Asking and Answering Questions

Asking and answering questions, a form of active learning and a form of assessment, is an excellent teaching tool. Posing questions to students breaks the monotony of lecturing and increases active participation, understanding, and retention. Questions asked by students will clarify content and may provide feedback on your presentation.

Asking Questions

When you ask a question, allow time for students to think of an answer. Even though it may seem like an eternity, try counting to ten to yourself in order to give the students adequate time to respond. Your silence will usually encourage an answer. If no one has answered the question after ten seconds and they are not making eye contact, try rephrasing the question or providing a hint to prompt a response.

Types of Questions

Memory questions are designed to assess knowledge of facts and can be yes-no, definitions, lists of names/places/dates.
Example: Which UT Libraries are open to undergraduates for research, study, and learning support?

Attention-focusing questions help students fix their attention on significant details.

Examples: Have you ever used X database? What have you noticed about its look/feel/searchability?

Convergent questions are all about what, who, when or where. They are good for practice, drill, review of information and usually have one best answer

Example: How can you get help with your research project at the UTLibraries?

Divergent questions start with how or why and are designed to encourage students to plan, process, and synthesize their thoughts.

Example: How would you go about finding information on X research topic?

Evaluative questions are broad, open-ended, and encourage the development of opinions, judgments, or decisions.

Examples: Do you agree…? What do you think about…? What is the most important…? Place the following in order of priority…? How would you decide about…? What criteria would you use to evaluate…?

Problem-posing questions help students plan and implement solutions to problems.

Examples: Can you find a way to…? Can you figure out how to…?

Reasoning questions help students think about experiences and construct ideas that make sense to them.

Examples: Why do you think…? What is your reason for…?

Presented by Carrie Donovan at the 2012-2013 University of Texas Libraries Teaching Colloquium and inspired by: Ricigliano, L. (2000). Learning to Question. LOEX News, 27(2): 6-7

Tips for Asking Questions to Engage and Assess Learners

Asking the right question is often difficult and asking questions at all is a risk. When you first start teaching, it can be difficult to introduce questions into your class plan. When you ask a question, you’re taking a risk and relinquishing control of the classroom to the learners. This creates a more student-centered classroom, but also requires preparation and practice. The tips below are designed to help you consider strategies for asking and answering questions.

  • Be patient. When you ask a question, allow time for students to think of an answer. Even though it may seem like an eternity, try counting to ten to yourself in order to give the students adequate time to respond. Your silence will usually encourage an answer. If no one has answered the question after ten seconds and they are not making eye contact, try rephrasing the question or providing a hint to prompt a response.
  • Ask closed questions to begin and promote engagement. Students need time to acclimate to the classroom and the session. Closed questions require only "yes" or "no" responses, and asking them at the beginning of a session can help get the ball rolling and can give you an idea of how much students already know about the library. Examples include "Have you ever visited the library's Web page?" or "Can you find journal articles in the library's catalog?" At first students may not even feel comfortable enough to answer a closed question. In that case, try asking the question differently. For example, ask them to raise their hands if they have visited the library's Web page. Introduce questions that rely on their own experience rather than knowledge they’ve retained about the research process, such as “Where do you usually start your search when you need to find information on a topic?”
  • Introduce more open questions as students become more comfortable with the session and with you as a teacher. Open questions require more complicated responses than simply "yes" or "no." These are Examples of open questions include "How do you find articles in the library?" or "What are some keywords we could use to search this topic?"
  • Encourage students to ask questions and include prompts and time for questions in your class plan. In addition to asking specific questions, you want to encourage students to ask you questions. You can do so by letting your class know during the introduction that you want them to interject and ask a question at any time. You may also want to check in with students along the way to see if they have questions. It is particularly useful to do so just before moving on to a new concept because it provides an opportunity to review the main points of the section. Providing time for questions after an active learning exercise can also help transition the class out of the activity.

Use questions to determine what students have learned. You can use questions to determine if your students are grasping the concepts you are trying to teach. Depending upon the rapport you have built with your class, try one of the following:

  • If your class seems comfortable and has been participating, you may want to simply ask if there are any questions before you move on.
  • If they are quiet or seem shy and reserved, you may want to ask people to raise their hands or nod if they understand the concept. If a number of students do not raise their hands, you know you need to go over the concept again. You can also ask students to answer questions in smaller groups or pairs first to give them more confidence.
  • Ask the class to answer a question which sums up the main points of that section of the session before you move on. For example, if you spent time discussing how to find articles if they are not full-text in a database, you may want to ask "If I want to find an article in the library from a citation, what do I search in Library Catalog? The title of the article or the title of the journal?" They will (hopefully!) all answer "the title of the journal." This response indicates that they understand the concept and reinforces it.

Consider using anonymous feedback methods and technology to assess understanding. Students are often afraid to ask questions and assume they’re the only ones who are confused. Embed a Surveymonkey quiz in an online course research guide or use a tool like PollEverywhere to gain real-time anonymous feedback that allows you to quickly identify concepts that need additional clarification or follow-up after the course. (See the Assessment section for more information about assessing student learning.)
Using repetition with questions: You can also repeat the same questions throughout your presentation to ensure that students learn important concepts from the session. For example, you can ask them "Can you find articles in the Library Catalog?" By the third or fourth time, all of them will have it down.
Avoiding asking “Does everyone understand?” or “Is that clear?” Students usually do not answer that question as a group. Some may nod, but it is not an effective way to gauge understanding for the entire group. Another pitfall is to ask students to raise their hands if they do not understand. Most students will not want to single themselves out in a group as the one "not getting it."
If no one asks a question, don’t follow up with a statement like “No questions? It’s pretty easy/simple.” The absence of questions does not mean that the concepts are universally understood. Acknowledge that research is a process and takes time to master. Encourage students to contact you later when they have question.
Use inaccurate information as an opportunity for clarification. When you ask an open question, you can’t be certain what students will say! Sometimes students will provide an answer that’s inaccurate. Avoid labeling the answer “wrong” and instead consider one of these strategies:

  • Find out more about their thought process and use further discussion of the answer as a teaching moment: “That’s an interesting answer. Why do you say that?”
  • If some part of the answer is correct, acknowledge that: “You’re right about X, great job, but let’s talk more about Y.”
  • If a student’s answer represents a common misconception, use the opportunity to clarify: “Thanks for that answer. A lot of people believe that, but let’s see why that might not be the case.”
  • Thank the student for trying, invite more answers, and then piece together the correct responses: “Thanks for sharing that. Does anyone else have thoughts on this question?”

Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan. 2013. “Classroom Challenge: Handling Wrong Answers.” Accessed August 13.

Answering Questions

  • Paraphrase/Repeat: If someone in a class asks a question, paraphrase or repeat back the question so that the whole class can hear it before you answer it.
  • Commend/Appreciate: It takes courage to ask a question. When a student asks a question, compliment it with "That's an excellent question" or "I'm glad you asked that." Make sure to answer these questions sincerely since students usually know when an instructor's response isn't genuine.
  • Be Honest: Stumped by a question? Let the person know that you will find out and respond later, either to the class or by email through the faculty member. Remember to commend and appreciate stumpers, too!


Create a list of open and closed questions. In your next session, incorporate some of these questions. After the session, think about how these questions worked. If you keep trying different questions in different sessions, you will have built a repertoire of effective questions to use in different teaching situations.