Want to Improve Learning Outcomes? Write Good Questions.

Asking effective questions is more of an art than a science.

© 2012 Sarah V. Harlan/Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, Courtesy of Photoshare

Asking questions is a part of everyone’s job, whether you are a trainer, monitoring and evaluation specialist, customer service representative, counselor, teacher, or donor.

Asking questions helps us:

  • Assess knowledge, skills, attitudes, and performance
  • Bolster or reinforce learning
  • Gauge satisfaction
  • Identify problems and challenges
  • Inform improvements
  • Elicit critical thinking and problem solving

As a course developer for the Global Health eLearning (GHeL) Center, managed by the Knowledge for Health (K4Health) Project at Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, I work with subject matter experts — the course authors — to craft questions that assess learning, reinforce knowledge, and spark critical thinking.

Assess Learning

Assessment questions measure whether or not learning has taken place. Here’s a good example of an assessment question from GHeL’s Hormonal Methods of Contraception course:

Which of the following hormonal methods of contraception is the most effective?
A. Monthly injectables
B. Combined oral contraceptives
C. Contraceptive implants
D. None of the above

This question was directly derived from one of the course’s detailed learning objectives: Describe the level of effectiveness of each hormonal method.

Good questions assess how well a learner has retained information presented. GHeL course authors use a course’s detailed learning objectives as a guide to ensure the questions asked are relevant and within the scope of the course.

It’s important to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of different question format types for knowledge assessment. Multiple choice questions like the example above can assess knowledge gained and remembered.

However, multiple choice questions are less helpful in assessing changes in attitudes, skills, or performance. Scenario-based and reflection questions are often more effective for these purposes. Keep reading to find out how to incorporate these types of questions into your work.

Reinforce Knowledge

Asking good questions can actually improve retention of information. According to Dr. Ebbinghaus, the 19th century German psychologist who pioneered the experimental study of memory, people forget 90% of what they’ve learned within 30 days — often within hours. Research has shown, however, that spacing learning over time can improve long-term knowledge retention and can dramatically reshape the forgetting curve.

Source: http://lifeinthefastlane.com/learning-by-spaced-repetition/

Repeating the same questions as both pre- and post-test questions can help direct a learner’s attention to the key concepts that a course author identifies as the most critical take-away messages from a session or course and ensure that learners retain these messages.

In addition, offering blended learning opportunities alongside a self-paced course can further reinforce the key messages. This might include an online discussion forum or webinar on the same topic scheduled after the completion of the course.

Spark Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving

According to constructivist theory, knowledge depends on past constructions. We each make sense of the world using our unique mental framework, and we interpret new information through this framework[1]. This principle highlights why it is important for learners to think deeply about what they know or believe — they are constantly integrating new incoming knowledge with what is already in their heads.

If learners do not think deeply, they are likely to only temporarily remember the content of a course or training and then quickly forget it once the course or training is over.

A proven strategy for engaging learners and sparking deep thinking is through the use of scenario-based questions that ask learners to apply what they've learned to a case study or real-life situation. The key to designing scenario-based questions is to make them relatable to a learner’s experience and to provide immediate feedback to the learner.

The GHeL Gender and Sexual and Reproductive Health 101 course uses scenario-based questions to help learners apply their understanding of key gender terms defined in the course to real life situations.

First, the course author describes a health program in Bolivia designed to increase condom sales and asks the learner to consider where this program falls on the Inter-agency Gender Working Group (IGWG) Gender Continuum.

Source: http://www.globalhealthlearning.org/course/gender-and-sexual-and-reproductive-health-101

Then the course author provides the solution and an explanation.

Source: http://www.globalhealthlearning.org/course/gender-and-sexual-and-reproductive-health-101

Constructive feedback is critical in an online environment where learners and course authors or instructors are less likely to interact immediately after an exercise or assessment is completed. Detailed feedback and examples of successful application of concepts helps cement learners’ understanding of new ideas.

Another way to engage learners is by using reflection questions. Reflection questions are a simple format that asks the learner to pause to consider the new information presented and constructively think about how it applies in their lives and work.

The Dependency to Partnership: Leading/Managing GHeL course asks the learner to imagine a leader they have worked with. Then throughout the session, the course authors periodically asks the learners to think about that leader in the context of the new information they have presented.

Source: http://www.globalhealthlearning.org/course/dependency-partnership-leading-managing-change

If you want to actively engage learners throughout a course, it’s essential that you get them involved by asking questions through a variety of exercises and assessments.

The Art of Asking Questions

Although asking questions is part of so many people’s jobs, crafting good questions is quite challenging and time-consuming. Following these five steps can help you make sure the questions you develop for eLearning courses or other virtual or face-to-face trainings are useful and effective.

Step 1: Review the course goals and determine the essential knowledge, skills, and attitudes your learners should extract from the course.

Step 2: Translate these goals into measurable outcomes (what we at the Global Health eLearning Center refer to as SMART detailed learning objectives).

Step 3: Use authentic problems and scenarios to illustrate the key concepts with accompanying questions to elicit critical thinking and assess knowledge gained and applied.

Step 4: Map your questions to your detailed learning objectives since the detailed learning objectives are what you expect a learner to learn by the end of the course or training. They will help you fine-tune the content you plan to cover and measure knowledge gained.

Step 5: Plan on writing a sufficient bank of questions that can be drawn upon for multiple uses so that key concepts are reinforced throughout the course or learning activities.

Bad questions don’t just dampen the learner’s experience — they also limit course authors’ and developers’ opportunities for learning and improvement. When crafted well, assessment questions are so valuable: They tell you whether or not your course or training curriculum is meeting your goals — and your learners’ needs.

Additional Resources

To learn more about the K4Health eLearning course development process, see our eLearning Toolkit.


[1] Creating concept maps: Integrating constructivism principles into online classes. International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning, 3:17–30.


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