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How Do I Phrase A Question That Will Get Students Thinking?


Even since I stumbled upon this


What would happen if everyone jumped at once?


I've asked myself: How can I come up with class discussion questions as interesting as that? Questions that really get students thinking.cape-verde-320788_640.jpg



The question about "jumping all at once" really piques the readers' interested.  What would happen anyway? You just have to find out.  This is a better question than simply asking students, "Well, what did you think about the reading in the text?"


I find it hard to come up with a method of creating questions like these, but here's my thoughts:


  • It's All in How You Phrase the Question: we know if you ask students or friends a question like "What did you do at school/work today?" the answer will be "Nothing". Never ask a question that could have a one-word answer. An example I remember from the book, The Power of Mindful Learning goes something like this:
    • Don't ask students whether we can create a birth control method that is delivered through the nose (the answer will be, "Umm...No").  Instead ask, How can we create a birth control method that is delivered through the nose? (phrased this way, students do more thinking).
    • Other ways to phrase questions: 
      • How could we.."?
      • What would happen if...?
      • What would you do if...?
      • If we did X what would happen with Y?
  • Current Events: if you can tie class learning to a current event that's great (as I did here), but you've got to be "on top of the news" for this one. A couple suggestions: 
    • All the credible news sources: CNN, NBC, ABC, NYT, etc.
    • Twitter Moments - fun place to see what people are talking about
    • Your favorite blogs (preferably all entered into a curation tool like Feedly.
    • Services that deliver topics of interest to you in your email.  Example: Nuzzle and Right Relevance.
  • Get Students to Come Up With Examples: instead of me trying to think of an application of the term(s) that need to be learned, I ask myself "What's the CORE of the idea we're learning?" and "Essentially, we're learning about what?" And then I ask students:
    • Where do you see this in your own lives?
  • Use the Internet: hopefully you have the world's information at your fingertips in class.  Use it. Take the students' ideas and do a search to see what examples or data is out there on their

Any other suggestions on how to come up with really intriguing questions for the concepts you're teaching in class?


 NOTE: oh and by the way, if you want the answer to that "jumping at once" question, the What If website and from one of my favorite YouTube channels, Vsauce (where, apparently over 25 million people are interested in the answer to this question):





"What comes next?"... questions are a good way to get students to think forward with concepts.



Maggie Major

Valued Contributor

Agreed, Maggie!


"What's next?" is one of the most powerful questions I ask my students. As a writing teacher, it works across the board from teaching process to cause/effect to narrative to descriptive writing.




I like it - questions that essentially ask, "What comes next?" really gets us wondering doesn't it?  It gets you to look up at the ceiling and say " guess X would happen next...and then Y...". 



I think you actually missed one of the most useful things you do, which is to pay attention to questions and comments in blogs and the like to spur your own creativity. Here, you stumbled on an interesting question (What would happen if everyone jumped at once), and used it to inform not just the content you teach, but how you teach it. In this case, it caused you to consider how to create compelling questions.


As for me, I love writing discussion questions for my online classes in which I ask students to engage with real-life materials. For a grant-writing assignment, I recently asked students to visit a public website that contains real grant applications and then to choose which two out of three they would fund. Students start talking about the pros and cons of the various applications in light of what they've learned, and we're off to the races. In this case, (and in most of my questions), there isn't necessarily a right or wrong answer. Rather, it's all about encouraging students to apply what they've learned about a concept and how they think they would apply it. I also ask students to reply to their classmates suggesting factors they may have missed or other perspectives that they should also consider. This helps to cut down on the "cheerleader" responses and keeps the conversation rich and engaging. 


...although I do think you win the prize on this one! (Seriously--I've gotta go check out Feedly now...)




I love your grant writing assignment.  I've been involved in a few grants and, honestly, they weren't the most exciting experiences.  A whole class on grant writing! Well, we did a lot of good with those grants.


I can imagine that writing a stimulating grant proposal title would be a good skill to have.  Sounds engaging.

With teaching technology, there are a lot of questions that we ask with the "what would happen if" type of questions. In my Intro to Computing class, one of the questions that always gets the most response, and I usually have to stop the discussion, is "What would we lose in the event of" and then I fill in the blank. For example, what would happen if we had an attack that took out all electronics that essentially took us back to the 1800's? What would happen if a ransomware attack hit the NSA? These types of questions allow the students to use their imaginations and critical thinking skills. It also allows them to come up with scenarios that I then turn into group research projects for the next class.
Frequent Commenter

I agree that properly phrasing discussion questions can lead to authentic, rich discussions with online students. When I teach Environmental Biology, I require students to reply to weekly questions like... "Do you have any concerns with the course or assignments?", "What is at least one thing you learned this week related to environmental biology?", and "What is one current event that is occurring this week related to environmental biology?".


However, the questions that spark the most interest and the ones that students comment about when asked, "what was your favorite activity in the environmental biology course?", are the Environmental Dilemmas. Every week, students have an Environmental Dilemma that requires them to decide what they would do when faced with a dilemma related to some aspect of environmental biology. One example, "If you were walking through the woods and came upon a fawn (baby deer), what would you do? I provide students with several options as well as "other". Would you try to pet it, leave it alone, try to feed it, or call the local wildlife office? (Surprisingly, I had a student one semester who thought a fawn was some type of bird. He said he would put it back in the tree. Ha!!! Ha!!!)


The point I'm trying to make is that I agree that with great questions, you and your students can have great online discussions. Science is an AWESOME subject where students can review articles/literature, write about what they have learned, and provide their own supported ideas/opinions.


Please continue sharing how you engage students in online discussions. We do this in the classroom but it is sometimes difficult to spark conversations online.


Thanks.... Reggie


Hi Reggie,


Your post remind me of a card-switching activity I did called, "21." I asked the students to write down on an index card (no names) an ice breaking activity they really enjoyed. After all the students wrote down their response, I had them to switch cards several times until I said stop. When they stopped, they were to pair up with someone and rate the card (total of both cards had to equal 7). So, one card may receive a score of 4 and the other card, a 3. Or, one card could receive a 1 and the other card, a 6. Also, if they ended up with their own card, they had to switch again. After, switching for two more times (7 X 3 = 21), students were to add the numbers on the back of the card in their possession. Once everyone had a total, the student who total was 21 (or 20, or 19, etc.) read their ice breaker.  The student who wrote the 2 winning ice breakers would receive a prize. I received several good ideas for ice breakers to add to my toolkit. Much to my surprise, the winning ice breaker was the one I did with baloons.



Even in an online class, you can gather responses. I have it set up where students have to post first before seeing other students' posts.



Hey @Reggie_Cobb: I saw in your comment that you ask students about current events related to environmental biology.  I'm just curious: where (what sites, sources) do you have students go to find current events in envitonmental bio?

Frequent Commenter



I allow students to find their own articles. Usually students find articles on local or nation news media sites. They have to provide the URL and a brief synopsis of the article.

Valued Contributor

Newsela is a REALLY great resouce for research. We have considered including them with our e-Text/pilots at our institution. Perhaps Cengage could develop something similar for us! 😉


@Jenny_Billings did you mean Newsela? I just heard about Newsela today on the Cult of Pedagody podcast (which is a great podcast by the way).  I checked out Newsela and it appears to be geared more toward the high school level. Am I night right about that?

Valued Contributor

Yes, that's the one! We have seen lots of demos of it and have liked what we see! Yes, geared more toward high school BUT would be amazing for developmental students and can be customized for higher levels. So many of our community college students are on HS reading levels so I think it would be welcomed.


I teach Western Civilization survey (General Education) for 100+ students per section. And, yes, I do incorporate discussion into my classes. I find that the students' responses are more confident and informed if I first direct their attention to a specific portion of the text. MindTap is great for this since they can access it on their mobile app. Then I try to frame a "why" question. We know that the Renaissance emerged first in the Italian city-states in the 14th century. Why? Why that time and that place? This asks them to identify the historical context and to think about how multiple causal factors work together.


And when I can, I ask them to draw parallels with the present. This works very well with topics such as Plato's critique of democracy. I have them read the short section in the text and identify his critique, working in pairs so they can discuss it with a partner. Then I have them give their responses as a class and ask them to evaluate each one. Do you agree with Plato or not? Invariably, they draw connections between Plato's ideas and the current political scene.

Valued Contributor

We use foreshadowing tactics and "write the ending" assignments all the time in ENG. Very powerful, shows students' attention to detail, and critical thinking (i.e. "Why would this happen and in THIS order?", think cause and effect, etc.).


Hello All,


I enjoyed reading and taking note on the previous comments.


In my Learning Frameworks course, I like to have students respond to videos or articles that I post in the discussion forum (sometimes called the, "water cooler").  I have guidelines for posting beautiful comments  and no credit is given for "yes, no, or I agree" only responses.


I may ask some of the questions below?

  • Why do you think the author said....?
  • Give an example of ....
  • After viewing the video, what you have learned that is applicable to you as a student?
  • What is another way to look at...?
  • Share the video, but not the ending...What do you think happened at the end?
  • How does this article relate to our discussion on... ?
  • Why to you think I asked this question?
  • Have the student to read two articles on the same topic from two different authors. Students can compare and contrast the articles focusing in on bias.



I like your question formats Essie, especially the "Share the video, but not the ending" idea.  Also like the idea of showing the first part of a video and then pausing it.  I've got to use that approach more often.  Usually I just show the whole video.  Gotta stop doing that.

Frequent Commenter

Thank you for sharing what you do with your students.  I think I will try some of these approaches which seem potentially thought provoking if used for the right discussions.


I completely agree that there is an art and science to phrasing a question effectively in order to solicit the best student feedback and to spur discussion. One thing I would add is that facilitating a good discussion goes beyond asking good questions, but the art of PAUSING. The most thought provoking questions in the world are not worth a dime if we don't know when to pause... and when to move on. Learning how to pause, and give students time to think about a question before asking another question, and learning the art of calling on students without making them feel put on the spot - those are really important. Without them, discussions will die.