9 Open-Ended Questions to Use with Students

The difference between being “talked at” and “talked with” matters when it comes to student engagement.

Envision the two and you’re likely to conjure up images and experiences that are distinctly different, and one probably feels better than the other.

In counseling, the concept of “coming alongside” a client fits with being “talked with.” More than giving advice or a telling a client what to do, “coming alongside” means metaphorically sitting next to the client and looking at the issue together — empowering them to share their perspective and thoughts, and offering your observations and curiosity as appropriate to help them narrow down the issue and solution while feeling understood, accepted, and supported.

It’s a beautiful process.

When done well, our approach to working with students mirrors counseling work to some degree. But, what if your post-graduate degree didn’t cover “coming alongside” or you don’t have a master’s degree in counseling? Have no fear.

Active listening skills are just that — skills. With practice, you can improve, and we all could stand to improve our skill sets. 

In When Harry Met Sally, the character Marie delivers the classic line, “Everybody thinks they have good taste and a sense of humor, but they couldn’t possibly all have good taste.” The same is true for listening.

Everybody thinks they are a good listener, but in reality, good listeners are a rare find.

The art of conversation requires a genuine interest in the other person, and it’s hard to imagine conveying genuine interest without asking open-ended questions.

Purposeful and intentional questions serve our goals of supporting students well. Through quality questions, we can help students connect the dots, think ahead, and think things through.

Read on for nine open-ended questions that can help you promote dialogue and create a connection with your students.

9 Open-Ended Questions

1. “What do you wish they knew about you?”

Let’s say you have a resident who is having issues with their roommates, or perhaps an executive board member whose leadership decisions have come under fire from their peers and colleagues. Maybe it’s an entire student organization struggling to find a place for themselves within the campus landscape.  

Asking “What do you wish they knew about you?” can give students a chance to share who they really are and how they wish to be seen and understood. It invites vulnerability and a chance to vent frustrations and share true desires.

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In the midst of their struggle, your student may not have slowed down enough to check in with their feelings, but asking this question takes them there to give voice to their experience. With you there for support, they may even find new ways to share who they really are and their needs in the situation for a resolution.

2. “What are the possible outcomes of that?”

Decision-making skills are a work-in-progress for college students. This is because the adult brain (particularly the prefrontal cortex, where our judgment and evaluation of short- and long-term consequences lives) isn’t fully developed until age 25.

The road from 18 to 25, then, can be marked with impulsive reactions or decisions that are perhaps not well thought out.

However, instead of shaking our heads, we can realize that this is a growing area for our students in which we have the opportunity to support and assist them.

Asking “What are the possible outcomes of that?” enables you to help a student understand the bigger picture. It’s the next step of evaluating a decision they may not get to on their own. Asking the question and talking through the possible outcomes, as well as their feelings and plans about each possible outcome, guides them in talking through a decision to see if it is their best route.

Other ways to ask this question might be, “Is there a different way to get your desired outcome?”, “What are the different ways that might go?” or “What’s your plan to handle outcome #1 and #2?”

3. “How do you feel it went?”

Instead of asking, “How did it go?” try asking, “How do you feel it went?”. While both are open-ended questions, the former can invite surface-level, one-word answers that may not allow for much reflection.

The latter seeks to connect with feelings from the start and opens the door for your students to share their experience more fully. It also demonstrates that you are not only interested in the outcome of the event or situation, but how they feel about it, and that you want to hear more.

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In a fraternity or sorority advisor role, for example, you may witness many things you have a reaction to, and it is easy to start a meeting with our students by launching into all our frustrations. Instead, start with them. Ask them how they feel it went and let them walk through it first.

This can be a more effective, meaningful, and rich way for students to process and learn. This question also invites reflection and critical thinking, opening the door to conversation. The key is to ask questions and then listen: Listen for the sake of listening alone, not to give your response or advice.

“How do you feel it went?” is the starting point of a journey that can go beyond the surface to core issues if you travel the length of the road.

4 & 5. “What are you most worried about? What are you feeling the most confident about?”

Your student ran for a position on campus and won. Celebrate!

Remember though, none of us start a journey with all the answers. Just as even positive change can be stressful, a positive outcome (getting that internship or job, winning an election, getting the date with their longtime crush) can be marked with a variety of different feelings.

Asking what a student is most worried about acknowledges the reality that they may be nervous and gives them permission to speak to these concerns so that you best know how to support them.

Asking what a student is feeling the most confident about encourages them to pause and identify the ways they are prepared for what’s next, reinforcing their strengths, and reminding them what the bring to the table. (P.S.: Asking this question second is a great way to help them leave the conversation feeling positive.)

When you get into deeper work with your student on particular issues, a variation of this question is “How confident do you feel about doing that, on a scale of one to 10?” An answer of “four” dictates a different course of helping them than an answer of “eight” and acknowledges that just because a student knows what to do, it doesn’t mean they feel confident in their ability to execute. 

These questions are also a great way to assess your students’ level of insight. They may feel confident in an area where you see a need for growth, or worried about something you feel can be easily reframed. Hold onto these thoughts for your future work together; the goal here is to listen for understanding and help the orient the student to the mission at hand.

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6. “How can I best support you?”

Students are still in the process of learning how they best cope with stress and what feels the most helpful to them during these times. They may not always have an answer to “How can I best support you?” and that is okay. It communicates you are there and want to help, and also demonstrates that as they learn what they need, they can ask you for it.

Just being asked the question here can make a world of difference. You may be the only person in that student’s world who thinks to ask them this. The question also communicates a respect of supporting someone in the way they need, not in the way you would want if it were happening to you (or what you assume is helpful).

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7. “What are your ideas for how to address it?”

Students may be used to going to adults for the answer. While asking for help is a positive thing, and sometimes students just need to vent, problem-solving skills are critical to a student’s success. Asking “What are your ideas on how to address it?” is in the spirit of the quote, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Encouraging a student to think out loud about how they might resolve an issue not only allows them to practice their critical thinking skills but teaches you more about their abilities to problem solve and where they could use help to improve. Other ways to ask this question include, “How do you think you’ll handle that?” and “What can I do to help you figure out a plan?”

8. “Is there anything else?”

Asking this question conveys a desire to be thorough in helping students and communicates care. Students may be nervous to share something and have it waiting in the back of their mind for the right time to share. If they’re dropping by between classes, asking this question gives them an opportunity to share before they leave, even if it’s not something that’s fully discussed until your next meeting.

Without this question, that thing they want to tell you continues to sit in the back of their mind.

The other consideration is this: You know that person in your life who is the first call if something good (or bad) happens? That person who is a VIP among your people, who hears all your funny stories, and you have to tell them something for it to feel official and real? You may be that person for a student. Give them this additional opening to share that thing they’re holding onto or don’t want to forget to tell you.

Lastly, this question demonstrates that time shared with students is their time. Our work gives them a place to share about themselves, and the focus is on them, not us.

9. “What’s your favorite restaurant near campus?”

Don’t forget to have fun with your students. Be a student affairs professional, but remember to be a real person, too. Not all open-ended questions have to have a grand plan in mind. We all long for connection and have a desire to “feel known.” Our students are no exception.

Getting to know your students’ preferences and quirks is a meaningful way to build rapport and genuine rapport. Our time with them can be marked with lighthearted moments. (Hint: Food is the great equalizer, so this topic is always a win to bridge the gap!)

Open-ended questions like these and others are key to creating conversations that engage students. Asking the question, though, is just the start.

What makes a difference is your ability to listen. Freshen up those active listening skills with these handy tips from Forbes and PsychCentral. With good open-ended questions and keen active listening skills, you stand ready to be thoughtful when working with students. This will be a difference they can feel and will respond to, and you’ll feel the difference too.

What are some of your go-to open-ended questions when working with students? Let me know on Twitter, @PriyaThomas757!

Editor’s Note: Hey reader! We recently released a podcast that you might enjoy. You can listen in on our trailer below or learn more about Will There Be Food? here. 

Priya Thomas

About the author: Priya Thomas (she/hers) is a wellness and leadership development director and consultant, with 15 years of experience in Student Affairs. She is the former Director of Prevention & Wellness at Florida Gulf Coast University and actively volunteers with Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. Learn how we can help get your students involved.