Types of Questions for Discussions & Dialogue

Types of Questions for Discussions
Vary the cognitive skills your questions call for. Different questions require different levels of
thinking…lower-level questions are appropriate for assessing students’ preparation and comprehension
or for reviewing and summarizing content. Higher-level questions encourage students to think critically
and to solve problems. Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy - a system of ordering thinking skills from lower to
higher - has become a classic:
Bloom’s Taxonomy1
[2001 –
Remembering: Retrieving, recognizing, and recalling relevant knowledge from long-term memory.
Understanding: Constructing meaning from oral, written, and graphic messages through
interpreting, exemplifying, classifying, summarizing, inferring, comparing, and explaining.
Applying: Using information in a new context to solve a problem, answer a question, perform a
Analyzing: Breaking material into constituent parts, determining how the parts relate to one
another and to an overall structure or purpose through differentiating, organizing, and attributing.
Evaluating: Making judgments based on criteria and standards through checking and critiquing.
Creating: Putting elements together to form a coherent or functional whole; reorganizing elements
into a new pattern or structure through generating, planning, or producing2.
Old Version: Pre-2001; New Version: 2001-Present.
2 Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. R. (eds.). 2001. A taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: A revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of
educational objectives: Complete edition, New York: Longman.
I really don’t know what types of questions I should be asking in a discussion…
Avoid asking Yes/No questions [a.k.a “Dead End Questions”]
Ask questions that don’t require just one answer
Ask focused questions
Ask questions that require students to demonstrate their understanding
Use probing questions
Avoid questions that are vague, poorly worded, or unclear [a.k.a “Fuzzy Questions”]
Some typical “ High Mileage” Questions:
1) Playground Questions: Students develop their own themes for exploring material. These questions
encourage students to explore, analyze, and interpret course topics or concepts on their own.
For example: “What do you think the author is saying in this particular passage?”
“ What underlying assumptions about the nature of space must this theorist have?”
2) Focal Questions: Students choose one viewpoint from many possible viewpoints and support the view
with evidence. In this case, students may present their own or opposing views.
For example: “To what extent is Ivan Illich a victim of his own decisions or of society?”
“Is the society in Brave New World a utopia, a nightmare of moral degeneration, or
something between the two?”
3) Brainstorm Questions: Students come up with many ideas on a topic or solutions to a problem.
For example: “How might the public be made to care about ecological imbalances?”
“ What trends starting in the 1960s may have negatively impacted American public
Some of the Qualities of Good Dialogue Questions
1) Real questions - not rhetorical, not veiled attacks, not traps. Questions that you do not have the
answer to.
2) Clearly stated and focused -they ask a single question, not many questions tied together, and they
are understandable.
3) They invite people to find the center, to imagine commonality rather than asking them to take
sides. They aim at building understanding rather than stating positions.
4) They bring assumptions into question and ask people to examine power and stereotypes rather
than reinforcing current prejudices.
5) They should be framed broadly enough to invite new possibilities, but focused enough to give
6) They should ask people to connect in some personal way: to tell of a time when, to express
deeply held values etc.
The Process of Developing Good Dialogue Questions in a Group
1 Dialogue questions should be created through dialogue in the group with all of the same principles
and agreements that apply. In thinking about generating questions about a reading, lecture, event, or
movie ask the following questions:
 What did you notice?
 What are some of the themes that resonated for you?
 What are you curious about?
 What is the difficult dialogue?
2 Then, as a group go around and generate possible questions. Let this be a brainstorming at first.
Try not to judge too quickly. Allow the questions to play in your mind and see if they work for you.
Someone else might want to riff on another person’s question or just create their own to add to the list.
After a time, try to consolidate your many questions in to a couple.
3 Then test your questions against the criteria that is listed at the bottom of this sheet. If you find that
a question you have has elements that limit its dialogic ability see if you can refine and simplify it to
make it more dialogic.
If you are working by yourself to create dialogue questions, follow the same steps.
Some Guidelines for Good Dialogue Questions
Make it personal
Make it broad enough for many possibilities, but focused enough to find direction
What is the deeper issue – is there a question underneath your question?
Make sure they are honest questions, not rhetorical questions.
Be aware of possible assumptions the question has imbedded in it
Make sure you are not asking for a particular answer
Invite many perspectives, not just two.
No “yes or no” questions
If possible, invite possibility, creativity, optimism
Some Questions about your Questions (Adapted from PCP’s power of dialogue)
What work are you asking the question to do? What kind of conversation are you inviting?
Will this invite fresh thinking and feeling? Is it familiar enough to connect but different enough to evoke
a new response?
Does this help people see the world as more complex than before?
Does this question help to reveal the cultural givens or the power dynamics at play or are they
embedded in the question?
Is this question likely to evoke a sense of hope and creativity or a sense of despair?
Does this foster a possibility for revealing connection or rather isolation?
Does this question feel manipulative in any way?