December 2020
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Any Questions?
TD Magazine

Any Questions?

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

A facilitator’s effective use of questions—both asking and soliciting them—during a training course makes a huge difference in learner understanding.

When have you experienced the power of a good question? Now consider whether your learners are benefiting from your use of questions.

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Questions provoke contemplation. Responding to and asking questions is an active learning technique that engages participants with content. When an instructor provides tips for decision making, that's a passive activity. An active one is when the instructor asks What are the steps you take when you have a decision to make, and how are those working for you? Questions like How does this content relate to your role? or What do you want to remember from this course? help learners process their experiences and turn them into actions.

Questions also can surface anxieties or levels of confidence—for example: How comfortable are you with this skill right now? Or they can inspire imagination—for instance: If you could institute this process in your own workplace, what would be possible for your team? And questions are a key critical thinking skill in a world in which people need critical thinking to make decisions, sort through a wealth of digital information, and respond in a constantly evolving workplace.

Using questions during live or asynchronous training supports learner understanding because it aligns with several key principles of how people learn. For instance, when participants respond to questions about content or formulate their own questions to ask, they are tapping into their prior knowledge. Formulating their own questions is one way that individuals construct meaning from their experience and environment, which conforms to the constructivist theory of learning.

Using questions capitalizes on more than one of an individual's innate intelligences, including interpersonal (reflection), intrapersonal (social), logical, and verbal or linguistic. The act of responding to test questions not only lets an instructor know whether a learner has absorbed the content but also helps lock in the learning and make it sticky as a result of the testing effect.

Clearly, questions have power, but not all questions pack the kind of punch to produce those benefits.

How can you create powerful questions?

To capitalize on questions, consider the following suggestions.

Build off experiential learning theory. David Kolb suggests that learning occurs in four sequential phases: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract hypothesis, and active testing. Your questions can build off his model by covering these categories:

  • Observation (What happened? What stood out for you?)
  • Comfort level (How comfortable were you?)
  • Learning (What did you learn or relearn?)
  • Benefits (How was this valuable?)
  • Application (In what situations could you see yourself using these ideas?)
  • Needs (What may help you remember this?)
  • Challenges (What may be difficult about doing this in your workplace? How will you get past those obstacles?)

Asking questions about needs and challenges is a self-management strategy that has shown to increase learning transfer. Learning sticks when participants consider how they can use their new knowledge or skills to improve their own performance, set goals, and create a plan for relapse prevention. Such questions facilitate that sort of discussion.

Evoke emotions. Make sure your questions go beyond regurgitation of facts. Ask questions about how a topic is landing for people—what their emotional reaction is. Evoking emotions is one way to encode content for easier retrieval from long-term memory.

Include an appropriate level of challenge. Keep attention and engagement high by asking questions that are neither too easy nor too difficult. It's a good idea to come into your training course with a range of questions so that you can adjust the level of difficulty depending on the group.

Create questions that are open-ended. You're probably already familiar with this tip, but I re-emphasize it because it's so important. Even how you ask for questions can be close-ended when you ask Any questions? rather than the more open—and inviting—What questions do you have?

Use tentative language. It is easier for participants to respond to questions that are framed with tentative language (When could we use this skill? What may be the correct answer?), rather than absolute language (What's the right response?). It's a way of giving learners permission to guess an answer and share their thoughts even if they are unsure.

How do you solicit responses to your questions?

Once you're asking great questions, you're going to need to employ some facilitation techniques that ensure participants will respond.

Ask one question at a time. When you ask too many questions at once, participants can become confused about which question you really want answered. And when they notice that you usually ask multiple questions, they may stop paying attention to your initial ones knowing that you will inevitably add another.

Allow for silence. Once you've asked one good question, pause and allow time for participants to formulate a response. The silence may feel heavy and long to you, but it may not to the learners who are busy thinking. That is especially true when the training content is not in learners' native language. Or it may push someone to blurt something out just to get rid of an uncomfortable silence.

Provide multiple ways to respond. In a classroom, this means allowing participants to submit their questions in writing, on posted flipcharts, and in ways other than raising a hand. That is even easier in a virtual environment with the availability of the chat, polls, annotations, and other tools.

Let them rehearse responses. Activities such as Think, Pair, Share—where participants can reflect on a question individually and with a partner before responding in front of an entire group—enable the more introverted ones to feel comfortable and give everyone a chance to practice what they will say. Similarly, you can pose questions before sending participants out for breaks, or let them reflect in writing before initiating a group conversation.

Give everyone a turn. When all the learners must answer a question, there will be less anxiety about being called on or whether what they have to say is worthy. Don't overuse this strategy, because it means the majority of the group will be in listening mode for an extended period.

Make it easy to respond. When participants are on mute during a virtual training course, that is one extra obstacle to speaking up. Try asking participants to mute only when there is a lot of noise in the background. I've also found it helpful to have people raise their hands by typing the word "Hand" into the chat. That way, I only have to watch one space constantly—the chat—and don't have to keep my eye out for physical hands raised or for raised hands in another (participant) window.

How do you solicit questions from learners?

There is value in having participants respond to questions and even more value in having them pose questions. When learners can take in information and then consider it enough to frame a relevant question, they are actively processing that content in their working memories. But what if, when you make time for their questions, participants aren't asking any?

Use the same tips you would to solicit responses. For example, allow quiet time for learners to formulate questions, provide multiple ways for them to submit questions (in virtual classrooms, use software that enables people to submit questions and lets their peers "vote up" the questions that they also want answered), let them brainstorm questions with a peer before a formal Q&A period, or suggest that everyone submit one question.

Read body language. Sometimes participants will express questions nonverbally and more generally. In such cases, say something to the effect of "Some of you look confused," and ask them what is causing them confusion.

Prompt with personal disclosure. Make asking a question less of a stigma by sharing a personal story of the questions you had when you were in their shoes ("When I was learning this, I wondered …").

Teach them skills for creating a good question. Maybe learners just don't know what's acceptable to ask or how to craft a good question. Share this article, or others on the topic of questioning, so that they learn the benefits of asking questions and how to craft better ones. Regardless of your program's content, it can impart this life skill.

Ask: How should I interpret the lack of questions? When no one is asking anything, find out why. Is it because they are lost and confused? Because something happened before they arrived in the session that is clogging their brains? Is it because the content is too easy? Sometimes when you ask, it will light a fire under them to respond now that they know you've noticed and so that you don't take it personally.

How do you respond to learner questions?

The most nerve-racking part of synchronous training events can be responding to participant questions. Although you can prepare for other parts of the course, this is not one component you can be fully prepared for. Further, you may be concerned about losing credibility during an unplanned dialogue. One tip is to have responses ready for any anticipated learner questions. The following techniques, taken from my book Troubleshooting for Trainers, are additional ways to address participants' weighty questions.

Change your mindset. Move from thinking "Oh no, they're asking questions. I must not have done a good job" to "Wow! They are interested and engaged enough to ask questions" or "Questioning what you hear is a vital critical thinking skill that I can help learners develop."

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Repeat the question when necessary. Some situations warrant you repeating or rephrasing a question. They include when the question needs clarification, when you have a large audience and many participants may not have heard the question, and when the question needs to be reworded.

As an example for the latter situation, if a learner phrased a question in a negative manner or in a way that seems meant to trap you, reword it in a more positive way before giving a response. So, if a learner asks, "Isn't this active listening stuff just patronizing and tricking people into thinking you care?" you could rephrase it as: "José, are you wondering whether active listening is genuine?"

Avoid judgments like "Great question." It may seem natural to label some questions as good, great, or excellent, but those are in fact judgments you are making about the question—and potentially about the questioner. Work on stopping yourself from evaluating each question. Instead, at the end of the Q&A period or periodically during the course, state: "Everyone has asked such thoughtful questions."

Turn the answering over to others. Rest assured that even if you turn over a tough question to others, you will remain an expert facilitator. You can either send the question back to the learner who asked it (Well, what do you think?), to the entire group, or to a specific person (Mae, you've had some thoughts on this; what do you say?). You can even preface that with a statement such as: "I have some thoughts on this topic, but I'd like to ask you all what you think first so that I don't cloud your thinking."

Do a mini-demonstration. If you can respond with both words and visuals, that will enable you to transmit the information across participants' dual auditory and visual channels of working memory. In addition, demonstrating the desired performance or behavior is an example of behavior modeling, which increases the likelihood that the learning will stick.

So, if a learner asks, "How do you respond when someone gets defensive during their performance review?" say, "Let's play out that situation. You be the defensive employee …" Or if someone asks, "How do I submit that form again?" rather than just telling them, go back to the screen where forms are submitted and walk through the process.

Take specific questions offline. Face the whole group when responding to questions to avoid ending up in a private conversation with the person who posed the question. When a question pertains to one individual's circumstance, ask that person if you can respond during a break or after the session. If you don't immediately recognize whether a question pertains to only one person, you can always ask: Is this something the rest of you are wondering?

Ask whether you answered the question sufficiently. Give learners the chance to tell you whether your answer is adequate; if it's
not, take the opportunity to course correct. For example, ask: Did I answer your question?
or Is that what you needed to know?

Don't bluff. When responding to questions, it's important that you don't make things up. If you don't know the answer, say so. That won't make you look bad. What will, however, is making up a response only to be called out later for it being wrong. Tell participants that you don't know but will look into it and respond as soon
as you can.

Exploit the power of questions

How have your thoughts about using questions in training changed as a result of reading this article? What questioning technique would you like to try the next time you are training? How confident are you feeling about your ability to do so?

Unleashing the power of questions will also unleash curiosity, engagement, commitment, and possibility. And if you can leverage that power, how much better could your training be?


Where to Find Good Questions to Ask

Rather than creating questions of your own, you may wish to borrow powerful questions from other fields and walks of life. Here are some sources for thought-provoking questions:

  • Move outside talent development—for example, type "coaching questions" or "appreciative inquiry questions" into a search engine for lists of questions that uncover possibilities and create optimism and hope.
  • Try tested question sets such as Gallup's Q12.
  • Think of a terrific interviewer and watch the individual at work. Note not only what makes that individual so good at what they do but the specific questions they ask.
  • Look at books and games for lighthearted as well as deeper questions that are good for icebreakers or anywhere during a training program. They include The Book of Questions, the If series of books, Questions for the Game of Life, the game TableTopics, or sites like "36 Questions for Falling in Love" (36questionsinlove.com).
  • Build your library of questions. Books like Marilee Adams' Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, Warren Berger's The Book of Beautiful Questions, Michael Marquardt's Leading With Questions, and Margaret Wheatley's Turning To One Another are loaded with inspiring questions.

How to Use Questions in Asynchronous Learning

Even when you are designing e-learning where no instructor will be present, you can capitalize on the benefits of using questions. Here's how.

  • Include rhetorical questions and pauses in your narration. Simply putting some questions out there and allowing participants a moment to consider them can elicit some of the positive learning results questions provide.
  • When your program is covering complicated content, add some links to questions that participants may have had in the past. Those who have the same questions can click on those links; those who don't can continue with the course.
  • Include fields for participants to type a response to your informal questions, and program it so that they must type something into that field to proceed—even if their answer is never scored and even if you can't be sure they aren't just typing random characters into the field. (I've watched; they usually aren't doing that.)
  • Include several informal or graded checks for understanding (quizzes) at an appropriate level of difficulty throughout the program.
  • Include a place for their questions on the final progress check. Respond to questions collectively on your L&D website or in your newsletter. That may even encourage people to watch out for your ongoing communications because maybe a response to their question will appear there.
  • Create discussion boards to accompany your asynchronous learning, and ask participants to place their questions—or their responses to other learners' questions—there. Maybe even require them to do that before they can be marked complete for the course. Monitor the discussion boards to make sure all responses are accurate and appropriate.
About the Author

Sophie Oberstein is an author, coach, adjunct professor, and L&OD consultant helping individuals who are seeking increased effectiveness and satisfaction at work. She’s been in the field of learning and organizational development for more than 20 years at public and private organizations, including Weight Watchers; Columbia University Irving Medical Center; Redwood City, California; and Citibank, N.A.

Oberstein is on the faculty of the NYU School of Professional Studies, where she developed and conducts the fundamentals course in the learning design certificate program. She has also taught at Drexel University, Mercer County Community College, and Menlo College.

Her books— Troubleshooting for Trainers, 10 Steps to Successful Coaching, 2nd edition, and Beyond Free Coffee & Donuts: Marketing Training and Development—are available from ATD Press. Oberstein is a past president of ATD’s Greater Philadelphia chapter.

You can reach her on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/sophieoberstein or via her website at sophieoberstein.com.

2 Comments
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Sophie's article is spot on. I found the article to reflect what I have used throughout my career, and yet her article gave new insights into how best to use questions to guide learning events. There are great examples as well. A must-read article for those in the L & D profession.
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Such a rich article that spawns many ideas for me when training in-person or online. I imagine posing the right question at the right time will take strategic planning to achieve the best result. Timing is everything and planning for long-winded (or written) responses by learners who have difficulty collecting their thoughts quickly and articulating concisely is a must. I will also make time to collect a portfolio of good examples of learners responding to the questions I choose to ask. Thanks!
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