Driving Questions That Motivate Learning

Propel Students Toward Targeted Content

A driving question is a thought-provoking question that serves as a catalyst for student inquiry. Such questions are carefully crafted to propel students to develop specific knowledge and skills as they conduct inquiry and develop a response. Like essay questions, they challenge students to think deeply, to generate an original response, and to synthesize information from multiple sources. In a nutrition course, for example, students might be asked, “What diet would you prescribe for a specific patient who wants to lose 50 pounds?” This question would drive students to learn about metabolism, caloric intake, nutritional content of food, along with the interplay of disease and psychology. After consulting multiple sources, students would synthesize their findings and leverage course content and concepts to construct a response, including their rationale. The response provides evidence of learning.

What’s the research? 

Driving questions prompt students to “cover” the content primarily through inquiry, rather than acquiring it from lectures or other instructional activities. Leveraging driving questions in inquiry-based learning has been shown to generate learner interest and motivation, focus attention, and foster self-directed learning (Bransford et al., 2000). This works because the question creates a “need to know” that primes the brain for learning. According to Albanese and Mitchell (1993), people are most strongly motivated to learn things when they clearly perceive a need to know.

According to Zambrano (2019), questions that evoke wonder are the “big bang” of motivation, and thus ignite “passionate learning quests that inspire both creative and critical thinking that will last long past the end of our semester-long courses.”


Generating Effective Questions 

Identify the Context and Concepts – Driving questions can be designed around a session, a unit, or an entire learning experience (like a course). Questions may drive students to explore philosophical issues, solve a problem, explain how something works, or compare and contrast phenomena. Select a context, then identify several major concepts that you intend students to learn through inquiry as they respond to the question.  

Effective Questions Are…

  • Complex – They require students to synthesize information from multiple sources and think deeply.
  • Not “Google-able” – They require students to generate original responses.
  • Relevant and meaningful to students.

Begin With Instructional Content – Developing driving questions is like playing the game show Jeopardy: you start with the answers (the concepts and content to be learned), and then derive the question from them. The questions may prompt students to debate an issue, solve a problem, or compare and contrast objects, places, issues, or events.

Identifying Appropriate Evidence of Learning

To apply their learning and articulate their response to the question, students may create a product or give a performance. Some examples are listed below.


  • Proposal
  • Research paper
  • Policy recommendation
  • Educational materials
  • Blog posts
  • Media production


  • Expert interview
  • Role play
  • Debate
  • Presentation

Considering Appropriate Assessment Criteria

Below are sample assessment criteria that are commonly used to evaluate student responses to driving questions.

  • Correct application of concepts
  • Thoroughness
  • Strength of arguments, logic, and reasoning
  • Use of appropriate and credible sources
  • Proper citations


Albanese, M. A., & Mitchell, S. (1993). Problem-based learning: A review of literature on its outcomes and implementation issues. Academic Medicine: Journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges, 68(1), 52-81.  http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00596231

Bransford, J., Brown, A., Cocking, R., & National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Zambrano, R. (2019, March 25). Questions that evoke wonder in our students: Faculty focus. Faculty Focus | Higher Ed Teaching & Learning. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/the-big-bang-of-motivation-questions-that-evoke-wonder-in-our-students/