Three questions to ask yourself and your learners

During my transition from IT techie to education nerd, I stumbled across a trusty three-pronged question which has stuck with me.

What are you doing? Why are you doing it? What does this help you do that’s important?

When I worked as an IT assessor I’d often ask my learner’s to complete a case study. A case study was a short piece of writing based on a task that the apprentice was going to carry out (or had already carried out). The purpose of a case study was to assess the apprentice’s knowledge of a topic that may have otherwise been difficult to assess, through something like an observation.

Apprentices HATED case studies and to be honest, I did too! I didn’t really want to have to read pages and pages of written work, I wanted to observe and discuss. About 90% of the jobs my apprentices were doing were jobs I’d had during my own IT career, so my favourite assessments were observations. Observations were a strong piece of evidence, after all what better way is there to prove to someone that you can do something?

The apprenticeship I was delivering at the time was awarded by City and Guilds. A big portion of my job focused on dissecting and regurgitating a myriad of learning outcomes into plain English for learners to understand. I got to a point where I thought actually, why am I doing this? As much as I was there as a coach, they should really try to understand this themselves.

It was during that time I discovered the three questions. My apprentices would say “I have nothing to write about in a case study, all I have done is answer the phone and change passwords” (which was usually almost always a lie) so I started structuring my visits around the three questions.

It’s these three questions which have also helped me as an instructional designer. There are A LOT of different models and instructional design methodologies out there that you can follow, but I like to use these questions as a starting point because they are short and simple, can be applied to ILT, blended or e-learning and can be the starting point to open up dialogue and get people thinking.

Three Questions

  • What are you doing?
  • Why are you doing it?
  • What does this help you do that’s important?

I once observed a student who was following a set of instructions. When I asked him what he was doing, the answer was “following these instructions” (duh!) when I continued through the question stem it turned out that the student wasn’t actually sure what he was doing, he was just told to follow the instructions. Now, this was a rare case, but I started asking these questions in other scenarios and they became really useful when talking to learners about what to include in their case studies.

The mnemonic “five bums on a bench” is a very similar questioning strategy and can be applied in the same way.

  • Why, What, When, Where, Who

However, in my experience, I’ve found that three questions are the minimum needed to gauge some basic understanding of a task. You might not always need a “when”, “where” or a “who”, but there should always be a “what” and a”why”!

It’s amazing how three questions can help you to identify knowledge gaps, guide actions and learning. If I’m working with course materials I’m always applying these questions to my work. I’ve worked with many subject-matter experts who are amazing teachers in the classroom but struggle to transition their lessons into an online assessment. It’s times like those when I’ll whip out the three magic questions!


I originally discovered the three questions reading the following article. Luckily the page still exists. It’s an interesting article that shares some similarities to what I have described here.

Wiggins, G. (2014). Experiential Learning: Hands-On Doesn’t Mean It’s Minds-On. [online] TeachThought. Available at: [Accessed 14 Jan. 2020].

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