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How to Tutor Effectively - Asking Good Questions

Updated on January 20, 2014
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Asking the right questions is key to successful tutoring. As a tutor, how often have you given a brilliantly crafted explanation, only to be met with a blank stare? By asking good questions, you can make sure your student is actively engaged in the learning process, promoting deeper understanding of the subject matter. The questions you ask should help your students reinforce basic ideas, build connections among concepts, and push them to apply their knowledge to new situations.

In her book Tools for Teaching, Barbara Davis briefly outlines ten types of questions that are useful for instructors to ask. Here, I will expand upon these questions, provide examples, and relate their importance to effective learning. Notice that these questions move from simpler to more complex levels of thought.

Exploratory Questions

  • Ask students to recall basic information.
  • Examples: “What is kinetic energy?”, “What is a vector?”
  • Ask this type of question at the beginning of a tutoring session so you can figure out what your student already knows and where there might be gaps in information or understanding.

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Challenge Questions

  • Ask students to question their assumptions, conclusions, and interpretations (or those of others).
  • Examples: “If there is no gravity in space, how does the Earth stay in orbit around the sun?”, “Are there any other explanations that could account for these findings?”
  • This is a good type of question to ask if your student has made an error in thinking, and you’re trying to get the student to correct the error themselves. In the above example about gravity, students often make the false assumption that there is no gravity in space. Students are more likely to remember the correct approach if they self-correct rather than having someone just tell them the right answer.

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Relational Questions

  • Ask students to compare similarities and differences among concepts.
  • Examples: “What is the relationship between the potential and kinetic energy of the ball at these two different points?”, “What are some differences between mammals and reptiles?”
  • Deep learning requires students to develop a schema, a kind of mental concept map of their learning. You can facilitate this process by asking your students to articulate relationships among concepts. Understanding these relationships helps students push their learning beyond mere memorization of facts.

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Diagnostic Questions

  • Ask students to describe underlying concepts or processes.
  • Examples: “Why did you use l’hopital’s rule in this problem?”, “Why did you draw the force in that direction?”
  • If students just memorize facts and equations without understanding the underlying reasoning, they’ll get stuck later when they try to build on what they know or are expected to apply their knowledge to new situations. Asking diagnostic questions helps you make sure that your students comprehend what they are studying and that they aren’t just repeating memorized facts. Even if a student is on the right track, it’s good to ask them to explain their reasoning.

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Action Questions

  • Ask the student what they would do, or what others should do.
  • Examples: “What is the first thing you should do when setting up this type of problem?”, “What should the company in this example do if it wants to maximize its profits?"
  • Once a student has a fair grasp of the concepts being studied, asking action questions is a good way to gauge their ability to apply what they know to new situations. In something like math or physics, try to use examples that are a bit different from what the student may have just studied, instead of just using the same problem with different numbers.

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Cause-and-Effect Questions

  • Ask the student to identify the causal relationship between ideas or events.
  • Examples: “Why did the hydrogen atom lose its electron in this reaction?”, “Why was heat released in this reaction?”
  • Sometimes students just memorize equations or steps, and cause-and-effect questions can help you check that your student understands underlying causal relationships.

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Summary Questions

  • Ask the student to summarize or synthesize what they’ve learned so far.
  • Examples: "Let's review what we've discussed--the next time you see this type of problem, what steps will you take to find the solution?", “Can you repeat that explanation back to me in your own words?”
  • Summary questions are useful near the end of a tutoring session to check the student’s understanding. You can also sprinkle summary questions throughout the tutoring session to make sure your student is on the right track.

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Priority Questions

  • Ask the student to identify the most important cause or issue.
  • Examples: “What is the most important factor in determining the type of reaction?”, “Based on what you’ve studied, what is the most significant factor in determining infant mortality rates in developing countries?"
  • Since priority questions can often elicit short answers, you may want to follow up with a “why” question asking the student to explain their reasoning. Using priority questions is a good way to push a student’s thinking beyond surface facts.

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Hypothetical Questions

  • Change the facts or conditions of a problem, and ask your student to draw a new conclusion.
  • Examples: “How would your solution change if the mass were moved by a constant force instead of being attached to a spring?”, “What would happen if I add more oxygen to this reaction?"
  • Hypothetical questions are similar to cause-and-effect questions, but they require students to apply concepts to a different situation rather than explaining what is already given. These are good questions for reinforcing a student’s understanding after they successfully finish a problem.

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Try using some of these question types during your next tutoring session. Even if you choose just a few to add to your tutoring routine, you should see a difference in your students’ learning. As you get more practice, you’ll start to get a sense for which questions work best for you.

Extension Questions

  • Ask the student to extend what they’ve learned to a new situation or context.
  • Examples: “How might momentum and energy be important later in our study of nuclear physics?”, “How could you design an experiment to test this idea?"
  • Since extension questions require students to stretch their understanding beyond what is normally expected, only use these questions once your student has mastered the fundamental concepts. Often textbooks will include extension or “challenge” questions at the end of a chapter, so you can mine these for ideas.

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