Thursday, 1 December 2011

Open Questions or Closed Questions?

Question and Answer Technique is used in a number of different ways when teaching learner drivers. The aim of this article is to explore how Q&A can be used to find out what the pupil knows, what the pupil doesn’t know and how to construct effective questions to achieve this.

For the purposes of this article I will classify pupils into two groups:

Partly trained – a pupil who is following a course of lessons but still learning new subjects

Trained – a pupil who has followed a course of lessons and is now reviewing and developing topics and skills already learned.

The main times when we use Q&A can be broken down as follows:


Nearly every driving lesson starts with a short Q&A session to check the pupil’s knowledge of what was covered on their previous lesson.

With a partly trained pupil the aim is to see how much they have remembered from the last lesson and highlight skills the pupil already has that can be used and developed within the new topic about to be covered. For example, if a pupil covered emerging at T junctions in his/her last lesson and the topic for the current lesson is crossroads, then the pupil should have a good knowledge of using the MSPSL routine. Recap questions could be as follows:

‘Before I explain crossroads, I would like to ask you a few questions to establish your knowledge of T junctions covered on your last lesson.
Imagine you were approaching a T-junction to turn right, take me through the routine you would use on approach?
When you reach the give way line, where would you be looking and what would you be looking for?
If your zone of vision was blocked by parked cars, explain to me how you would use clutch control to move the car forward slowly?
Who has priority at an unmarked junction?
What is the difference between an open and a closed junction and how does this affect your speed of approach?'

With a trained pupil where the objective is to review and improve a topic already covered, then the Recap should assess the pupil’s current knowledge of that subject. If we take crossroads again, suitable questions could be as follows:

'Before we move off, I would like to ask you a few questions to check your current knowledge of Crossroads.
Imagine you are approaching a crossroads on a minor road to follow the road ahead. Take me through the routine you would use on approach?
If it was a closed junction and your view of the junction was obscured, how would this affect your speed of approach?
If you need to pause or stop at the give way line, when would you select first gear?
What does coasting mean and why should it be avoided?
If you have stopped at the give way line at a crossroads, where should you be looking and what should you be looking for?
If your view of the junction was blocked by parked vehicles, explain to me how you would move forward slowly so that you could see it was safe to emerge?
When turning right form a major road, where do you position the car on approach?
When emerging left at a crossroads, where should you position the car as you approach the give way line?
What vulnerable road users do you need to be especially aware of when negotiating crossroads?
When turning right from a major road to a minor one, how do you assess a safe gap in the oncoming traffic?
Why is it dangerous to cut a corner when turning right major to minor and do you have a reference point to check your point of turn?'

How you ask the question will ultimately determine what answer you get.

As an initial example let’s presume that you want to know if the pupil knows how to use progressive braking.
You could say:
How do you use the brake? But the pupil could say: With my right foot.
Or you could say:
Do you know what progressive braking is? But here the pupil could reply simply: Yes.
But if you said:
What does progressive braking mean? Then the pupil will either give you the answer or say they don’t know.

A good way to start a question is to use What? Why? Which? Where? When? or How?
For example:
Which mirrors do you check before signalling right?
Why is it important to bring the clutch up slowly when moving off?
Where should you position your vehicle when turning right at a T-junction?
When should you signal if you were taking the second road on the left?
How do you assess a safe gap in the oncoming traffic when turning right (major to minor)?

Another useful technique is to try to amalgamate several questions into one. For example if you were checking a pupil’s knowledge of the MSPSL routine when turning right from a major road, you could ask a question on each element such as:
When turning right from a major road to a minor road which mirrors would you check?
When would you signal?
Where would you position your vehicle?
Etc., etc., etc………

However, this could all be amalgamated as follows:
Take me through the routine you would use when turning right from a major road to a minor road?
Here, with one question the pupil has to describe the whole routine to you. You could then ask supplementary questions to clarify any particular point. For example, if the pupil starts by saying: ‘I would check my mirrors’ you could then ask: ‘which mirrors and in what order?’ Or if he said: ‘I would position my vehicle just left of the centre line’ You could ask: ‘What reference point do you have to check this?’

Another useful technique is to start a question with a short description to ensure that the mental picture in the pupil’s mind is the same as yours. For example:

Imagine you are driving down a major road at 30 mph in 4th gear and I ask you to take the next road on the left, take me through the routine you would use on approach?

This descriptive approach can then continue as you ask further questions. For example:

Ahead of you is a pedestrian on the left hand pavement who looks as if he/she is about to cross the road, how will this affect your speed of approach?

With a trained pupil the Recap questions should be more challenging as the pupil should have a good knowledge of the topic to be covered. For example, if you were reviewing Emerging and you wanted to check the pupil’s approach routine with regards to signalling, compare the following questions:

After checking your mirrors, what do you need to do next? - this tells you very little other than if the pupil is familiar with the MSM routine.

After checking your mirrors, how far from the junction would you usually signal? - this question will give you a little more information about the pupil’s knowledge, but consider the following question:

After checking your mirrors what do you look for ahead of you to ensure that your signal is properly timed? - this last question really tests the pupil’s knowledge. It takes into account the fact that your command for emerging is ‘at the end of the road turn left/right, and so there could be a minor left or right turn before the end of the road which would alter the timing of the signal.

Prompting Q&A

This form of Q&A, is used mostly with a beginner or partly trained pupil to bridge the gap between full control and independence. Let’s use Moving off and stopping as an example. After the briefing you will be controlling the pupil on the move using full talkthrough. After the pupil can perform this exercise under your control then you need to reduce your instruction. However, to expect a pupil to move from being under your full control to suddenly doing the exercise on their own is too big a leap, so we need a bridge to lead them from one to the other and this is called ‘prompting’.

Full talkthrough ---------------  Prompting Q&A --------------- Independence

The best way to do this is to take selected commands from the talkthrough and change them into questions putting what, why, which, when, where or how at the beginning. Compare the following talkthrough and prompting for moving off which should be read from the bottom up:

                        Talkthrough                                                         Prompting
  • check mirrors, clutch gently up, gently on gas                          What is your normal driving position?
  • Steer ¼ turn to right, ½ turn to left, ¼ turn to right                             How much do you need to steer?
  • Clutch gently up until car starts to move, keep feet still
  • Release the handbrake                                                                      Move off when you are ready
  • Check interior mirror, right mirror & right blind spot again
  • Indicate up right                                                                                Do you need to indicate?
  • Check you left blind spot, left exterior mirror,              Where are you looking before you move off?
             interior mirror,  forward, right exterior mirror & right blind spot
  • Gently clutch up until engine note dips slightly, keep both feet still
  • Set gas with your right foot, keep foot still
  • Hand back on steering wheel
  • Push lever left and forward to select 1st gear                                    Prepare the car to move
  • Left hand on gear lever palm towards me
  • Clutch down hold it down
  • Left foot cover clutch
  • Both hands on steering wheel at 10 - 2 position
  • Start the engine                                                                              Carry out your safety precautions and start the engine
  • Check handbrake is on and the gear lever is in neutral

Pro-Active Q&A

This form of Q&A is most effective with a trained pupil on the move, by using targeted questions to expose gaps in the pupil’s knowledge in order to highlight possible faults. The result is that you can either stop the faults from occurring or reduce their effect. To illustrate this, look at the following examples for approaching and emerging at a closed T junction to turn right: (to ensure full understanding by the reader a descriptive style has been used for the pupil’s replies. In real life, the pupil’s response may be in his/her actions rather than words).

Instructor: 'Is this an open or closed junction?'
Pupil: 'Closed.'
Instructor: 'How will that affect your speed of approach?'
Pupil: 'I will need to slow down more and pause at the give-way line.'
Instructor: 'Where are you going to position the car?'
Pupil: 'Just left of the centre line.'
Instructor: 'Does the centre line stay straight?'
Pupil: 'No, it curves to the right.'
Instructor: 'How will you deal with this?'
Pupil: 'I usually keep my wheels straight on approach to turn right.'
Instructor: 'Steer slightly to the right as you approach the give-way line.'

Here the pro-active Q&A managed to expose a potential positioning fault before it happened and so give the opportunity for the instructor to control it.

The secret to effective pro-active Q&A is to make an early assessment of the road ahead in relation to the subject. In the example given above, the instructor noticed that the centre line curved to the right just before the give-way line and wanted to know how the pupil would react to this.

Fault Assessment Q&A

This form of Q&A is once again used mainly with a trained pupil and is aimed at finding out why a fault has happened.

I intend to deal fully with Fault Assessment (Core Competencies) in my next article but as a general rule Never Ask a Question to Identify a Fault. This should always be a statement of what the pupil has done wrong. However, once the fault has been identified then we need to find the gap in the pupil’s knowledge and a good way to do this is to ask a question to cover the analysis and a question to cover the rectification (remedial action). As an example, consider the following:

Pupil stops too early as he approaches a give-way line.
Instructor: 'You have stopped too early (identification statement), how does this affect your vision into the new road? (analysis question)'
Pupil: 'My view is partially blocked.'
Instructor: 'What reference point do you use to ensure you have stopped at the give -way line?'
Pupil: 'I try to get the front of the car just behind the double white line.'
Instructor: 'Can you see the end of the bonnet on this car? (rectification question)'
Pupil: 'No, I just try to guess where it is?'
Instructor: 'Next time look for the give-way lines to appear just under your right exterior mirror before stopping.'

There are many more examples of how to use effective Q&A in my book “The What, Why and How of Instructional Technique for Driving Instructors”. It uses teaching scenarios detailing the interaction between instructor and pupil as if you were sitting in the back of a car listening to a lesson being delivered, based around the subjects currently used in the part 3 test of instructional ability.

The What, Why and How of Instructional Technique for Driving Instructors is available to order online at