Essential Questions

Engines of inquiry

What  are Essential Questions?

Wiggins and McTighe identify big ideas, essential questions and enduring understandings as critical elements of course design in  Understanding by Design. If a big idea is like a point on the horizon you are steering toward, and enduring understandings are the highlights that you will always remember, essential questions are the engines of inquiry that propel students through your  learning experience. They should prompt exploration and open discovery. All content should contribute toward or inform learners as to the evolving complexity of potential responses to these questions. Grant Wiggins characterizes them as “well, essential: important, vital, at the heart of the matter — the essence of the issue.” Essential questions are important because they identify the point of inquiry from which you create actual instructional material and experiences for your students.
A question is essential when it:

  • Causes genuine INQUIRY into the big ideas and core content
  • ARGUABLE: provokes deep thought, lively discussion, sustained inquiry, and new understanding as well as more questions
  • Requires students to CONSIDER alternatives, WEIGH evidence, SUPPORT their ideas, and JUSTIFY their answers
  • Stimulates vital, ongoing rethinking of big ideas and assumptions
  • Sparks meaningful CONNECTIONS with prior learning and personal experiences
A marble bust of socrates

As a big idea will unpack into multiple essential questions (usually), so an essential question will itself unpack into multiple smaller questions. The smaller questions are not unimportant, but it is crucial to understand how the smaller questions relate to the Big Idea. For instance:

  • Essential question: What traits and characteristics are collectively used to determine a classification?
  • Non-essential question: How many legs does a spider have?

It may well be the case that non-essential questions can be used to bring about understanding of the essential questions, but they are not the essential thing. Consider another pair:

  • Essential questions: How do history and context determine the definition of “art?’
  • Non-essential question: Is Duchamp’s “Fountain” art or not?

How Can I Use  Essential Questions  in My Course Design?

Both the process and the product of identifying your essential questions is  valuable.

The process of identifying Essential Questions forces you to explicitly identify what matters in your course and more importantly, why it matters. These points of inquiry, like the big ideas and enduring understandings are personal to you. They reflect not only your voice, but your unique insights. They lead students to make the connections you design for them.  Brainstorm 10 essential questions for your course using the above criteria. This is hard work. Give yourself some time. Think big picture. Why does your content matter? Who cares about the information you teach and why? What important life questions does your content shed light on? What questions are worth returning to while exploring your content?

The product of your labors, your essential questions, can be asked of your students explicitly, or they may guide your design from behind the curtain. The decision is yours. Some cohorts of students understand implicitly the fundamental reasons why a topic is relevant while exploring content. In other cases, student inquiry is greatly facilitated by asking previously unasked challenging questions. Either way, each essential question can guide the form and structure of a learning module or unit. The important thing is that your  questions be sufficiently engaging so that they bear returning to with each new layer of material and new student understandings.

Sample Essential Questions

  • How can we know what really happened in the past?
  • When and why should we estimate?
  • What is the relationship between fiction and truth?
  • How are structure and function related in living things?
  • Is aging a disease?
  • Why and how do scientific theories change?
  • How can we best measure what we cannot directly see?
  • To what extent do artists have a responsibility to their audiences?
  • Do audiences have any responsibility to artists?
  • How much cultural understanding is required to become competent in using a language?


The following list contains a limited set of tools you might use while brainstorming your essential questions:

  • List them in a Google Doc
  • Write them on  yellow Post-It notes and organize hierarchically as they appeal to you.
  • Ask your students (or faculty peers) to tweet their suggestions to a #yourclasshere hashtag.

Helpful How-To Instructions

We’ve discussed a number of ideas that you may want to implement in your course and a number of technologies that you might find useful.  If you’d like to learn more in-person, please attend on of our workshops or feel free to contact a Designer with questions.

Faculty  Perspectives

Here are  a few thoughts by the developers of the Essential Questions concept.

Research Foundations

Howard, J. (2007). Curriculum Development. Center for Advancement of Teaching and Learning, Elon University.
McTighe, J. & Wiggins, G. (2013).  Essential questions: Opening doors to student understanding. Ascd.
McTighe, J. & Seif, A. (2003).Teaching for Meaning and Understanding – A Summary of Underlying Theory and Research.  Pennsylvania Educational Leadership,  24(1), 6-14.

Further Resources