Questioning Skills to Engage Students

Questioning skills are essential to good teaching. Teachers often use questions to ensure that students are attentive and engaged, and to assess students’ understanding. What is important to note is that in addition to the intent of the question, the question itself matters. For instance, to ensure that students are attentive, a teacher could ask the students “Are you listening?” To assess if the students have understood, the teacher could ask “Do you follow me?”

However, students may say “Yes, I am listening” or “Yes, I have understood” simply to avoid embarrassment. Compare these simple questions with those that ask students to summarize what was discussed or ask the students for their opinions on what was said. The difference is that although the intent of the questions remains the same as before, the indirect, open-ended questions allow for divergent thinking. Such questions enable the teacher to more accurately evaluate if the students truly were attentive and if they understand the material. In addition, open-ended questions motivate students to share their ideas, thereby allowing active, collaborative learning to take place. This illustrates the need to be able to ask the right sort of questions to engage students.

Questions that tap higher level thinking
One of the commonly used questioning techniques is to employ the 5W and 1H questions: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. While this questioning technique is useful to some extent, most of the 5W questions tend to be close ended and elicit factual responses. Although factual responses are necessary, as good teachers we need to promote higher level thinking skills as well. One way to address this would be to use Bloom’s taxonomy of thinking skills as a guideline to ask questions. The following table gives some examples. For instance, to test if a student is able to evaluate what has been learned, the teacher could ask the student to critique a hypothetical problematic situation.

Skill Sample Prompts Purpose Level
Creating design, construct, plan, produce combine elements into a new pattern or product Higher
Evaluating check, critique, judge, hypothesize, conclude, explain judge or decide according to a set of criteria Higher
Analyzing compare, organize, cite differences, deconstruct break down or examine information Higher
Applying implement, carry out, use, apply, show, solve apply knowledge to new situations Lower
Understanding describe, explain, estimate, predict understand and interpret meaning Lower
Remembering recognize, list, describe, identify, retrieve, name memorize and recall facts Lower

One of the goals of teaching is not only to evaluate learning outcomes but also to guide students on their learning process. Hence it is important that, as teachers, we question students’ thinking and learning process. To this end, we could ask students to explain how they arrived at their conclusion answer and in doing so, what sort of resources they had used and whether the resources had provided sufficient evidence etc.


Going one step further it would be really engaging and motivating for the students (as well as the teacher) to have the whole class participate in a discussion, which would allow cross fertilization of ideas. This is in contrast to having a one- to- one, teacher to student question-answer session in the class. To initiate a class discussion, a good starting point would be to pose a question or make a statement that would elicit divergent responses, which could then be used to build further lines of discussions. In this case, planning the type of questions ahead of class would help to ensure that discussion is managed well within the allotted time.

To plan the questions, it is not just the type of questions that is important, but also the timing, sequence and clarity of questions. Answering takes time to think and it is therefore necessary to give students sufficient waiting time before going on to modify the question or asking other students to respond. If a student is not able to answer, then it is necessary to understand if the issue is with the clarity of the question. In that case, one could rephrase the question or try to understand which aspect of the question is difficult for the student and why. If the question is too difficult for the student due to lack of prior knowledge, it may be useful to ask a more factual question to bridge the gap and help lead the student toward the solution.

Overall, as teachers, we not only need to have a clear intent for questioning, but we need to also learn to ask the right questions. To guide students on the learning process, it is essential to question on learning outcome (content) as well as students’ thinking and learning processes.

Nachamma Sockalingam PhD, Lecturer, Teaching and Learning Centre, SIM University, Singapore.

Table 1 adapted from the Ohio Department of Education, Instructional Management System.