Asking Questions: Tools for Brain-Based Learning


Although much of what we are now discovering about how the brain learns is new, the idea of asking questions as a way to keep students’ attention is not. Indeed, some teachers have been asking questions of their students for decades, even in the hallowed lecture halls of the world’s great universities. So why is there such discontent with much of what we call “higher learning?” Why are so many students so bored and so uninvolved in their own classroom instruction? A question should elicit a response and thinking of the appropriate response should actively engage the mind of the students, so what so often goes wrong with this picture? Some teachers and industrial trainers are adamant in their belief that they make effective use of questioning in their educational settings. Anyone involved in teaching of any kind needs to ask themselves the following questions:

  • Why are you asking the question?
  • What kinds of questions do you ask?
  • What kinds of responses do you expect?

Why Do You Ask

Many teachers and instructors ask for questions to determine whether the students or trainees understand content being presented. For some, this is more a matter of evaluating their own effectiveness. If the students and trainees have no questions, the teacher/instructor assumes full understanding, congratulates himself or herself for a job well done, and moves on. Clearly, this kind of questioning benefits the teacher more than the students, who may be so confused they have no idea what to ask. Other instructors realize the pitfalls of assuming they have full understanding simply because there are no questions. They know the minds of some students may have wandered off while others may simply not understand enough to be able to ask a question. For them the challenge is examining the kinds of questions they ask.

What Do You Ask

Despite the fact that questioning is an integral part of day-to-day living, far too many of us simply are not very good at it. The most common pitfall is the closed-end question. The way we phrase the question sets the parameters for the answer – a simple yes or no, or at best, a few words, or phrases. Closed-end questions look to verify information or clarify understanding, and require minimal thinking. Some assume only questions requiring simple “yes or no” answers are closed end. In fact, even a question like “What are the five levels of need in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?” is an example of a closed-end question. The only response is to recall and recite the five levels. In contrast, an open-ended question cannot be answered with a recitation of facts. It requires thinking and input on the part of the person answering the question, based on his or her own experience. Tell me what self-actualization in your own life would look likeis an example of an open-end question. It requires a higher level thinking process called synthesis. In 1956, Benjamin Bloom produced his classic Taxonomy of Learning, in which he organized intellectual activity into six levels:

  • Knowledge
  • Comprehension
  • Application
  • Analysis
  • Synthesis
  • Evaluation

Each level of activity builds on the previous level. In our example, a student could not conceptualize self-actualization in his or her own life (synthesis) without understanding Maslow’s hierarchy (knowledge and comprehension.) Does higher-level intellectual activity engage the brain for longer periods? Regardless of what the research shows, common sense tells us questions that require trainees to draw on their own experience to translate knowledge into forms meaningful to them will keep the mind involved.

How Do You Handle a Response

Whatever kind of question you ask, you have to consider how you respond to the answer. Some instructors call on student after student until one finally regurgitates the answer the teacher is looking for. Students refer to this game as “guess what the teacher wants to hear.” Not everyone needs to play the game, since some teachers call on the same students time after time. If you are going to use questioning as a means of actively engaging the minds of those listening to you, that means all the minds, not just those adept at answering. If you are going to use questioning as a means of actively engaging the minds of those listening to you, you have to be willing to take the time and effort needed to develop the right questions to ask.