The average teacher asks 350 questions a day. The kinds of questions asked fall into two categories: directed (also called "low-level") questions and open-ended (also called "high-level") questions. Of these 350 questions, most are directed.

By analyzing our own questioning techniques (e.g., how we ask questions, why we ask questions), we can find the balance between directed and open-ended questions that will most effectively encourage the development of higher-level thinking skills in our students.

Let's look more closely at the differences between directed and open-ended questions.

Directed Questions

Directed questions and open-ended questions play equally important roles in learning.

Directed questions should not be the focus of a project. However, they aid students in understanding key facts and, therefore, form the foundation of all projects.

Directed questions are asked in the traditional I-R-E format (Initiate, Response, Evaluate). The teacher asks the question, a student responds, and the teacher evaluates whether the student was correct. This process gives teachers a quick read on where students are in terms of factual knowledge and recall.

In addition, a teacher can use directed questions to guide student thought. The information students attain through directed questioning provides them with a knowledge base from which they can answer open-ended questions. Students need to know the factual information before they can confidently answer open-ended questions.

However, the overuse of directed questions might discourage student participation because only one student can be correct. Students may become frustrated when they are not called on or do not know the answer. Interspersing directed and open-ended questions will give all students a chance to participate at their own levels.

Open-ended Questions

An open-ended question can be the focus of a project if it provides the discussion structure that leads students to the key understandings of a topic. Though not all open-ended questions will help focus a project, any question that does focus a project needs to be open-ended.

Open-ended questions require students to research, investigate, or reflect before responding. Students are invited to combine their factual knowledge in innovative, meaningful ways.

Open-ended questions have a plethora of possible answers, which allows all students to participate and delve deeper into the topic. The answer to an open-ended question can be a hypothesis, an opinion, a concept, an idea or a series of research-based facts. In many circumstances, it is not the answer itself, but the process by which the answer was determined that is important when responding to an open-ended question.

Open-ended questions can be challenging and exciting to answer; however, students need to develop a foundation of knowledge to be able to answer the questions so they do not become confused, discouraged or frustrated. We can achieve this by asking directed questions to guide student thought as they explore the open-ended question.

Telling the Difference

In short, directed questions and open-ended questions can be defined as follows.

Directed Questions:

  • Are based on facts.
  • Have one correct response.
  • Support the development of deeper understanding.

Open-ended Questions:

  • Are based on concepts or ideas.
  • Have at least one correct answer.
  • Encourage all students to participate.
  • Require students to research, investigate, or reflect before responding.

However, suppose we had a directed question that we wanted to make open-ended. Here are some examples of directed questions that have been modified to make them open-ended. Notice that the open-ended question subsumes the directed question, allows for more than one answer, and requires a more in-depth answer.

Directed Questions

Open-ended Questions

What is the Bill of Rights?

In what ways does the Bill of Rights both grant and deny freedom?

If a person makes $25,000 a year, how long will it take him or her to make a million dollars?

What does it mean to be "rich" or "successful"?

What is an atom?

How has the discovery of the atom impacted science?

Who was the last emperor during the Ming Dynasty?

How did the Ming Dynasty impact Western Civilization?

What is the order of colors in a rainbow?

How do you describe color to someone who is blind?

Expanding Open-ended Questions

By asking a combination of open-ended questions and directed questions, we can effectively draw out deeper thinking in our students while teaching them key facts. Open-ended questions prompt students to expand the way they think about a topic, while directed questions guide their thoughts and encourage them to make connections.

After posing an open-ended question, challenge students to think about what directed questions they need to answer before they can answer the open-ended question. This process not only helps students to organize their thoughts, uncover areas of research, and develop their critical thinking skills, but also models problem-solving skills by teaching them to break down a complex problem into smaller, achievable tasks.

Open-ended Questions

Related Directed Questions

How does climate affect the way we eat?

a. What kinds of foods do we like to eat?
b. When do we eat these foods?
c. During what season do we eat more hot foods?
d. Cold foods?
e. During what times of day do we eat?

What impact did landing on the Moon have on our lives?

a. Who were the first Americans to land on the Moon?
b. When did they land on the Moon?
c. What was going on around the world during the time they landed on the Moon?
d. How did they land?
e. In what ways was the Moon landing a milestone?

How does the number of legs an animal has affect its life?

a. How many legs does a spider have?
b. How does a centipede use its legs?
c. Why do gorillas use their hands to walk?

How could the Civil War have been avoided?

a. What are the five causes of the Civil War?
b. What events led up to the Civil War?
c. Who were the key figures during the Civil War?

How do we use our senses to discover our world?

a. How many senses do we have?
b. What are our senses?
c. What kinds of senses do insects have?
d. How do bats navigate when flying?
e. How do dolphins navigate when swimming?

Purposeful Questions

Now that we have looked at how to ask questions, let's look at why we ask questions. What is our objective? The kind of question we ask our students changes depending on how far along we have progressed in a project and on the mastery level of our students.

As students proceed through a project, we can identify two levels of progression: horizontal and vertical. Horizontal progression enhances the breadth of student knowledge and occurs as students work through different stages of a project. Vertical progression enhances the depth of student knowledge and occurs as students gain mastery of each topic. Asking questions allows us to increase the breadth and depth of students' learning.

The major horizontal questioning stages encountered in the classroom are outlined below. You'll notice that the elements of the KWL chart have been integrated into this list.

At the Beginning of a Project:

Brainstorming: The driving question is posed to get students' juices flowing about a topic. Follow-up questions are asked to encourage students to expand their thinking on the driving question and to gather their thoughts and share their previous knowledge on the topic. (K)

Organization: These driving questions help organize students' gathered thoughts into several overarching themes. Students begin to generate their own questions about the topic.

During a Project:

Exploration: The teacher chooses about five overarching ideas (key understandings) to focus on and asks open-ended questions to encourage students to expand their thinking on a topic and elaborate on those thoughts. Students consider what they need to learn in order to answer the driving question. (W)

Guidance: Teachers ask clarifying questions to guide student thinking on a topic. These questions are meant to point students in the right direction or get to them back on track. These questions help students develop their knowledge base for the overarching themes.

Clarification: Student ask questions to clarify a point or a concept.

During or at the End of a Project:

Discussion: Now that students have begun developing a knowledge base, the teacher asks a question to solicit student ideas and opinions and to promote debate and discussion. Students may also ask questions that promote debate and discussion. Discussions help wrap up a project by tying up loose ends and aiding the class as a whole to draw conclusions, where appropriate.

Evaluation: Driving questions assess students' understanding of the essential learning and core concepts of the project. Students can evaluate their own progress using this technique. These questions can be directed (e.g., a multiple-choice test or I-R-E questions) or open-ended (e.g., essay questions or discussion-type questions). Students reflect on what they have learned. (L)

Bloom's Taxonomy

Open-ended questions and directed questions are sometimes referred to as "high-level" questions and "low-level" questions, respectively. This categorization is derived from the hierarchy of educational goals, known as Bloom's Taxonomy.

Bloom's Taxonomy (see chart below) addresses the vertical progression of knowledge. As students master a topic, their ability to make use of the material increases. When students first encounter a topic, they approach the material by memorizing key facts; however, as they master the material, they become able to analyze the information and use it in new and creative ways.

Directed questions address the first two levels of learning: knowledge and comprehension. Open-ended questions cover the next four stages. By being aware of the different stages of learning, teachers can become more successful at enabling student learning by skillfully asking a combination of directed and open-ended questions.


Mastered Skills

Question Cues



  • Observes facts.
  • Recall information.
  • Masters subject matter, which may include knowledge of dates, events, places, and major ideas.

arrange, collect, define, describe, duplicate, examine, identify, label, list, memorize, name, order, quote, recall, recognize, relate, repeat, reproduce, show, state, tabulate, tell, when, where, who



  • Understands information.
  • Grasps meaning of information.
  • Tanslates knowledge from one context to another.
  • Interprets data from charts, graphs and verbal and printed material.

associate, classify, contrast, describe, differentiate, discuss, distinguish, estimate, explain, express, extend, identify, indicate, interpret, locate, predict, recognize, report, restate, review, select, summarize, translate



  • Applies information to new situations.
  • Constructs charts and graphs.
  • Solves verbal and math problems.

apply, calculate, change, choose, classify, complete, demonstrate, discover, dramatize, employ, examine, experiment, illustrate, interpret, modify, operate, practice, relate, schedule, show, sketch, solve, use, write



  • Extracts the essential components from various media.
  • Sees patterns, relations and organization of components.
  • Recognizes hidden meanings.
  • Understands logical progression and holes in logic

analyze, appraise, arrange, calculate, categorize, classify, compare, connect, contrast, criticize, differentiate, discriminate, distinguish, divide, examine, experiment, explain, infer, order, question, select, separate, test



  • Puts together unrelated parts to create a new whole.
  • Abstracts information from various media and reforms information creatively in a new media.
  • Relates knowledge from several areas to form new knowledge.

arrange, assemble, collect, combine, compose, construct, create, design, develop, formulate, generalize, invent, integrate, manage, modify, organize, plan, prepare, propose, rewrite, rearrange, set up, substitute, what if, write



  • Evaluates information and makes judgments on presented facts based on internal and external criteria.

appraise, argue, assess, attach, choose, compare, contrast, core, defend, estimate, evaluate, judge, predict, rate, select, support, value

A Quick Reminder

Directed Questions:

  • Are based on facts.
  • Have one correct response.
  • Support the development of deeper understanding.

Open-ended uestions:

  • Are based on concepts or ideas.
  • Have at least one correct answer.
  • Encourage all students to participate.
  • Require students to research, investigate or reflect before responding.

Key Points:

  • Directed questions form the foundation of all projects.
  • An open-ended question can be the focus of a project if it provides the discussion structure to lead students to the key understandings of a topic.
  • Our questioning changes as students develop greater breadth and depth of knowledge.

The Driving Question

The driving question focuses all other questions in a project. To better understand the relationship between the driving question, open-ended questions, and directed questions, imagine the relationship as a pyramid.

Directed questions allow students to build a knowledge base of factual information. They occur in the greatest numbers, but their answers are the least complex. Students then combine these facts to form concepts, which allow them to answer open-ended questions. Finally, the culmination of these concepts will lead them to answer one or two driving questions, the answers to which are the most complex and encompassing.

If you think about the sheer amount of learning that needs to take place in order to answer each question type, then the pyramid would be inverted.

Another way to think about the relationship is through the metaphor of a forest. If the driving question is a forest, then open-ended questions are the trees in that forest, and directed questions are the leaves on the trees. The driving question subsumes the open-ended questions, which, in turn, subsume the directed questions. To further extend the metaphor, the five key understandings would be the five different species of trees in our forest. Now you can see the forest for the trees!

Now that we understand what a driving question is, what makes an effective driving question?

Effective Driving Questions

Driving questions are also called essential questions, project questions, and umbrella questions. Effective driving questions include the following features:

1. Are open-ended. Driving questions lead to debate and discussion, and therefore, are motivating to students

2. Are objective. Driving questions do not imply whether something is good or bad, better or worse.

3. Focus and drive the project. Students use the question as a springboard to formulate their own questions. All learning and research in the project are geared toward answering the driving question.

4. Focus on key understandings. Generally each project will have about five overarching ideas; the driving question subsumes all of them.

5. Are answerable. With diligence and dedication, students are able to answer the driving question. While it should not be an easy process, it should be manageable.

6. Require research, investigation, and reflection. Driving questions may have yes-or-no answers; however, your students need to support their answers with the research and knowledge they have acquired throughout the project.

7. Call on a student's previous knowledge and help students apply their learning to new situations.

8. Link basic skills and concepts to students' lives and the real world. Students are more motivated and involved when the topic they are studying is relevant to their lives and to the real world.

9. Integrate standards from a variety of disciplines. Interdisciplinary lesson plans promote teamwork among colleagues and encourage students to make connections between disciplines.

10. Encourage multiple approaches to problem solving. Driving questions allow for more than one way to solve a problem and express the solution.

Our Driving Question

Remember the driving question we posed at the beginning of this module? How do the 10 features of an effective driving question relate to our original driving question?

"How can we motivate students, increase participation, and encourage deeper thinking in our classroom?"

Each feature relates to all three parts of our driving question; however, some features relate to specific parts in more obvious ways.


How It Motivates Students

3. Focus and drive the project.

Challenges students to answer the question.

5. Are answerable.

Ensures that the question is age- and grade- appropriate, so that students do not become discouraged or frustrated.

6. Require research, investigation and reflection.

Invites students to explore a topic in depth.
Allows them to provide input and be the content "experts".

7. Call on students' previous knowledge.

Helps students gain confidence by giving value to their previous learning.

8. Link basic skills and concepts to students' lives and real world.

Applies skills to the real world.
Helps students feel as if "there's something in it for them".



How It Increases Student Participation

1. Are open-ended.

Allows many students to answer the question.

5. Are answerable.

Students are more likely to try to answer a question that they think is answerable.

6. Require research, investigation and reflection

Hands-on learning and time for reflection allows each student a chance to contribute their suggestions and opinions.

7. Call on students' previous knowledge.

Encourages students to share their background knowledge and contribute suggestions and opinions.

10. Encourage multiple approaches to problem-solving.

Allows students to take on different roles in finding the answer and presenting the solution.



How It Encourages Deeper Thinking

1. Are open-ended.

Multiple solutions encourage students to be thorough in answering the question. They are urged to think about "what else".

2. Are objective.

Does not lead students. Allows them to draw their own conclusions based on research and reflection.

4. Focus on key understanding.

Teaches them the fundamental "golden nuggets" of information, rather than simply presenting them with a series of unrelated trivia facts.

6. Requires research, investigation and reflection.

Students discover the answer gradually as they delve deeper into the topic.
Compels students to carefully consider both the question and their answers.

7. Call on students' previous knowledge.

Urges students to apply their previous knowledge in novel ways.

9. Integrate standards from a variety of disciplines.

Encourages students to make connections between their previous learning and the current topic.

From these tables, we can see that by employing the ten features of effective driving questions, we can make our questions more motivating to students, increase student participation, and encourage deeper thinking.

Checklist: Questions to Consider

How do we know if our questions employ the 10 features of effective driving questions? By comparing our questions against this chart, we will be able to see if they meet the criteria.


Questions to Consider

Meets Criteria

1. Are open-ended.

1. Does the question have more than one right answer?
2. Are there multiple ways to express the solution to this question?

2. Are objective.

1. Is the question leading?
2. Does the question allow students to draw their own conclusions?

3. Focus and drive the project.

Is the question broad enough to encompass the whole scope of the project?

4. Focus on key understandings.

Does the question directly address the key understandings you have chosen to cover?

5. Are answerable.

1. Is the question age-appropriate?
2. Is the question too difficult?
3. Can the question be answered?

6. Requires research, investigation and reflection.

1. Is the question age-appropriate?
2. Is the question too easy?

7. Call on student's previous knowledge

1. Does the question build on information that students are already familiar with?
2. Do students have a context for being able to understand the question?

8. Link basic skills and concepts to students' lives and the real world.

1. Is the question relevant to students' lives?
2. Does the question apply basic skills to a real-world situation?

9. Integrates standards from a variety of disciplines.

1. Does the question allow for the creation of interdisciplinary lessons?
2. Does the question lead students to make connections across disciplines?

10. Encourages multiple approaches to problem solving.

1. Can students with different academic strengths still answer the question?
2. Can students at different stages of skill mastery begin to answer the question?
3. Can students express the solution in more than one way?


Meeting Criteria

Let's look at some questions that didn't meet the criteria and the reasons why.


Does Not Meet Criteria


Meets Criteria

Are open-ended.

What is the weather like in Mexico today?

Question has only one answer.

How has the climate in Mexico affected the development of Mexican culture?

Are objective.

Why is smoking wrong?

Question is leading. Does not allow students to draw their own conclusions based on facts.

How does smoking affect our health?

Focus and drive the project.

Project: Drug Education
How does smoking cigars affect our health?

Question is too narrow. Question needs to be broad enough and challenging enough to focus the entire project, not just one or two discussions.

Project: Drug Education
How do drugs affect our health?

Focus on key understandings.

Key Understanding: It is a person's character that is important, not his or her race.
What causes the coloring in our skin?

Question does not directly address the issue. A driving question needs to subsume all key understandings.

Key Understanding: It is a person's character that is important, not his or her race
Should people be categorized by their race?

Are answerable.

For ninth grade,
Fermat's Last Theorem: Prove that a^n + b^n = c^n has no non zero integer value for n>2 (^ represents "to the power of")

Question is not age-appropriate. If a question is too difficult to answer, students will become frustrated. This question can be used for discussion, but not to drive a project.

For ninth grade,
How has Fermat's discoveries in the field of mathematics affected the way we think about math today?

Require research, investigation and reflection.

For fourth grade,
How many fingers do you have?

Question is not age-appropriate and does not require research or reflection.

For fourth grade,
How would life be different if you had no fingers?

Call on a student's previous knowledge.

For sixth grade,
What kind of specialized fighting techniques did the Swiss Army develop to be able to fight better in the Alps?

Question is not age-appropriate and does not allow students to build on something they already understand.

For sixth grade,
How does the climate and terrain of a land affect the way we live?

Link basic skills and concepts to students' lives and the real world.

What is a law?

Question does not relate basic skills and concepts to students' lives.

How do laws affect how we live?

Integrate standards from a variety of disciplines.

What is a song?

Question is too narrow. A driving question needs to be able to support a plethora of different activities

What are the different ways that people can express themselves?

Encourages multiple approaches to problem solving.

How many billboards are in your neighborhood?

Does not allow for multiple ways to express the solution. Question needs to allow children with different strengths to learn.

Describe the features of a good advertisement.

Mapping Out a Driving Question

We know now what effective driving questions are, but how do we use them in our classroom? How can we take one driving question and use it as the basis for an entire project? If a driving question is effective, it will provide a springboard for you and your students to formulate many related open-ended questions, questions that need to be answered before the driving question can be tackled. Furthermore, as you explore these open-ended questions, you will discover even more directed questions that will have to be answered first. Let us take a look at the driving question for this module and think about how to map it out.

Driving Question:
"How can we motivate students, increase participation, and encourage deeper thinking in our classrooms?"

Open-ended Questions:
Think about the key understandings you want students to learn through this driving question. Form these key understandings into open-ended questions and write them down on a piece of paper.

1. How can I motivate students:

  • What are students interested in?
  • What motivates them?
  • How can we make our questions more relevant to their lives?
  • What kind of measure do we use?

2. How can I increase participation?

  • What does "participation" really mean to us?
  • What opportunities will we provide to allow students to participate?

3. How can I encourage deeper thinking in my classroom?

  • What constitutes deeper thinking?
  • How can students' answers reflect this deeper thinking?
  • How can we ask questions so that they raise the kind of answers that reflect this deeper thinking?

Directed Questions:
For each open-ended question, think of five facts that students need to know in order to answer that question. Transform each fact into directed questions that will assist students in answering your previously selected open-ended questions.

Motivating Students:

  1. What is the demographic profile of your students?
  2. What questions have students asked on their own?
  3. What kinds of activities are they participating in? What is prominent in pop culture right now? What kind of music do they listen to?
  4. Who are the people that are important in your students' lives? Who do they have frequent contact with? (e.g., parents, relatives, friends, fellow members of a religious organization or other club?) What kinds of knowledge, experiences, and resources are they exposed to?
  5. Who are their heroes? What qualities do they value in these heroes?

Increasing participation:

  1. How many students usually raise their hands when you ask a question?
  2. If a student raises his/her hand, does this mean that (s)he is motivated?
  3. What kinds of techniques do others use to motivate students?
  4. What are your expectations regarding participation?
  5. Have these expectations been clearly laid out for your students?

Encouraging deeper thinking:

  1. Have you emphasized that the thinking process is as important (if not more important) than the right answer?
  2. Have you modeled problem solving techniques for your students?
  3. Have they had time to practice these problem solving techniques?
  4. Do your questions allow for deeper thinking?
  5. Do some of your students have special challenges which that prevent them from expressing their deep thinking? (e.g., speech disorders or other language barriers)

Sample Driving Questions

  1. Is our school safe?
  2. Why can't I have a dinosaur as a pet?
  3. How does our school impact the environment?
  4. What makes a good sneaker?
  5. What does it mean to be rich?
  6. What makes a good commercial?
  7. Are laws fair?
  8. Does fair mean equal?
  9. Does free speech mean you can say anything?
  10. How does discrimination impact me?
  11. What are the ingredients for a successful business?
  12. Why do people migrate from one place to another?
  13. How can our school save electricity?
  14. Are the new democracies truly democratic?
  15. What impression did Impressionism leave?
  16. How does art reflect the time period in which it is created?
  17. Is our drinking water safe?
  18. Which flashlight batteries are most cost-effective?
  19. Who discovered America?
  20. What makes a good proof?
  21. Do commercials make me buy things?
  22. Is cloning safe?
  23. Should prayer be allowed in schools?
  24. What makes a good reader?
  25. How do wars start?
  26. How many different species of insects live in the field behind our school?
  27. What is the relationship between crime and population density in the U.S.?

Guidelines for Writing Effective Driving Questions

Here are guidelines that will help you write your own questions Try to write at least ten questions. If you get stuck, you may reference this list of question starters worksheet.

As you write driving questions, remember these steps:

  1. Review your key understandings and standards. Look for big ideas or concepts.
  2. Brainstorm a list of possible open-ended questions that link two of these big ideas or concepts. For example, if you would like students to understand the impact of discrimination on their lives and you would like them to understand the Civil Rights Movement in this country, you can connect these two big ideas by creating a driving question such as, "How does the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s impact my life today?"
  3. Review your questions. Can you make the question more succinct? Can you make the question less leading and more exciting for students? Does your question get at the key understandings and standards of your project?
  4. Identify your best questions. Which questions do you think would motivate your students the most? Which questions are more closely tied to your key understandings? Are there questions that subsume other questions?
  5. Give a list of questions to students to see which questions they find motivating and exciting.

Driving Question Starters Worksheet

If you get stuck trying to create an effective driving question, here are some starters to get you going. While many of these starters are open-ended, some can be answered with yes or no. In those cases, students need to provide written evidence to support their answers.

  1. What makes a good ___ ?
  2. What are the ingredients for a successful ___?
  3. What is the best way to ___?
  4. Is there a relationship between ___ and ___?
  5. What are the advantages and disadvantages of ___?
  6. What will happen if ____?
  7. How are ____ and ____ different?
  8. How many different ____ are there?
  9. Did ___ influence ____?
  10. Is _____ really important?
  11. In what ways did ____ influence _____?
  12. What would ___ be without ___?