What is a ‘good’ question?

To answer this there are two major factors to consider, question effectiveness and question Relevance.quest1.jpg

Question Effectiveness

There are three issues (Purpose, Vocabulary and Source Content) to be considered in defining and comprehending what makes an Effective Question.

Question Purpose
The first issue relates directly to the purpose of the question. The immediate purpose of any ‘Inquiry’ question is to gain some specific information that is relevant to the context. Therefore an effective question is one that returns the needed relevant information.

Question Vocabulary
The second issue with defining whether a question is ‘effective’ concerns the relationship between the vocabulary contained in the question and the vocabulary of the context. An effective question needs to be constructed with the relevant vocabulary. The question needs to contain appropriate contextual key words and phrases relevant to the context, issue or problem. It is these key words and phrases that will locate the question within the appropriate context. If a question does not contain relevant contextual vocabulary it is most likely to be ineffective in returning the required information.

Source Content (Sources can vary hugely and may be printed text, digital text, images, audio visual, or human
The third issue in defining an ‘effective question’ relates to the source being used. If an effective question is one that extracts the required information from the source being queried, the success of the question is also dependant on the chosen source actually containing the required information.

Major Problem There is a major problem with the concept of 'Question Effectiveness'. The problem is that the question effectiveness can only be evaluated after the questioner has completed the process of trying to gain an answer to the question, because it is onlyafter the questioner has taken a question to a range of sources that they can say if the question has been effective in gaining them the required information. It is impossible to judge if a question is effective before one tries to obtain the answer. so this concept is of no help to teacher or learner at the point of creating a good question.

An effective question is one that returns the required information, to do this it needs to contain the relevant contextual vocabulary and the query needs to applied to a source that contains the required information. however the concept of question effectiveness is of no help to the questioner at the point of trying to create a 'good' question.


Question Relevance:

If question effectiveness is an inadequate concept to help us formulate good questions then there must be another concept or construct that has more value. Brown and Edmonton (1984, P91) refer to this when they argue that all systems of classifying questions “are potentially flawed, and real insight into questioning needs to take on board contextual factors’. These contextual factors come together under the concept of question relevance.

It is important to realise that questions are constructed with language and it is the language of a question that governs its relevance to the problem, context or learning need. An effective question needs to contain the key contextual words and phrases that make it relevant to the issue, problem, need or context. The question then needs to be applied to an appropriate source that will also contain the language that holds that required information. When the two match then we have a high probability of having created a relevant question. It must be noted that the likelihood of an irrelevant question actually giving us the information we need is very poor.

For instance:
If a learner needs to know about the processes used in recycling paper then a good question needs to contain the appropriate vocabulary that will target the specific needed information.

Question A: “Why do we need it?”
This question is irrelevant, it has no vocabulary link to the context of paper recycling.

Question B: “How is glass recycled?”
This question has a low level of relevance because the word recycled locates the question within the general field of recycling, but the question is not relevant to the specific need of identifying the processes of paper recycling. This question is irrelevant to the specific issue.

Question C: “What are the processes paper goes through when it is recycled?”
This question is relevant because it contains a range of contextual key words (processes, paper, and recycling) that tie it directly to the need and context.

Question D: “What are the recycling processes required to recycle paper?”
This question has the potential for being even more relevant because it goes beyond using single relevant key contextual words (‘paper’) and includes a relevant key contextual phrase (‘recycling processes’)
This difference may seem subtle but can be a powerful factor in the age of increasing digital searching for information. Phrase based searching is a very useful tool in locating specific information quickly and efficiently within digital sources.


Question Relevance is a far more useful concept that has actual value for a questioner to assist them at the point of trying to create a 'good question'. A relevant question has far more chance of being effective in locating the information needed by the questioner.