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July 7 2006/Refreshed July 6 2012


E-Coaching Tip 18: Questions and Answers - Upside Down and Inside Out

Faculty ask questions and students answer questions. Then we know what students know. Right? Well, maybe not.

We may want to turn this traditional questioning model upside down and inside out and try some variations on this traditional model.

After the first few weeks of a course, faculty like to find ways to get more in-depth information on what the students are learning and what they are thinking. Remembering the principle that “Concept development is not a one-time event” we know that students build knowledge over time as a result of a series of experiences.

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to do a CAT (Concept Acquisition Test) Scan and get a graphic output of the structure of each student’s knowledge of a concept including its links and relationships? We would then be able to tweak planned course experiences to build on what we know the students know.

Until we have cognitive scans that graphically map student’s knowledge, what tools do we have to discover the state of learner’s knowledge and skills? How do we know what the students know? Rather than a focus on having students produce answers, we might turn the tables and have the students ask questions.

Inquiry as a Reflection of Knowledge

Why might we want to have the learners ask questions? Because we often can’t move forward on a problem or learning a new skill until we can specify what we don’t know. By stating what we don’t know, we are actually creating a “holding space” within a structure of our knowledge base for that new knowledge, concept or process.

Let’s think about what is required of learners when they are asked to generate questions. Learners need to pause and think. They need to go into their heads, review what they know and identify what questions they might have. Learners are often afraid of asking questions and with good reason. A question reveals the structure or lack of structure of their existing knowledge, links and relationships. Answering factual questions, for example, is often a simple stimulus-response action, requiring little real thought or analysis. More complex questions, however, such as probing or clarifying questions require tapping into a learner’s state of conceptual development, and examining the links and relationships that are either formed or beginning to form.

Using Discussion Forums for Student Questioning

The discussion forum in online classes is often used to ask students questions, to have them analyze problems or scenarios, and to apply ideas and concepts from readings to local conditions.

We ask questions, such as “What do you know? What do you think you know? How do you know what you know? What is the basis for your knowledge? These are good questions. Having the students’ generate the questions based on their interpretation and understanding of the content resources would provide a different perspective.

Here are a few specific ideas for challenging the students to come up with tough questions. Any of these activities could also be small team activities. The simpler activities could be dyad activities and the more complex involving scenarios might be done with a team of three students.

  • Play a variation of “Stump the FacultyMember” in which the learners generate scenarios, or questions for the faculty member. Or maybe you can arrange for a nationally-known expert to participate in a discussion and be available for answering questions. This type of experience is ideal for a synchronous live classroom event, once you have tested it yourself.
  • Post a statement, article, scenario, or video news clip on the discussion forum and ask students to generate a set of data-gathering questions that they would like to have answered to help address a likely problem or case.
  • Set up a discussion forum that students use to describe problems that they have learned to address and problems that would still stump them. Students can research the net for examples of such problems for authentic problems in a particular field of inquiry.
  • Establish an open forum for a week and have the students generate questions and problems related to the readings.
  • Encourage students to question information that they may have gathered from an Internet search. Questions that can be encouraged include: Who asserted this? What are this person’s credentials? Who had the opportunity to critique this idea? Who supports and who disagrees with it?(Bruckman, 2005, p.36.)

The basic take-away from this tip is to “turn the tables” and have students generate questions for themselves. Questioning by students in an online class can become a form of testing and evaluation; it can also build useful critical thinking skills, inquiry skills and cognitive inquisitiveness about what it is we really do know, why we know something and what links and relationships are part of our knowledge structure.

Helping Learners Define and Ask Good Questions

It is easy to forget that asking good questions is a skill that might benefit from some direct instruction and coaching. The references below on asking good questions can be part of your instruction and guidance to your students. Enjoy!


Bruckman, A. S. (2005). Student Research and the Internet. Communications of the ACM. 48: 35-37.

McGraw Center. (2009-2012). The Scholar as Teacher. A Tip-Sheet Series from McGraw.This site has a whole series of tips. Check out the following tips: Asking Good Questions in Class and Encouraging Interaction in Science and Engineering and Facilitating Discussion in Humanities and Social Sciences Classes.

The Teaching Center (2009). Washington University at St. Louis Asking Questions to Improve Learning.  Retrieved July 8 2012 from http://teachingcenter.wustl.edu/asking-questions-improve-learning

Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2010 in a book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by designingforlearning.org.





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Revised May 20 2013
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 1997-2013