Participants Generate Questions

In this article, I explore the strategies for encouraging the participants to generate questions – and for using these questions.

Which Trainer Would You Prefer?

Let’s pretend that you are a participant in three different training sessions. Meet your three trainers:

Alan, the first trainer, lectures on the training topic without any interruption. You participate by listening to the lecture.

Barbara, the second trainer, gives a short lecture on the training topic and follows it up with a question-and-answer session. You participate by listening to the lecture, asking questions, and listening to Barbara’s answers.

Charlie, the third trainer, gives a lecture on the training topic. He then asks the participants to work in teams and generate questions based on the content he presented. Later, he uses the participants’ questions in a quiz contest.

Which of these three trainers would you prefer?

If you are like me (and like most participants), you will find Barbara and Charlie to be more engaging and effective than Alan. I am not suggesting that the participants don’t like the no- nonsense trainer who gives a straight lecture on the training topic. All I am suggesting is that inviting the participants to generate questions (and incorporating them in the training process) results in more interesting and effective training.

Two Types of Questions

Both Barbara and Charlie invited the participants to generate questions on the training topic. However, they elicited two different types of questions:

  • I don’t know the answers and I’d like to know them. Barbara’s participants asked their questions because they did not know — and wanted to find out — the answers. These questions are based on ignorance and curiosity. They provide an instant needs analysis.
  • I know the answers and I want to test others. Charlie’s participants asked questions for which they knew the answer. These questions are useful for a review or a test. The participants act as co-designers and help Chuck with additional training tools.


Inviting the participants to ask questions encourages them to actively participate in the learning process. If you are a trainer like Barbara, answering questions generated by the current set of participants makes use of the proven principles of learner-controlled training. This approach helps you avoid explaining things that the participants already know. If you are a trainer like Charlie, asking the participants to generate questions on the content they had recently learned and competing in the subsequent quiz contest help the participants to effectively review the content. This is a much more effective review than your repeating the presentation one more time.

After the training session, when you review, organize, and analyze the questions generated by the participants, you get these types of indirect – and useful —feedback:

  • The participants ask the most questions from the topics that they clearly understood and consider to be important.
  • The participants do not ask questions about the topics they do not clearly understand or consider to be unimportant.
  • The participants ask “incorrect” questions about topics that they do not understand.

While my subject-matter experts and I can generate several valid questions about the training topic, the participants generate more authentic questions. The intriguing twists in the content and format of the participant-generated questions frequently make me exclaim, “I’d never thought of that!” Some of the questions generated by the participants at the beginning of the training session effectively capture the participants’ mental pictures. Subject-matter experts cannot duplicate this feat because they have lost their and naiveté when it comes to thinking about the training topic.

Disadvantages and Limitations

Asking the participants to generate questions for use in a training session is not without dangers and pitfalls:

  • If the trainer invites a group of beginning learners to ask questions, they may come up with naïve, shallow, and trivial questions because they don’t know what they don’t know. Providing some foundational knowledge, advanced organizer, or conceptual framework before turning the participants loose on producing their questions can reduce this pitfall.
  • A question from a beginning participant may be of great interest and use to her. But other participants may find it to be boring and irrelevant to their needs.
  • When we invite the participants to generate review and test questions on topics that
  • they have mastered, we may end up with redundant and poorly worded questions. We have to invest time and effort to sort through the questions, remove duplicates, eliminate trivia, and add questions on ignored topics to provide balanced coverage.
  • Some participants may indulge in a sadistic binge by constructing tough questions to stump their cohorts and to show off their mastery of esoteric information.

Delayed Incorporation of Questions

Reviewing, organizing, selecting, and editing questions from different participants is a time- consuming process. If you are planning to incorporate the questions in a subsequent quiz contest or some other type of review and practice game, you may have to give the participants a break while you clean up their questions.

Here’s a more effective strategy that I have used in this situation to avoid the delay. When I collect the question cards from the current set of participants, I tell them something like this: “I am going to go through the questions, sort them out, organize them, and select the questions that cover all the important content. This process may take some time. To get us into the next activity, I am going to use a set of questions generated by the previous participants. Before my next training session, I will expand this set to include your questions.”

Having a previous collection of valid questions that sample different topics enables you to invite the participants to generate questions while avoiding delays in cleaning them up. The first time you use this approach, you have to use your own questions. Later, you can systematically replace them with effective and valid questions from the participants.

Variety and Quality of Questions

When you invite the participants to come up with their questions, they tend to use a limited set of formats. To encourage a greater variety (and to improve the quality of questions), I ask the participants to generate two types of questions:

  • Closed questions that require single correct answers. These questions usually involve recall of information.
  • Open questions that permit a range of acceptable answers. These questions usually involve higher-levels of thinking such as evaluation, synthesis, and application.

I frequently distribute sample questions to help the participants in the process of generating their own questions. Here are the two sample sets, one of closed question and the other of open ones. The words in bold italics in these samples refer to the specific content. I tell the participants to replace these words with words related to their content and use the question structure as a template.

Sample Closed Questions

Closed questions have a single correct answer. Most questions of this type require the recall of some fact.

The best way to ask a closed question is to start with one of the question words (or phrases) as shown in the following samples. To use any of the question formats, simply replace the words in bold italics with words related to your content.

  1. According to Maslow, what is the most basic human need?
  2. How many pages can be stored on a 16-GB thumb drive?
  3. How many people are involved in the Quality Improvement Team?
  4. How much time is required to warm up the copying machine?
  5. What is the first step in evacuating the office building?
  6. What is the technical term for reducing static electricity by using rubber gloves?
  7. When is the best time to give feedback to a coworker?
  8. Where is the fire extinguisher located?
  9. Who is considered to be the Father of Performance Technology?
  10. Why is it dangerous to touch a light bulb with wet hands?

Sample Open Questions

Open questions have more than one acceptable answer. However, most open questions permit you to compare two different answers and decide which one is better.

Here are some formats for writing open questions. To use any of these format, simply replace the words in bold italics with words related to your content.

  1. Compare laptops and smart phone in terms of their storage capacity.
  2. Give an example of positive reinforcement.
  3. How are management and leadership similar?
  4. How would you use an incentive system?
  5. How do you think an Asian customer will react to the new model? Why do you think so?
  6. How does permission marketing increase our sales?
  7. How does the new incentive system affect marginal performers?
  8. How does the principle of reciprocity apply to customer complaints?
  9. What are the implications of declaring Fridays to be casual days?
  10. What are the strengths of teamwork?
  11. What are the weaknesses of teamwork?
  12. What is a metaphor for immediate reinforcement?
  13. What is an effective solution to the problem of overcrowding in subways?
  14. What is the best strategy for telemarketing? Why?
  15. What is the difference between management and leadership?
  16. What is the meaning of “digital capital”?
  17. What is the primary cause of violence in the workplace? Why do you think so?
  18. What would happen if customer complaints are ignored?
  19. Why does punishment produce unpredictable effects?
  20. Why is customer loyalty important?