6 Simple Steps to Mastering the Art of Writing Essential Questions

by | Jun 26, 2017

In any great lesson, an essential question is what drives your learners’ quest for knowledge and discovery. How do we begin writing essential questions that matter?


One of the essential shifts in modern learning is students becoming creators of knowledge. This means moving from answering the questions to questioning the answers. It’s about the quest of pursuing an answer to a question that isn’t easily answered. This is, of course, the essence of an essential question, and mastering the art of writing essential questions is a worthwhile pursuit for any teacher. We’d like to present you with 6 quick considerations for writing essential questions that will help you as you move along in the process.

The simplest way to define an essential question is to call it an open question. It cannot be answered with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ or by being labeled true or false. If you can Google the answer or respond in a brief manner, it doesn’t inspire intense investigation or creative output. Essential questions are also tailored to the age and maturity of the students and should provide opportunities for extension and enrichment while meeting curricular needs.

Essential questions explore relevant real-world issues and inspire students to create unique solutions, and within the context of the required curriculum. We want students to find the answers and discover the unknown, and then learn more from that; we want them to get excited about going on that journey.

Writing essential questions is actually easy once you understand the concepts. From there it’s intriguing to think about all the possible solutions that can hide within an essential question. What could they inspire students to create? This element of creating something meaningful is how we connect students to their learning.

Being succinct is important with your EQ. It’s just one single question that will drive your whole unit, so be sure to make it count. It should be clear to the teacher and the learners the significance of the question. When writing essential questions and scaffolding the learning process, the teacher and students should be able to articulate:

  • Why they answered the question
  • Why the concepts are important
  • Why it’s important to them as individuals and the wider community

1. Start with standards

What curricular connection do I want to make with my essential question?

The best place to start is with your curriculum. Fundamentally, it’s what we’re responsible for teaching and what our learners are responsible for learning. It’s not just the best place to start, it’s really the only place. That said, why not use what you’re passionate about in that curriculum? Chances are you’ve thought about certain topics a lot; that puts you in a position to write some great questions about them. Search your objectives and jot some ideas down for workshopping.

2. Have a clear challenge

What is the specific problem or challenge I want students to face in this question?

When writing essential questions, always clearly present some kind of challenge or problem. That’s what students must tackle in order to learn the objectives. Having a clear challenge will help them take ownership of their learning.

3. Have suitable projects in mind

How can the learners meet the challenge of this EQ using creativity and ingenuity?

Make sure your question gives students a need to develop a product/process as a solution. They would then apply that to the problem or challenge. These project descriptions won’t appear in the actual question but do form the question with them in the back of your mind.


4. Offer collaborative opportunities

What kinds of problems would require students to work together in groups?

Whenever possible, guide students towards working together. Let them face challenges and support each other in problem-solving processes. This can include working with real and virtual online partners.

5. Stretch imaginations

How can I create curiosity and inspire a knowledge quest with my EQ?

Remember, any question that can be answered with a simple Web search isn’t essential. Devise a question that stretches their imaginations. Keep in mind the words of the late Grant Wiggins: What is a question that any thoughtful and intellectually alive person ponders and should keep pondering?

6. Play within your limits

Can these projects be completed within a specific budget/time frame using the technology we have available?

Always keep in mind your time frame and budgetary considerations. Consider what technology you have available for students to use, and always keep your SMART goals in mind (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time efficient).

Get Yourself a Guide (or Two)

To help you discover more about how you can develop your best essential questions for inquiry- and project-based learning, we’ve got two free quick-reference guides—The EQ Guide and its info-packed older brother, the Essential Question Teacher’s Companion. These informative free guides will help you better understand what makes up a really solid essential question and how to make your own. It’s a fun way to learn the “essentials” of writing essential questions.


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