intervene with, What I meant was that your answer of __________ (repeating the answer) was so well stated (important, critical to our understanding, insightful), that everyone needs to hear it. If the learner continually withdraws, the teacher needs to make the appropriate referrals.

When teachers repeat answers, learners are motivated to please the teacher. They learn that the teacher is expecting a particular answer so to please the teacher, their goal becomes to find what the teacher wants as an answer and not why the answer is correct. The answers become important only because the teacher wants them. Some learners are extrinsically motivated by the teacher's praise and reward system. Those who are motivated by grades and pleasing adults will initially please their teachers and parents. This will not allow them to discover relevance in their learning, develop an intrinsic motivation for learning, learn how to learn, or discover personal interests for lifelong enjoyment. Learners who enter school motivated by their personal curiosity must be continually provided with experiences to sustain and increase this curiosity or they will become bored with school and loose their love of learning.

However, there are times when a student's answer should be repeated, but for none of the above reasons.

Valid reasons for repeating answers.

Directing questions, discussion,

Considerations for directing questions

A question is usually directed at a group or individual and is followed by a variety of actions. Several questions can be chained together to create different question sequence patterns. Discussion for each of these ideas follows.

Ways to Direct Questions

Overhead questioning is directed to an entire class. Used to start a discussion, introduce a topic, activity, or to elicit a response from everyone.

Direct questioning is directed to one person or group. Used to elicit responses for information or to increase pupil involvement.

Relay questioning is directed to a different person or group after a another person or group response. Used to transfer response from person or group to another person or group, to get differing opinions, to get more involvement, to get a response, and to avoid giving the teacher's opinion.

Reverse or answer a question with a question: when the teacher directs the same question, that has been asked to a person or group, to another person or group. Use to avoid the teacher answering a question, to encourage further thinking, to further discussion, and to bring out opinions.

Redirect the question to other learners. Use when there are a number of possible responses.

Discussion and inquiry patterns

After a question several responses can be made. If questions follow each other, then a sequence for discussion or inquiry may fit in any of four patterns.

First, think about the possible different sequences of one question leading to another question and so forth until an eventual conclusion is reached, (the process of thinking). Most people think of a linear pattern where question one, leads to question two, which leads to question three, and so forth until a conclusion is reached. However, other progressions are possible and illustrated below.

A linear pattern, illustrated in the top diagram, is when one question leads to another.
Q1, leads to Q2, leads to Q3 ... as in first diagram.questioning order image

A circular pattern starts with a question (Q1) and is followed by four more questions, Q2, Q3, Q4, Q5; in this example, returns to the original question (Q1).

This pattern starts with a question (Q1 in the bottom center) and continues along two related tracks with different questions being asked for each track (might be a track - for and a track - against).

This pattern follows a parallel line of questioning with the same questions for two different ideas. Set of questions for book A and same set for book B. Same set of questions for Bloom's Level of analysis and the same set for synthesis.

Practice activities


Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes
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