Questioning approaches: types of questions

Part of Big Questions Little Questions(BQLQ), critical thinking skills for sixth form students from the University of Oxford.


We are going to look at different types of questions in this section, and how we can apply these questions effectively.

Five Ws

At the most basic level, we’ve got the ‘Five Ws’. That is, who, what, where, when, why, and don’t forget how, too! These questions words are the basis for almost everything we ask, so learning how to apply these questions more effectively is a very important skill to master. This can change how you analyse material, what arguments you form, and, ultimately, affect the conclusions you reach.

If you were looking at the way in which Stalin rose to power, you might ask, ‘how did Stalin rise to power?’ But if the target of your research was the factors of his rise, you might ask, ‘why did Stalin rise to power?’

Open, Closed, Probing

Some more complex questions are that of open, closed, and probing questions. Closed questions often lead to a simple yes/no answer. Open questions however, lead to more complex and extended answers. Probing questions are quite similar to open questions, except that they seek to build on what has been previously discussed. We use these three types of question every day in conversation. By using such a range of questions, you can discover the function, context, and much more of your research topic.

For some more examples, let’s take Chopin’s, Ballade no.2 in F Major (op. 38). A closed question might be, ‘is the piano used in Chopin’s Ballade no.2 in F Major?’. An open question might be, ‘does Chopin prefer to use major or minor key signatures?’, and then a probing question would build on this to be, ‘what effect does the choice of a major key signature have on Chopin’s Ballade no.2 in F Major?

Descriptive vs. analytical

These questions can be further refined to help your research. There is a big difference between descriptive and analytical questions: and these can be really important to successfully developing a good questioning approach.

Even if we all like a nice story (and if exams sometimes call for them!), it is better to stay away from asking descriptive questions when you can. When you ask a descriptive question, you are just going to get a description of events rather than a succinct question!

Instead, by asking analytical questions, you can be more targeted: it helps you to get to the bottom of things, create insight, and further your studies. To give you an idea of what the difference looks like, I have put the example questions from above into a table:


Descriptive Analytical
‘How did Stalin rise to power?’ ‘Why did Stalin rise to power?’
‘Does Chopin prefer to use major or minor key signatures?’ ‘What effect does the choice of a major key signature have on Chopin’s Ballade no.2 in F Major?’

You can see that the analytical questions all aim to coax out multi-layered answers from you, and also hint at a judgement. When thinking about why Stalin rose to power, it is asking you to provide a lot of reasons and within that, you will be creating a judgement by prioritising which reason is most important, subconsciously or not. Likewise, when considering the effect of Chopin’s key-signature choice, you have to provide a more solid answer than just describing the key signature: you have to analyse why it makes the music feel a certain way.

Words to use or look out for in differentiating a descriptive from an analytical approach.

Analytical Descriptive
Account for Comment on
Analyse Compare
Assess Contrast
Criticise Define
Determine Demonstrate
Discuss Describe
Evaluate Explain
Examine Find out
Justify Illustrate
Prove Investigate
Respond to Measure

That is not to say that descriptive questions are totally useless. Actually, they are really important: getting to know key events or insights is the foundation of your research! So, description provides the base knowledge, and from this you can go on to build your critical analysis, which can be boosted by incorporating evidence as basically the, ‘structural beams’ to support your judgment. That is why learning how to ask analytical questions effectively is really important: this is what takes your research from a nice list or description, to interesting and effective work.


In summary, there are lots of different kinds of questions we can ask: using the ’five ws’ (and ‘how’!), open, closed, or probing questions, and descriptive or analytical questions. Most of the time, a question will be multiple of the above descriptors: you can have an analytical, open question or a descriptive, probing question, for example. Learning how to recognise what a question is asking of you and in turn, how you can ask questions effectively is a great skill to be able to master. Not only can it help you in your studies, but in being more receptive to the world around you, too. It can make you a great scholar in the classroom, an excellent listener, problem-solver and, friend outside of the classroom, too!