The art of asking questions in teaching and learning

Being intentional in your question-asking can reinvigorate a Sunday school or small group, writes educator Donald Griggs.

A common, mistaken image of teachers is they must be the master of a subject in order to present information to learners who are uninformed about that subject. It is true teachers need to be familiar and comfortable with the subject they are teaching, but it is not true they must be experts.

Teachers can be effective in teaching a subject even though their knowledge of the subject is limited. Their effectiveness is in direct proportion to the amount of involvement they plan for the participants in their class. The learners themselves bring to the classroom a great deal of knowledge and experience that equips them to explore a subject with confidence. They already possess the ability to engage in a wide variety of activities as they learn about a subject.

An important task for the teacher, and a skill that can be developed, is to plan activities and use resources that make it possible for learners to participate with interest and enthusiasm.

Questions may be the most valuable resource available to the teacher for guiding learners to explore concepts and to express their ideas, values, and beliefs. Effective questions contribute significantly to increasing participation and interaction by the learners. Teachers can ask questions of a whole group or of an individual. Questions can be written on a worksheet, newsprint, or whiteboard to guide learners’ exploration. Participants can state their own questions to invite responses from the teacher, others in the group, or even themselves.

Questions may be used to . . .

  • introduce a new subject.
  • discuss a familiar subject.
  • review a subject studied earlier.
  • interpret a biblical passage.
  • relate a biblical passage to a personal experience.
  • evaluate a video clip or other resource.
  • motivate further research on a subject.
  • brainstorm solutions to a problem.
  • interview a resource person.
  • consider alternative actions.
  • clarify personal values.
  • explore commitments and beliefs.

Just as there are many ways to use questions, there are several types of questions. Here we will explore three distinct types: fact questions, inquiry questions, and personalized questions.

Fact questions

We are all familiar with questions that ask people to remember specific information, and the answers are either right or wrong. In a lesson about Peter, fact questions might look like:

Where did Peter live?

What did Peter do for a living?

What are some of the personality traits of Peter?

What did Jesus say when Peter said he was willing to die for Jesus?

Fact questions are limited in their ability to provoke exploration or discussion. When teachers ask too many fact questions, participants may feel as if they are taking a test. In my observations, I have noticed many teachers ask too many fact questions. It is not surprising they are disappointed when those present do not show much enthusiasm for the subject. Although facts and information related to any subject are important for providing background, it is not necessary to deal with that information by asking questions.

Inquiry questions

Inquiry questions invite persons to think, reflect, analyze, and interpret a subject. These questions have many possible appropriate answers. Inquiry questions, by their nature, prompt discussion and encourage persons to become involved with the subject. Since persons are accustomed to being asked fact questions with right or wrong answers, teachers will need to help the learners become comfortable with expressing themselves freely. One way to set the stage is to preface a question with such phrases as:

“Why do you suppose … ?”

“What are your thoughts about …?”

“What are some examples of …?”

“Let’s think a minute about why …?”

Notice that each of these phrases suggests the possibility of several appropriate answers. Going back to the example lesson on Peter, here are some examples of questions that will encourage inquiry and interpretation:

When Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter responded, “You are the Messiah, the son of the Living God.” What do you think might have influenced Peter to respond with that affirmation?

After Peter denied Jesus three times what are some thoughts and feelings he might have had?

Why do you suppose Peter was the one who preached the sermon on the day of Pentecost?

Of the things Peter said in that sermon what do you think was most convincing about Jesus that led 3,000 people to believe?

Personalized questions

Personalized questions are open-ended. Since people are speaking out of their own experience and relating the subject to their own lives, there is no way they can give a “wrong” answer. If a participant shares a response that seems inappropriate from the teacher’s perspective, the teacher can accept the response and probe a little by asking, “Say a little more about what you mean by …”. When a participant clarifies what they have said, the teacher and other learners may be surprised by what is shared.

In the sample Peter lesson, personalized questions may look like:

If you were Peter and Jesus asked you to follow him, what are some questions you would have?

After Jesus’ resurrection, Peter spoke often about his faith in Jesus. What is a time when you were challenged to speak about your faith in Jesus?

Peter denied Jesus because he was frightened to admit he knew him. Later, Peter was forgiven and called by Jesus to “feed my sheep.” What are some experiences Christians face today that may be similar to Peter’s experiences?

If you could have the courage of Peter, what would you want to tell people about Jesus?

As mentioned above, questions may be the most valuable resource available to teachers for contributing to the faith formation of those they are teaching. Questions cost only the time and energy needed to prepare thoughtful invitations. Several helpful guidelines include:

  • Spend time preparing questions and writing them in your session plan.
  • Be sure the learners have sufficient background to answer the questions.
  • Provide a frame of reference so that participants understand the questions clearly.
  • Preface a question with a phrase that invites thinking and suggests multiple answers may be appropriate.
  • Ask only one question at a time.
  • After asking a good question, pause and give the participants time to think.
  • To “prime the pump” you could ask the participants to write down an answer before inviting responses.

Given time and practice, every teacher can be successful in the art of asking questions. And the learners in their classes and groups will be enriched and empowered as a result.

A version of this article was originally published in Don Grigg’s Called to Teach. For more examples of inquiry and personalized questions, see Don Grigg’s discussion questions published in each issue of the Outlook.

The Presbyterian Outlook is committed to fostering faithful conversations by publishing a diversity of voices. The opinions expressed are the author’s and may or may not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the Outlook’s editorial staff or the Presbyterian Outlook Foundation. Want to join the conversation? You can write to us or submit your own article here