Good Habits for Using Open Questions

Note: This blog is used with permission and has been adapted from Betsy’s original blog published on an internal page of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization website

We’ve all been on the receiving end of a poorly-framed question in a learning situation. You know the ones I’m talking about; where your first response is “What’s she getting at?” Or, after a powerful and evocative video clip, the facilitator asks, “So… did you like it?” As educators, we rarely intend to shut learners’ voices down, but we can develop good habits that take advantage of the power and value of an open question.

First, a few definitions:

A closed-ended question seeks a specific answer and gives your learner the choice of which box to put it in: yes, no, regurgitate XYZ fact. A closed question can have value, such as checking if your participants are tracking what you’re trying to convey. But even that can have pitfalls – what if only the people who “get it” reply to your question? You are still none the wiser about what your learners are learning.

A better option is the open question, which seeks not to shut down the dialogue, but to open it up.

For example, instead of asking, “Did you like the video clip?” you can ask, “What was the most powerful part of the video for you?”

A well-thought-out open question can catapult people to their growing edge, while also adding to the entire group’s learning journey. A good open question doesn’t have a “right” answer. It allows for each person to answer from their own knowledge, expertise, and lived experience – and to bring their experience to the topic at hand.

This is what is going to make the learning “stick.” And that’s what matters – how this information goes out into the world and gets used. Not…did I cover everything I know about the subject, even though I didn’t stop for a breath, and neither did they, and none of us could wait for it to be over, including me?

A good open question is not vague or wishy-washy either. You use and trust YOUR expertise as an educator to shape the question. You are not giving over control of the class to the learners. Claim your agency here as an active, in-charge facilitator. You’ve got this!

Getting Started

Start by asking yourself, “Why am I asking this question?” Then, shape your open question accordingly.

For example, if the video clip is intense emotionally and you want them to connect to their experience try, “What did you notice as you watched the video?”

Asking a closed question robs your students of the opportunity to reflect, assimilate the information, and learn. They’ll notice that they got robbed! And you will too when you feel like you’ve lost them, they are not paying attention, or they don’t care.

Your question has great power. Don’t waste it.

Good Habits for Open Questions

  • Write out your open questions ahead of time.
  • Have 2 or 3 options, so you can choose depending on which one has the most “zing” for that particular group.
  • If you think of a good question on the fly, put it in your notes for next time or exchange it with your co-facilitator later. The energy of the people in the class may inspire you.
  • Give learners more time to ponder the question; you’re asking them to dig deep, not just toss out facts. Try waiting ELEVEN seconds (you’ll almost never have to wait that long).
  • Don’t give up and try to answer for them. It has way more impact when THEY reply, not you.
  • If online or going into break out groups, put the question in the chat box or on the screen.

Extra Credit. You can also set them up to succeed before you begin by integrating it into your design. Allow time for the discussion to bear fruit – even if it’s short.

Example: “We’re going to watch this clip from the film “Consider the Conversation,” about Martin Welsh and his experience with ALS. As you watch it, I’d like you to pay attention to what you notice: what you are thinking, how you are feeling, and what you are physically experiencing (e.g., tight shoulders, jittery belly, etc.). After the clip, we’ll pair up and you’ll get to share with your partner.”

Making course corrections

Inevitably, old patterns will win and you’ll slip up. If you hear yourself asking a closed question in front of a group, be humble and make a course correction right then – “Oops, let me reframe that question. Instead of did you notice anything? I want to ask WHAT did you notice about Alice’s response in that case example I just read?” When you do this, you are also modeling humanity – that one doesn’t need to be perfect in order to participate.

Which of these good habits for open questions will you add to your practice?

Betsy Barton, MPH, CT is a Hospice & Palliative Care Educator at Transitions LifeCare in Raleigh NC and a Certified Dialogue Education Practitioner.

Here are some additional tips on open questions: