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The All Important Question

Whenever I ask someone about their favorite teacher or tutor from the past, the description always involves an engaging character who knew how to draw students into the material by asking questions. Indeed, asking questions is one of the most essential tutoring tools. Now, I must explain that by asking questions I don’t mean the “what is the answer to this?” type of question.

Instead, good questions might encourage students to relate concepts to ones they might already know. For instance, if a student is struggling with a Spanish vocabulary word, you might ask “Does this word look like any English words you know?” or “Does this word feel like it is positive sounding or negative sounding?” Asking questions is a great way to create mental paths that teach students, not only what the right answer is, but different ways that he or she can try to reach it in the future. By the time you start talking about the solution, the student has several links to it lingering in his or her mind. This helps retain the information in long term memory.

Furthermore, by asking questions out loud, you encourage them to vocalize their own thinking processes and become more aware of the strategies they are using. Many times, students can arrive at the right answer but are not sure how they did it. This leaves them feeling uncertain when it comes to tackling new problems. When asking questions as the tutor, it is important to be aware of your own thinking processes. What steps are you taking subconsciously? Do some practice problems on your own and think about how you are solving them. Don’t forget that questioning involves questioning yourself - formulate questions that go with the different steps you took.

It is easy to get into the habit of always asking the same questions. However, students all think and learn differently. Therefore, I have found it incredibly useful to learn from each student and develop an arsenal of problem solving strategies and the questions that go with them.


Kathryn, I really appreciate the message in this article. It reminded me of things that I know to be true but have forgotten to use. I am going to apply this during my very next tutoring session. Maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks, hmmm?
Thanks, Kathyrn. I especially like your idea of the question approach. It will help me to engage my students.