How to Use Questions to Promote Student Learning

Spencer Benson

Education Innovations International Consulting

Questions are an integral part of teaching and learning, and good questions require thoughtfulness, creativity, and patience. I often see instructors ask “Are there any questions?”, and nearly always the class response is silence. If there are questions they almost always come from the students sitting in the first rows, often they already know the answer and are seeking reassurance and/or recognition. These students generally are not representative of the majority of students in the class – including those students who are sitting in the back row, on mobile devices, or working on something unrelated to the class. There are a variety of technology tools that can help engage student participation during questions and answers (Q&A), including student polling devices (clickers and web-based) that allow students to use their smart devices to input answers that are immediately collected and analyzed. A simple search of “student response tools” will yield a number of free tools as well as student response tools for purchase. Eric Mazur has championed the use of this type of student questioning in what he terms peer-instruction (Lasry, et. al., 2008). In addition, research shows as practice testing is one of the most effective means for students to engage in meaningful long-term learning (Dunlosky, 2013).

Developing Faculty Generated Questions

Developing good questions that enhance student learning and engage all students is difficult. The challenge is constructing questions that engage learning and are “un-Googleable” meaning that students cannot find the answer with a simple online search engine. Some ways to help make questions “un-Googleable” are to:

  • Avoid questions that simply ask for facts or definitions,

  • Ask the students to answer the questions based on their own personal experience,

  • Ask students for their personal opinion on an issue,

  • Ask students to describe the answer a different person might give, e.g., a relative, a famous person (historic or present), the textbook or assigned readings author, etc.

This type of Q&A also provides a means to getting to know one’s students (Kohler-Evans, 2016) and provides formative feedback on where the class is with respect to understanding the course material. A second challenge is to be able to get all (most) students to answer, incentives such as participation points, bonus points, or personal recognition of the student helps. One approach to getting students to think is to regularly ask three questions:

  1. What did we discuss?

  2. How is it related to the “X”?

  3. Why is it important?

These three questions align with the various levels of Bloom’s cognitive taxonomy, “what” asks about facts and content (remembering), “how” asks about relationships (understanding and analyzing), and “why” asks about higher cognitive level skills (creating and evaluating).


One suggestion is on a regular basis (every class may be too much, but averaging about once a week or every 3rd or 4th class) ask students to answer the “what”, “how”, and “why” questions. One can do this by using the last few minutes of the class to have students answer these three questions. This can be done either using paper and pencil or using an in-class or post class polling activity. The answers don’t have to be individual and one can easily make this an informal in-class group exercise where each group is assigned one of the questions and has a few minutes to come up with an answer which is then shared among groups or with the whole class.

Including Student Generated Questions

Just as important as getting student to answer questions is getting students to ask good questions. This is difficult, students are often shy and are not used to asking questions that go beyond surface knowledge. I once taught a general education course “Microbes and Society” where each week on Tuesday students had to hand in two questions for the class discussion on Thursday. In the first few weeks of the course the questions were at best, trivial and often dreadful, the majority of questions were simply fact questions whose answers could be easily looked up. However, with practice, guidance, and examples, by the end of the semester students were able to create good questions such as: “What is the relationship between disease and hygiene in a hospital”, “How do vaccines work?”, and “Why are microbes required for life on earth?”.

One important question is whether having students write questions increases enhances their learning? The answer is yes, but simply asking students to generate questions will not necessarily lead to enhanced learning unless the following conditions are included:

  • It needs be a regular activity,

  • Students need examples of what good questions and what poor questions look like,

  • Students need to understand the difference between low level and high level questions.

Two articles that discuss the use of student-generated questions and provide a framework for classifying student questions are Marbach-Ad and Sokolove, (2000), and Keeling et. al., (2009).

You should not be surprised or disappointed if initially student generated questions are not very good. Learning to ask good questions takes time and effort, but it is a hallmark of scholarship, for teaching, learning, and research. Finally, it is worth remembering that self-testing and practice testing are two of the most effective study strategies that students can employ to help their learning (Dunlosky, 2013). Having students write questions engages both of these strategies.

Discussion Questions

  1. To what degree should one use participation points or grades to incentivize student participation for faculty generated and student generated questions?

  2. Should student generated questions be used in summative assessments, and if so, is this fair to all students?

  3. What level of feedback should be provided to student generated questions?

  4. Should students be required to provide the answer(s) to their questions?


Dunlosky, J, (2013). Strengthening the student toolbox: Study Strategies to Boost Learning, American Educator.

Keeling, E., Polacek, EL Ingram, E. (2009). A Statistical Analysis of Student Questions in a Cell

CBE-Life Sciences Education, 8:131-139.

Kohler-Evans, P. (2016). Questions: Why Do They Matter? The Teaching Professor, Magna Publications.

Lasry, N., Mazur, E., and Watkins, J., (2008). Peer instruction: From Harvard to the two-year college. American Journal of Physics 76, 1066.

Marbach-Ad, G. and Sokolove, P. G. (2000). Can Undergraduate Biology Students Learn to Ask Higher Level Questions?. J. Res. Sci. Teach., 37: 854–870.;2-5/abstract

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