Why do it: Essential Questions for Learning

We have been talking on and off about essential questions with Chris. Just the other day, because I am facilitating an online course about online course development (yup, I am!), a participant in the course submitted a syllabus with an essential question in it, and this was such a joyous moment that I had to capitalize on it and spread the message.

If you are not familiar with essential questions as they apply to course and curriculum design, you are in for a treat! Essential questions are defined as the big, important questions that recur in one’s life, open-ended overarching questions exploring the deeper connections between objects in the world, and some say these are the questions that touch our hearts and souls. These are the questions that don’t have a ready-made factual answer, they don’t have a wrong path to answering it either. They are also closely linked to authentic assignments and authentic learning and boast higher student engagement and intrinsic motivation.

It’s probably safe to say that students are not likely to get excited about a list of competencies, if they do read them in the first place. By its very nature, a question invites the reader to participate, invites to construct a response. An essential question adds coherence and cohesiveness to the course and a sort of a story to go with the activities. The big question also helps keep focus when students are working on smaller chunks of assignments. Essential questions also place everyone – the instructor and the students – on the same side of the issue – there are no categorically right answers and you must make a case for your perspective on the issue.

Essential questions make for a more engaging discussion as well, where participation is organic, not merely driven by participation requirements.

Crafting essential questions to guide your course design is an exercise on its own, but don’t stop there! You can actually have students come up with their own essential questions – or collaborate on one – which will guide their quest for knowledge and understanding.

Some examples of essential questions are:

  • What can misfits and outcasts teach us about human resilience and freedom of choice?
  • What is the human cost of war?
  • When is fear good for you, if ever?
  • How well can fiction tell the truth?
  • What does adulthood mean?

Here is an exercise for you – ask your students to come up with an essential question in your course or devise your own and see how your course helps students arrive at an answer (or get closer to it). Post your questions as comments if you are happy with the results or wish feedback on them.


What are essential questions?

What is an Essential Question? By Grant Wiggins

What makes a question essential?

Learners should be developing their own essential questions

McTighe, J. & Wiggins, G. (2013). Essential questions opening doors to student understanding. Alexandria, Virginia, USA: ASCD.

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