Using questions to promote learning and understanding

Using questionsQuestioning is one of the most important skills in teaching, but there is evidence to suggest that learners at all levels find many teachers are poor users of questions. Research suggests that teachers ask up to 400 questions every day but only about 8% of these could be classed as higher order questions.

Lower order questions

Lower order questions are those which require students to remember and recall, such as ‘What was the date of Russian Revolution?’ or ‘What is the chemical composition of hydrochloric acid?’ These types of questions tend to be convergent in that they lead to a fixed or already known answer. They have value inasmuch as they can be used to check memory and basic knowledge. However, if low level questions are over-used students may feel unchallenged or even bored.

Higher order questions

Higher order questions are intended to develop understanding and thinking and to stimulate thought, analysis, evaluation and problem-solving. These questions tend to be divergent in that they do not simply require recall, rather they encourage students to think and may not lead to a known or fixed answer. ‘How effectively does Ted Hughes use language to evoke nature in his poetry?’ is an example of a higher order question.

Levels of questions

Questions can be located anywhere on a range from lower order, which require learners to remember, to higher order which require them to think. Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives (cognitive domain) can be a useful aid for framing questions. Here are some examples of questions at each level of Bloom’s taxonomy

  • Knowledge:  What are the main components of an electric motor?
  • Comprehension:  Can you explain what a simile is?
  • Application:  What happens when you put salt on ice?
  • Analysis:  What do the results of this experiment tell you
  • Synthesis:  How can you combine these technologies?
  • Evaluation:  How effectively has sound been used to create mood in this film?

Types of questions

We will consider three types of questions

  • closed
  • open
  • linked (or Socratic)

Closed questions

Closed questions usually have only one correct answer and can be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Closed questions don’t require the answerer to develop their response or stimulate discussion; they put initiative back on the questioner. Closed questions tend to be convergent, for example ‘Who developed penicillin?’ is a useful question to check knowledge but without further, higher level questions it’s not going very far.

Open questions

Open questions may have several possible answers or, perhaps, no answer. they tend to be divergent and can open up discussion and the development of ideas. If we take the penicillin example further, we might ask ‘Why is penicillin becoming less effective?’ Open questions are the key to developing linked sequences of questions.

Linked or (Socratic) questions

Socrates practised his philosophy by engaging participants in a series of questions to test their assumptions and extend their thinking. In our teaching sessions we might not be discussing the big issues which concerned Socrates and his pupils but we can still use linked questions to draw out learning and encourage thinking and reasoning. Here is an example of linked questions from a media studies class:

Teacher:  Kylie, why is there a cliffhanger at the end of a soap  opera?

Kylie:  To make sure people keep watching.

Teacher:  Good. Zaheera, why is it important for people to  keep watching?

Zaheera:  To maintain high viewing figures.

Teacher:  Why do companies want high viewing figures, Sean

Sean:  To attract advertisers.

So, when you are planning your teaching sessions make sure you consider your use of questions and challenge yourself to incorporate higher order questions. If you are undertaking a teacher training programme or involved in CPD this can be an issue for your reflective practice.


Pete Scales, now retired, was a Senior Teaching Fellow at the University of Derby and also delivered PGC HE programmes to teaching colleagues. His book An Introduction to Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: Supporting Fellowship’ was published by Open University Press in 2017. Prior to this he taught in further education for over twenty years and ran teacher education programmes. His book Teaching in the Lifelong Learning Sector (Open University Press) is now in its second edition. He still maintains his lifelong learning website at

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