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Peer Tutor Guide

Asking the Right Questions

Asking the Right Questions

Knowing something is one thing. Sharing it effectively is quite another. Being an effective tutor means taking the time to understand the student you are working with. As a tutor, you must learn to ask effective questions throughout a tutoring session–the more effective the questions, the better the response from the student. Here are several ways questioning can be used during a tutoring session.

Here are some questions to keep in mind before, during and after tutoring a student.

1. What does this student already know?

2. What does he or she need to know?

3. What does he or she hope to learn?

4. How does the student feel about being tutored?

5. How does he or she feel about the subject in question?

6. How can I best meet the student’s needs without giving them the answers?

7. How can I conduct myself so that I may make the tutoring experience a positive one?

It is not necessary to ask these questions of the student. Just keep your eyes open, listen to the person and you’ll have most of your answers.

Ask questions to determine problem areas for the student.

The most frequent question in the tutor session is “What are you having problems with?” This question is an important one; however, the problem comes from tutors taking the student’s answers at face value or not examining the answer in detail. A good tutor will want to know more, while one not versed in the importance of using questions will plunge into an explanation without asking anything else. With more questions, the tutor is able to give more specific help and better diagnose the student’s problem.

Ask questions to determine what a student knows. .

Too often a tutor will focus on what a student does not know. However, it is important to evaluate what a student does know. A student’s knowledge will not only help
the tutor give more specific instruction and provide the student with some positive reinforcement, but also provide a better starting point for instruction. This information is especially true in subjective areas such as writing and interpretation. Always ask: “What do you think and know about this?” “What are your ideas?” “Can you explain this to me?”

Ask questions that help the student determine the right answer.

Generally, the student will always know more than he or she thinks, so it is often the tutor’s job to show a student what he or she does know. If you are reviewing problems with a student and the student is stumped for an answer, use questions to show him or her how to solve the problem. Ask things such as “What is the first step?” “How

did we solve the other problem similar to this?” “At what point are you getting stuck?” “What is the rule concerning this area?” The questions you ask will vary from situation to situation, but well asked questions are often the key to helping a student overcome anxiety and realize that he or she possesses the knowledge to solve the problem.

Ask questions to see if the student can apply new skills.

A very effective teaching tool is to have the student teach you. After you teach the student new skills, ask if he or she can explain to you how to solve the problem. Ask, “What did you learn about this?” “Can you show me the steps to solve this problem?” Try to get him or her to practice what they have learned and to apply it. This practice reinforces the learning process for the student and allows both student and tutor feedback on the effectiveness of the tutoring session.

Ask questions to clarify something that is not clear.

When teaching new skills, the tutor should stop and ask, “Do you understand this?”
“Is this part clear to you?” “Do you have any questions about this?” Often, students
are afraid to ask questions, even to a tutor, for fear of appearing incompetent. A tutor should use questions like the ones above and positive reinforcement to teach the student differently. Also, a student will often say he or she does not understand something but not be specific. Use questions as stated above to determine exactly where he or she loses understanding of the subject. Ask, “Do you understand this part?” “How much of the problem can you solve” and continue until you reach the part or step in the problem that he or she does not understand.

When asking questions, keep the following in mind:

1. Ask open-minded questions. Do not ask questions that require yes or no answers; instead, ask questions that require elaboration.

2. Allow the student time to answer one question before moving on to the next. Do not bombard a student with several questions in a row without allowing him or her time
to answer. Also, do not rush a student’s answer. Give him or her time to analyze the question and answer before moving on to another one. Some tutors will give hints if the student does not answer in a reasonable time so as not to make the student embarrassed by lack of knowledge.

3. Mix questioning with other tutoring methods. Asking questions is very important and very effective, but a session with only questions can overwhelm a student and not allow the tutor to give enough feedback or instruction. You must learn to ask the best questions at the most appropriate times.

4. Make questions specific. Try to avoid general questions as much as possible. At times, you must be general, such as when you ask, “What are you having problems with?” However, always narrow the focus as much as possible once the general questions have been asked. Specific questions will help a tutor pinpoint the student’s needs.

How to formulate good questions:

Questions should be posed that encourage thinking at each of the following levels of learning. Often questions only stimulate thinking at the knowledge, comprehension or application stages. To engage the tutee in active learning it is best to stimulate thinking at all levels by varying the questions asked.


Level of Learning

Type of Thinking


Knowledge (Remembering)

Remembering or identifying something without necessarily understanding it, using it or changing it.

What is the sum of...? How many are there?

Comprehension (Understanding)

Demonstrating understanding of the concepts; transforming, reorganizing or interpreting.

In your own words... Compare...
What is the main idea of...?

Application (Applying)

Using a general concept to solve a specific problem.

Calculate the area of... Apply the rule solve...

Analysis (Analyzing)

Breaking a problem down into parts and analyzing conclusions to see if they are supported by evidence.

Make a graph of... Interpret the results...
Does the answer seem reasonable?

Synthesis (Creating)

Original thinking, plan, proposal, design or approach.

How would you start? How many ways can you...? What would happen if...?

Evaluation (Evaluating)

Judging the value of ideas and offering opinions.

Which method is the most effective? Is there a better solution?

Adapted from Education Psychology 9th edition. Anita Woolfolk. 2004