It’s all in How You Ask – Posing Questions to Engage Learners

A few months ago, my teenaged son came home from seeing a movie with a friend. I cheerfully asked, “How was the movie?” He responded, “Good.”

I shook my head and sighed. “Let me rephrase,” I said. He rolled his eyes at me.

“Tell me about the movie!”

He smirked. “I already did. It was good.”

I felt thwarted by his matter of fact and mildly mocking tone.

Without skipping a beat, my daughter called after him in her tattle-tale voice, “I think she wanted you to explain the actual story. You know, like, the plot.”

Once again, my son’s lips curled into that special teenage-boy smart-alecky grin. “Duh, I know that. But, that’s not what she asked.”

What was wrong with my question? Why was it that my son didn’t pick up on my cue that I wanted to hear not only that he enjoyed the movie but that I wanted him to explain what was so good about the movie?

I was hoping that my question would engage my son in a conversation lasting at least the length of the kitchen and hallway leading to the TV room. I genuinely wanted to find out what elements of the story interested him and why. I was curious about the special effects and how he thought the special effects enhanced his experience. (The reviews led me to believe they were amazing.) Would he recommend I see the movie and suggest why might I enjoy it or not?

How might I have better stimulated a conversation and engaged my teen in analyzing and sharing his movie going experience? The issue, other than trying to engage a teenager in conversation, is that I asked the wrong kind of question.

His one-word answer reminded me what I already know in my professional life and what we practice in Instructional Design… Good questions require thought and careful word choices.

Types of Questions

In their simplest form, there are two very basic categories of questions: closed-ended questions and open-ended questions. Each question type has a place in education as well as its own benefits and drawbacks.

A closed-ended question can be answered with a simple one-word answer (i.e. Good, yes, no, blue, 42) or a very specific answer. Closed questions are typically less stimulating than an open-ended question. These tend to be questions that ask the responder to recall a fact or choose from a selection of answers. The answer is typically correct or incorrect, with little room for ambiguity.

Examples of closed-ended questions:

· Who was the first president of the United States?
· What is the definition of the word “pedagogy?”
· On a scale of 1 to 4 stars, how was the movie?

In an academic setting, closed-ended questions are useful for certain types of assessments, such as reading comprehension tests or mathematics quizzes.

Open-ended questions, however, have many possible applications and invite many possible responses. These types of questions are used to encourage creativity, problem solving, and critical thinking. Responses may come in the form of essays, lists, presentations, performances, speeches, visual representations, etc.

Open-ended questions are well suited for discussion boards and are often combined with closed-ended questions. They are meant to provoke thought and conversation. Students may be asked to challenge an assumption or theory, or to compare and contrast themes, ideas or issues, or to consider hypothetical scenarios or analyze real-world events.

Examples of open-ended questions:
· How will you apply the theory you read about this week to your work?
· How did you feel after viewing the scenario? What would you have done?
· What did you expect to happen in the movie?

Some prompts may ask for specific answers but also invite a conversation. Combination prompts, with elements of both closed and open-ended questions, might be used in these instances. Cognitively speaking, closed-ended questions tend to fall along the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, while open-ended questions fall along the higher levels. A balance is something to strive for.

Examples of combination prompts:
· Which of the key points made in Chapter 4 do you agree with and why?
· Which of the theories might you apply to your own work and how will you apply them?
· What was your favorite part of the movie and why?

Crafting questions that stimulate critical thinking is a crucial part of the course development process at UNE. Subject matter experts and Instructional Designers use questions to formulate course outcomes, to create assignments and to construct discussion board prompts.

There is definitely an art and a science to producing effective questions to engage learners. As for how best to ask questions to engage teenagers? I’ll keep you posted if I happen to figure that out.

References and Resources:

Davis, Barbara Gross. Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001. 

Designing Online Discussions: Key Questions. (n.d.). Retrieved April 18, 2016, from https://www.brown.edu/about/administration/sheridan-center/teaching-learning/course-design/learning-technology/designing-online-discussions-key-questions

Questions for the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy. (n.d.). Retrieved April 18, 2016, from http://goldenwestcollege.edu/wpmu/iec/files/2010/04/Questions-Using-Blooms-Taxonomy.pdf

Pappas, C. (2015). Closed-Ended Questions In eLearning: What eLearning Professionals Should Know – eLearning Industry. Retrieved April 18, 2016, from http://elearningindustry.com/closed-ended-questions-in-elearning-what-elearning-professionals-should-know

Pappas, C. (2015). Open-Ended Questions In eLearning: What eLearning Professionals Should Know – eLearning Industry. Retrieved April 18, 2016, from http://elearningindustry.com/open-ended-questions-in-elearning-what-elearning-professionals-should-know

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