Volume 1
February 2003
Questioning Techniques for Active Learning
Professor C.M. Wang Associate Professor Grace Ong
Vice-Dean, Faculty of Engineering
CDTL Affiliate
Vice-Dean, Faculty of Dentistry
CDTL Affiliate

What’s in a question, you ask? Everything. It is a way of evoking stimulating response or stultifying inquiry. It is, in essence, the very core of teaching.

—John Dewey (1933)

Here are some tips on questioning techniques to enhance active learning:

Question Types

1. Ask Challenging Questions

Avoid phrasing questions that are closed, which require straightforward factual answers, unless you simply want to check retention. Ask probing and evaluative questions that call for higher cognitive thinking such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Challenge students to explore the evidence for their existing knowledge, apply their existing knowledge to other situations, bring them to the limits of their knowledge base.

Example of a straightforward question: What is the expression for kinetic energy?

Example of a more challenging question: Why is there a factor of ½ in the expression for kinetic energy?

2. Ask Well-Crafted, Open-Ended Questions

To start an active discussion, ask open-ended questions that encourage the exploration of various possibilities. However, the questions should not be too unstructured as this may lead to ambiguity, and time is lost defining the question rather than addressing the issue at hand. Questions can be crafted to bring out inductive and deductive reasoning skills. Encourage students to figure out answers rather than remember them. At times questions are designed to help students see things from a broader perspective, but this may necessitate other questions along the way to help the students narrow their focus before arriving at the answer.

Example of an open-ended and structured question: We have examined the aetiology of dental caries. What factors would increase a patient’s risk to caries?

3. Ask Uncluttered Questions

Avoid cluttered questions that involve many sub-questions or are interspersed with background information. This type of questions confuse the students because they are not clear what is being asked of them.

e.g. of a cluttered question: What are some of the reasons that Newton’s laws are flawed? I mean…what seems to be the main problem, according to Einstein? Can we then still use Newton’s laws? A few of you earlier said that you do not think Newton’s laws should be used for some situations. What are the problems there?

Learn to Wait

You need to wait after asking a question before answering it yourself or going on to ask further questions or making further points. Good questions, especially profound ones, may necessitate lengthy wait times. Do not be afraid to wait. Waiting is a sign that you want thoughtful participation.


Oral presentation can result in students not hearing or understanding a question. Thus long unproductive wait times are likely to follow. To ensure questions are clearly communicated to the students, write your questions on the overhead or on the whiteboard or hand them out in the written form. It is often useful to ask whether the questions are clear before launching into wait time.


Further Reading

Cooper, J.M., et al. (1977). Classroom Teaching Skills: A Handbook. Toronto: D.C. Heath.

Kissock, C. & Lyortsuun, P.A. (1982). Guide to Questioning: Classroom Procedures for Teachers. London: MacMillan Press Ltd.

Rasmussen, R.V. (1984). ‘Practical Discussion Techniques for Instructors’. AACE Journal. 12(2), 38–47.

‘Question Types’. (1998). Teaching at UNL. Teaching & Learning Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. http://www.unl.edu/teaching/teachquestions.html (Last accessed: 3 February 2000).


published by
Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning (CDTL)
National University of Singapore
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