Asking Good Questions in Class

As instructors, we want students to think with us as we lecture or guide a discussion, but how do we ask questions that stimulate this kind of intellectual engagement? We can best promote critical thinking by asking open questions that cannot simply be answered “yes” or “no” or with a single “right” answer. Our questions can invite students to analyze, synthesize or evaluate course material. “Why?” and “How?” can be more profitable for discussion than “What?”

  • Ask your students to clarify their comments or answers. You might do this even when the comment is clear to you. This can be helpful for other students in the class. “Are you saying that…?” “Could you give me an example?”
  • Ask questions that probe your students’ assumptions. They may be unaware of their assumptions until asked to articulate them. “What are you assuming here?” “What could we assume instead?” “Is this always the case?” “Why do you think the assumption holds here?”
  • Ask questions that probe reasons, evidence, and causes. Lead students to support their arguments. “What are your reasons for saying that?” “What other information do we need to know?” “Is there good evidence for believing that?” “What do you think the cause is?”
  • Ask questions that probe implications and consequences. “When you say___, are you implying that____?” “If you do that, what will happen?” “How is that connected to the question?” “How does that bear on ____?” “How does that follow?”
  • Ask questions that help students recognize and clarify their own thought processes. “Could you explain further where you’re having difficulties?” “Could you express that point in another way?” “Could you be more specific?” “Have you thought of…?” “What factors make this a difficult problem?” “What would this look like from the point of view of ___?”
  • Ask questions that require students to defend their positions. Play “devil’s advocate,” even with students you agree with or who articulate their points most cogently. All students can benefit from this intellectual exercise.
  • Ask a question with multiple possible answers. Write all options on the board without commenting on the list being produced. Then have the class discuss the options, explaining why some answers are better than others.

When you ask open questions, be sure to allow students time to respond (between 10 and 30 seconds). This time feels longer than it is; try not to rush in too soon to rephrase the question or answer it yourself. If the silence is protracted, however, you might try: rephrasing the question, having a student rephrase it for you, giving students a few minutes to write about the question 
or discuss it with a peer.

For additional pedagogical resources, visit the Graduate Students and Faculty webpages.