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Using “Essential Questions” for Thoughtful Inquiry

Posted by:
August 25, 2015

by Dana Bodewes, Instructional Designer

The beginning of a new academic year provides an opportunity to reflect on effective teaching practices and perhaps try something new. Consider the practice of using “essential questions” during the instructional process. Essential questions explore salient, fundamental ideas that are not confined to the content of a specific course or lesson. The concept is quite simple and the strategy has been in use since the time of Socrates. Best of all, discussing essential questions fits perfectly with PLU’s mission to educate students for lives of thoughtful inquiry.

The Socratic seminar is one effective way to structure inquiry in a course. However, I believe using essential questions offers a simpler strategy that can be implemented across all academic levels and disciplines, including ones that rely heavily upon factual knowledge and performance skills. Educational trendsetters, Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, thoroughly explore this strategy in their 2013 book, Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding. The book is admittedly geared toward the K-12 crowd, but the theories and strategies are also highly effective in higher education settings.

According to McTighe and Wiggins (2013), essential questions “serve as doorways or lenses through which learners can better see and explore the key concepts, themes, theories, issues, and problems that reside within the content”(p.5). For example, an essential question in a music course might ask “Why is the enjoyment of music and bodily movement central to the human experience?” rather than asking “How are music and dance similar and different across cultures?” Exploration of essential questions should optimally occur in a spiral fashion, where students engage with the question repeatedly and adjust their thinking as new information is introduced. Students can introduce their own essential questions, but the instructor should have a pre-established set of questions to guide students’ study and inquiry.

McTighe and Wiggins (2013) say a good essential question:

1. Is open-ended; that is, it typically will not have a single, final, and correct answer.
2. Is thought-provoking and intellectually engaging, often sparking discussion and debate.
3. Calls for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction. It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone.
4. Points toward important, transferable ideas within (and sometimes across) disciplines.
5. Raises additional questions and sparks further inquiry.
6. Requires support and justification, not just an answer.
7. Recurs over time; that is, the question can and should be revisited again and again (p.3).

Using these criteria, a natural science course might pose the question, “What is the relationship between science and technology?” or a physical education course might ask, “What makes someone an athlete?”

If you are interested in designing your course to include essential questions, keep in mind that the strategy can be implemented in many ways; you can opt for overarching, course-level questions or more topical, unit-level questions. For advice on how to get started, McTighe and Wiggins’s book (2013) also offers eight strategies for establishing a culture of inquiry in one’s classroom (p.81-101). A copy of Essential Questions has been purchased for the PLU library collection. At just over a hundred pages, it is a quick read and excellent resource for promoting thoughtful inquiry in your courses this year.


McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. (2013). Essential questions: Opening doors to student understanding. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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