How to Ask Better Questions

“Good teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers.” –Josef Albers
We ask questions every day. We don’t always get it right, especially in a learning setting, but there is definitely an art of asking better questions. With a little planning and thought beforehand, you can craft questions as an effective way to measure their team’s knowledge on a subject.

First, understand what you want to hear

Asking better questions in Lessons requires first determining what you want that person to learn. In broad strokes, refrain from asking questions about, say, the New York Yankees if your intended answer deals with the Spanish Inquisition. People aren’t mind readers, especially in a learning setting.
In more detailed steps, understand what you need to teach and what it will take to get there. For example, an ambitious new employee with no sales background whatsoever needs to learn much more than someone with previous experience. Take the following question:

“What portions of our sales cycle do you think we can improve on?”

This question might seem trivial to someone with a basic understanding of sales techniques, but it assumes that the employee:

  1. even knows what a sales cycle is.
  2. understands how this particular company’s sales cycle works.
  3. can tell why this sales cycle is bad and needs improvement.

Confronting these assumptions begins the journey in how to ask the right questions to get information. Trainers build good and effective questions once they consider the audience and its level of understanding.

Types of good questions

Let’s start with the distinction between open and closed questions. As discussed in a journal from the Rossier School of Education, a closed question requires a minimal amount of memory recall. These questions usually result in a small amount of expected responses:

“What color is a fire truck?”

You might receive some variations on the response “red,” but the answers will be mostly similar. When trying to instill knowledge of basic facts and simple processes, closed questions can refresh memory and make learning effective. However, as Brandon Cline with the Chicago Center for Teaching notes, using these types of questions for anything more than requiring students to recognize or recall information leaves a lot to be desired.
For an open, or high-order question, the answer is less expected. Questions like these still involve memory recall, but they also add an element that requires the Learner to apply that memory in another way.

“Why do you think the fire truck is red?”

By asking “why” something is the way it is, Learners must use the knowledge that they have to synthesize an answer for the context of the question. In the long run, open questions encourage more critical thinking and build deeper knowledge, but they aren’t always the best choice. Brandon equates these different types of questions to a toolkit, needing to use the right tool for a specific job. “Choose the right kind of question at the right moment for your learning goals. Just as one naturally considers the order in which each class segment falls within one’s teaching plan, so one should consider how each segment might be best explored.”

Bad types of questioning techniques

In a blog post, the survey experts at SurveyMonkey recommend elements to avoid when writing questions:

Leading Questions

SurveyMonkey describes leading questions as those “worded in a way that’ll sway the reader to one side of the argument.”

Bad Question: How short was Napoleon?
The word “short” immediately brings images to the mind of the respondent. By rewriting the question to sound neutral, you can eliminate the leading bias.

Good Question: How would you describe Napoleon’s height?
Loaded Questions
These queries make assumptions before the question mark even appears. By loading your questions with assumptions, they either force Learners to skip to your logic or not answer correctly.

Bad Question: Where do you enjoy drinking beer?
By answering this question, respondents announce that they drink beer. However, many people who dislike beer or don’t drink alcohol can’t answer the question truthfully.

Double-Barreled Questions
In a rush, multiple questions can sometimes find themselves into a single sentence. This causes confusion for the Learner and makes it nearly impossible to give a straight answer. Late comedian Mitch Hedberg based one of his more famous jokes around this problem:

To do this show, I had to take a physical, and they asked me a lot of medical questions. And they were, like, yes and no questions, but they were very strangely worded. Like, “Have you ever tried sugar—or PCP?”

Absolutely No Absolutes
Nothing in life is ever absolute (Get it?). It’s not just good advice, but it applies to writing questions as well. In closed questions, try not to force your Learners into making a choice that will haunt them for the rest of their life.

Bad Question:
Do you always eat breakfast? (Yes/No)
This question is worded to provide an answer that shows Learners have either eaten breakfast every day since they were born or they have never eaten a morning meal at all.

Speak Your Learner’s Language
This last point from SurveyMonkey speaks to our earlier discussion on context. If you know your Learners and what you need them to accomplish, use terms that they’ll understand.

Bad Question: Do you own a tablet computer?
Good Question: Do you own a tablet computer (for example, an iPad or Android tablet)?

For a more in-depth look at the topic of questions, check out our Lesson, How to Ask Effective Questions. See how easy it is to build lessons and ask effective questions with a tour of Lessonly. Sign up today.

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