Asking the right questions

In order to ask the right questions, you need to be prepared. When you start a meeting with a tutee, your first instinct may be to ask ‘How’s it going?’ This is an open question and is often used in general conversation as an opener, so what response does it get in this situation? Often, you’ll find that the response is quite brief and does not lead into a deeper conversation.

So, as well as setting an outline agenda for each meeting, it is worth spending a few minutes before a tutorial to plan the kinds of questions you might ask your tutee, since this will improve the quality of the meeting.

General advice is to start with more open questions that invite longer responses (ie ones that cannot be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’) such as ‘tell me about the research you’ve been doing for your essay’ or ‘describe the fieldtrip last week’, and then to move into more probing questions, using the classic set of starter words: how, what, where, when, why and who, once the topic has been opened up for you both. Much of your time should be spent listening and allowing your tutee to think for themselves and express their views and experiences, and lead them towards their own next actions. Note that ‘why’ questions should be used with caution; they can provoke a defensive reaction, so it is best to reframe using different question words that open up other possibilities for the student. For example, rather than ‘why did you do that?’ try ‘what else might you have done?’ or ‘how could this be done better next time?’.

In many ways, your role is similar to that of a coach:

An effective coach asks questions that motivate the coachee into action. Questions are … short and focused, rather than long and multi-faceted. Effective coaching questions encourage the coachee to clearly visualise their goals and the path toward achieving them.

Wisker, Exley, Antoniou & Ridley, 2008.