Asking questions is a simple activity you can undertake to engage your audience in most ordinary teaching situations (e.g., traditional lecturing and presenting) as well as in exceptional settings (e.g., asynchronous, and/or online learning). Because questions address every one of your learners, they can make your students feel involved no matter how big the class size is. Thus, mastering the power of questions is a significant achievement for any teacher. Using questions effectively allows teachers to switch their presentations from a teacher-centered to a student-centered perspective in both synchronous and asynchronous teaching contexts.
This series of articles discusses the powerful potential of asking questions. In the first article, we saw how asking questions allows teachers to manipulate the learning experience by engaging learners effectively and promoting their participation in active learning. In future articles, we will evaluate the timing and the subject of asking good questions. In this article, we focus instead on the shape of questions.
Not all questions are created equal. Do you know the difference between open and closed questions? We are going to elaborate on this difference, and discover that it goes deeper than what is usually assumed by most people. Keep reading, and you will realize how mastering this distinction will give you more control over your teaching and power in your classroom.
1. Open and closed questions
Have you ever heard of a distinction between open and closed questions? It is usually explained as the difference between questions with no predefined answer, which are thereby inspiring and thought-provoking, and boring factual questions with a preferential response. You may have read that closed questions are ‘bad’ because they immediately limit any chance of discussion and should be avoided entirely. The truth, however, is that the distinction is more elaborate than what appears on the surface.
Compare the following questions:
- Can you name two countries initially involved in World War II?
- Some historians claim that World War II started because of the economic crisis that Germany had gone through in the 1930s. Do you think this is right or wrong?
The first question (1) has no preferential response as there are several countries a student can mention. On the other hand, the second question (2) only asks whether the statement is true or false, and it implies, on the surface, a very simple answer.
If we stop at the previous definition of open and closed questions as being determined by the number of possible answers, we should say that (1) is open, and (2) is closed. However, which one do you think is more apt to create discussion? Clearly (2) provides more matter for thought than (1). It requires an evaluation of a complex proposal, and in assessing it, many reasons may surface that may favor or oppose it.
The example indicates that distinguishing between open and closed questions based on the number of possible answers may be too limiting. The usual definition combines two criteria that we should keep distinguished: that is, the kind of answer that a question presupposes, and the number of acceptable answers.
Let’s see how focusing on the difference can help you design sharper questions that bring about exactly what you expect from your students.
2. Can the answer be wrong?
Let’s focus first on the first, most noticeable criterion, which actually refers to the extent to which the answer to a question can be right or wrong.
Accordingly, we can identify the following types of questions.
Factual questions are based on verifiable facts on the existing state of affairs. Their distinctive trait is that any provided answer will be valid or wrong depending on whether it is based on the relevant evidence (that your students should be able to find in the textbook, or in other provided learning materials). Factual questions thus presuppose an inter-subjective procedure to assess the validity of the answer. Sharing and discussing during this procedure should lead different people to discover how to ground a factual statement, and to agree on the most correct answer.
Interpretative or speculative questions
Interpretative or speculative questions are based on an individual’s interpretation of a fact, which can vary. Some answers may be more appropriate than others depending on the support they have, or how plausible the proposed interpretation is according to the group. Good interpretations should be grounded in reason and require a degree of critical thinking to be generated. It may be hard to reach consensus on one favored answer, and conflict of opinion may remain unresolved, based on the experience and different backgrounds of people involved .
Evaluative questions ask students to express their personal opinions on public discussion or debate based on their own inclinations or dispositions with respect to some future possibilities. They presuppose neither right nor wrong answers, nor methods for their verification, as they rely on personal opinion and are often autonomous.
3. How many possible answers?
The criterion above only depends on the kind of procedure to evaluate whether an answer to the question is adequate. Let’s separate it from the second independent criterion, which requires evaluating how many answers a question allows (note that we are partially re-inventing the usual distinction between open and closed questions). Based on this second idea, we can identify the following types of questions.
Rhetorical questions are only questions because they end with a question mark. Despite their form, their answer is known and presupposed by the speaker, thus they are actually equivalent to mere statements (with some dramatic tension added). You may expect to find some examples now but the definition here is clear enough to make you recognize a rhetorical question when you find one, don’t you think? 😉
Open questions—at the opposite of rethorical ones—can be answered with a large variety of alternative and equally acceptable answers. Instances of these open questions can be depicted in this way: “What have you liked most about your school activities, today?”, “What are the reasons that brought on World War II?”, or even “Can you tell me one place where the death penalty is legal?”
Closed questions can be answered with a simple dichotomous answer—i.e., ‘yes’ or ‘no’, or ‘true’ or false’. Examples of closed questions are easy to find: “Are you ready to start the lesson?”, “Did you find the test difficult?”, or “Did the French revolution take place in 1789?”
Semi-open questions do not presuppose a single answer—and they are similar to open questions. On closer examination, one realizes that they have usual or expected answers, which makes them look more similar to closed or even rethorical questions in some contexts. As an example, consider “How are you?” When driven by genuine motivation to know the state of the addressee, it is an open question as it supports several possible answers. Sometimes, however, it only plays the role of courtesy before introducing the main topic of a conversation (E.g.: “Hi Bill, how are you?” “Hi Joana, I’m fine, and you?” “Fine! I just wanted to tell you…”) In this case, “How are you?” is not an open question as it expects one predetermined answer. (In fact, in American English, “How are you?” often admits to no answers at all (or a very short one)! “How are you, Bill?””How are you, Joana?” “I just wanted to tell you…”)
4. Why focus on the type of question?
Having distinguished the different criteria above, arguing that some types of questions (e.g., as is often said with closed questions) are always “bad” is a mistake. Indeed, what matters is knowing whether a question is appropriate within its context and the type of answer it presupposes—, not at how many answers it presupposes—that is, whether it is open or closed (as we defined them).
Accordingly, factual questions are generally not good for introducing debates but can be useful in many situations in which well-grounded answers are needed—disregarding from whether they are open, closed or something else. If a teacher wants to employ a factual question to get the attention of their students at the start of a lesson by introducing a surprising fact, they can do it in the following ways:
- “Do you know when an African-American austronaut has been sent in space for the first time? In 1983, 22 years after Alan Shepard’s first space trip” (open question), or
- “When was an African-American austronaut sent in space for the first time, in 1961, 1972, or 1983? (semi-open question), or even
- “Did you know that an African-American austronaut was sent in space for the first time only in 1983?” (rethorical question).
Note that the question will reach its goal of grasping your students’ attention independently from the shape it has. What matters more is that it presents a striking fact. (If you are interested in understanding how to use factual questions, I recommend reading these two articles: the first explores the cognitive function of a question, the second locates these functions within the structure of a lesson or presentation.)
Interpretative questions are good at stimulating discussion. And, they may do so whether they are open or closed. Reconsider the example we introduced at the beginning. Any of the following can be asked:
- “What are the reasons behind the start of World War II?” (open question), or
- “What was the most relevant factor for the start of World War II, the economic crisis that Germany had gone through in the 1930s or the feeling of nationalism growing in Europe during the same years?” (semi-open question), or
- “Did World War II start because of the economic crisis that Germany had gone through in the 1930s?” (closed question).
All questions are equally valid in starting a productive discussion. What makes the difference is not the number of possible answers presupposed by the question, but the fact that it focuses on a complex subject that is open to alternative interpretations.
Finally, we can draw similar consideratios even for evaluative questions. Because they build on personal experience, and anticipate no correct answer, evaluative questions are good at creating a bond with students, warming them up, or for slowing down the pace of the lesson. Consider, for instance:
- “What would you like to do?” (open question), or
- “Would you like to take a break now, or in 10 minutes?” (semi-open question), or
- “Would you like to take a break now?” (closed question).
They are all equally good to ask your students, and in deciding whether it is better to have a break immediately or not.
5. Cognitive load and the number of permissible answers
We saw that what really matters to select a question is its intended function: is the goal to focus students on some fact, to trigger discussion, to gather feedback, or to allow them to share their own personal experiences and viewpoints? Consequently, why should we focus on the second criterion concerning the number of answers considered plausible by a question?
The second criterion is important because it deals with the cognitive load of a question, that is, the total amount of mental effort required (to the working memory) to process it, and to provide an answer. Importantly, as to cognitive load, instructional designers distinguish two kinds:
- Intrinsic cognitive load is the effort inherently associated with generating an answer. For instance, finding the sum of 2+2 is simpler than solving a differential equation.
- Extraneous cognitive load is determined by how the information is presented to the learner. For instance, is the same mental operation needed to answer “What is the sum of 2+2?”, or “Is the sum of 2+2 equal to 5?” Apparently yes. However, as the sum of two even numbers is also even, you don’t really need to calculate the result of the second question to answer “No”. (A student may also adopt this strategy even if the example was more complex: “Is the sum of 56 and 18 equal to 75?”). By affording such alternative answering strategies, the second question reduces its intrinsic cognitive load.
Now apply the difference between intrinsic and extraneous cognitive load to the present discussion. Before answering a question, your audience will likely attempt to evaluate possible alternatives. (Evaluation, as we have seen in the previous article, is the fourth cognitive process which can be triggered by asking a question). The more possible answers there are, the greater the question’s cognitive load, or the longer it will take students to reply. Thus, by manipulating questions according to the second criterion, teachers can take control over how much effort they want their students to experience in cognitive load.
Similarly to what we saw with respect to the first criterion, it is important to realize that every type of question (e.g., open or closed) may be more or less relevant in different situations. What makes a question “bad” in some contexts may equally make it more suitable in other contexts (e.g., if alternative answers are acceptable, a semi-open question may be indicated whenever teachers want their students to reply quickly). Because of this, it is important to consider the quality of the answer expected and the time needed to reply before asking the question.
Open questions will provide replies you might not expect, and take time to answer. Because of this, they should be used by teachers when they really want to probe a student’s understanding, dig into a subject, raise discussion over a topic, or gather feedback. Teachers should plan to dedicate time for elaborating on given answers, so that students are rewarded for their effort.
On the other hand, closed questions will give teachers immediate feedback, and engage students quickly. Used in a rapid series, they can create a sense of urgency and raise the energy of a group of students. Exploiting closed questions can keep teachers in contact with their students, summarize content that was just explained with short interaction, or provoke students’ attention. They can also be used similarly to rhetorical questions because they allow for fewer alternatives and don’t always require additional time to elaborate on the discussion.
Teachers can also scale up or down the type of questions they ask to meet the needs of their students. Most teachers, at least once in their teaching life, have experienced asking students questions at the end of a discussion and then seeing them avoid eye contact. If teachers find themselves in that situation, they should consider scaling down the cognitive load of the question. If it was an open question, they can turn it into a semi-open question, which will provide students with a few options to answer. If it was already semi-closed, it can be made into a closed question which focuses on a yes/no answer. This technique also works when teaching younger children, who may be puzzled by open questions for many reasons.
Conversely, teachers can scale up the type of a question to initially grab the attention of their students, then raise it to a more complex, open discussion. This technique can be useful for introducing new concepts and teachers can start by prompting the personal life experiences of students with rhetorical and closed questions, then bring things into focus on more complex matters with semi-open and open questions. Again, children will likely appreciate it. They normally intervene easily to answer closed questions, and get excited to consider more open ones.
Summary & conclusion
To sum up, we have seen that:
- Often it is claimed that open questions are preferred over closed questions.
- However, open and closed questions actually differ with respect to two criteria, that is:
- the type of answer (factual, vs. interpretative, vs. evaluative), and
- the number of possible answers (open, vs. semi-open, vs. closed, vs rhetorical).
- Asking effective questions will require teachers to weigh both criteria in order to tailor their questions to the needs and limitations of their students.
- Selecting the right question for the right time requires evaluating separately:
- the expected function of asking (whether grabbing your students attention and focusing on matter of facts, creating debate, or gaining feedback and personal experience);
- the cognitive load that students are ready to support in order to answer (whether teachers want students to think carefully about an answer, or rather they intend to use questions to create a short interaction with students).
- Teachers may also scale
- up from closed to open questions progressively require more from students about a subject, or
- down from open to closed questions whenever students are finding it hard to answer.
What will you remember about this reading? What was most interesting to you: the difference between factual and interpretative questions, or the focus on a question’s cognitive load? In the end, both of them are important, don’t you think?
Think about what you can modify in your teaching by following some of the ideas you just read about. It doesn’t need to be a major change: if you gained something by reading this, even a minor adjustment may be worth the effort.
As usual, If you feel like to share your impressions, please write in the comments below! Tell others what you liked, or express critical evaluations, doubts, or… questions! 😉
If you enjoyed this topic, you can check this article on 5 reasons why questions are so effective in engaging your audience. I will also write future articles to expand on this topic, and write about:
- When is it appropriate to ask a question? Pacing your questions to your learning activities;
- What should you ask your students? A question for every activity.
Finally, if you are interested in this topic, check the following resources:
- On the theory of questions: Meyer, M. (Ed.). (2011). Questions and Questioning. Walter de Gruyter.
- On the use of factual questions: Factual Questions In eLearning: What eLearning Professionals Should Know.
- On cognitive load: Cognitive Load Theory, Helping People Learn Effectively by MindTools