Applying Core Principles to ‘Question Design’

Adults learn best when respect, safety, inclusion, relevance, immediacy and engagement are all present within the learning experience. A distillation of years of educational research, these six core principles are the building blocks of Dialogue Education. Effective questions, so key to dialogue and learning, are designed with these same core principles in mind.


RESPECT: Adults learn best when they know they are respected for their thoughts, ideas, even feelings toward a topic. Connecting a new topic to existing experience is an essential skill of adult educators. Questions that draw upon learners’ prior knowledge of a topic or invite further insights, perspectives, and personal examples demonstrate value for the diversity of knowledge adults bring. Questions which invite critical reflection, assessing possibilities and thinking through implications for the learners’ own personal, professional and/or vocational contexts also communicate respect. And personalizing learner application through a range or choice of responses affirms the uniqueness of each person rather than a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

For example:

  • How does (new topic) connect with your own experience? What seems familiar/What is new?
  • Think of a time when you experienced something similar. How did you feel?


SAFETY: New perspectives often challenge existing assumptions. And while a certain degree of “cognitive dissonance” is welcome in learning (a clear indication of brain activity!), questions which are perceived as threatening or embarrassing can actually limit the brain’s capacity for deep thinking. Instructors and facilitators should pay attention to group dynamics: how well individuals know one another, diversity issues, and other factors which may either foster or mitigate against safety in learning.

Fostering a safe environment requires an appropriate sequence in the design of questions – moving from more distant or general questions to those that invite personal evaluation and application. Questions which invite quiet individual reflection before inviting volunteers to share their responses are often appropriate and are particularly welcome for internal processors. When recalling past experiences, especially for sensitive topics, it may be appropriate to ask learners to recall either a personal experience or one with which they are familiar. Allowing for moderate distance is one strategy for ensuring safety, especially in a group setting.

For example:

  • What are some examples (of this issue)? Call these out in the large group.
  • Where have you seen (this issue) in your own experience? Take 3 minutes to reflect individually and think of an example. As you are comfortable, share your example in the large group (or in a small group or with a partner, depending upon learners’ familiarity with one another).


INCLUSION: This principle affirms that all voices and perspectives are invited to contribute, regardless of ethnicity, physical ability, gender, socio-economic, education, or religious background, and that this diversity can be utilized as a resource for learning. While fostering inclusion is often the responsibility of the instructor/facilitator, well-designed questions can explore a diversity of perspectives, including those which differ from the context in which the content was presented. It’s particularly helpful to use questions that draw upon the expertise and experiences represented in the learning community.

For example, if a text (or lecturer) primarily utilizes examples drawn from a North American context or a majority culture, design questions which invite learners to consider examples from a global perspective.

  • What would this look like in an African context?
  • How might a First Nations community respond to this issue?


RELEVANCE: Meaningful questions help adults recognize the connection between the text/content and their daily lives and concerns. Questions should be designed to help learners thoughtfully consider implications for their learning within their own personal, professional, and vocational contexts – inviting them to connect key themes to significant issues in their own lives. Well-crafted questions which draw upon life experience and personal examples ensure relevance for adult learners and help to make the learning “stick.”

For example:

  • What is a problem or issue in your own context where you see this principle in action?
  • What are the implications of this idea for your own context? Why is it important?


IMMEDIACY: Adults learn best when they have opportunity to apply what they are learning to their present life situation. Questions which invite next steps or action planning help learners implement new knowledge, attitudes, or skills in a timely manner. Case studies or “what if” scenarios help learners see the applicability of the concepts presented and can result in a personal action plan as a culminating project.

For example:

  • How would you apply this principle in your professional context?
  • How would you know that you are successful? Name some indicators. Draft an implementation plan.
  • What is one next step that you could take to incorporate this idea in your life?


ENGAGEMENT: Whole-person involvement is key for effective learning. Creative questions which tap into the cognitive domain (comprehension and intellectual reasoning) AND engage the affective (feelings and emotions) and even psychomotor domains (physical action) help to ensure full participation in the learning. Varying the question response mode by including personal reflection, pair-share, small-group, and whole group dialogue keeps everyone involved rather than only a few learners at a time.

And, inviting the learners themselves to draft questions which are meaningful to them in response to the new content serves to reinforce all six core principles – respect for their ideas, safety in controlling the level of disclosure, inclusion of each perspective, relevance to the learner’s own context, immediacy of application, and engagement of all participants.


How have you included the six core principles in your open questions?

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Dr. Rhonda McEwen has been a Dialogue Education practitioner and educator since 2001. With extensive experience in adult and higher education, Rhonda is deeply committed to grounding her teaching and learning design in the principles and practices of Dialogue Education. Currently, Rhonda is on faculty at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada.

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