Prepare your students to conduct effective interviews

A few English teachers invited me into their classrooms a couple of weeks ago to talk to their students about interviewing. I began my presentation the way I always do, with a few anecdotes about my heydays as a journalist for the Daily Iowan, the University of Iowa’s daily student newspaper. I explained to the classes how I learned so much about the art of interviewing by talking to attorneys and university officials and everyday people about crime and city policy and life stories.

Conducting three interviews is a requirement for the I-Search, but by the time students get to English IV – Composition class, most have never conducted a single interview. Just like anything, interviewing takes practice. Below are a few tips I picked up along the way. Please feel free to share these with your classes, and please encourage them to find interview sources for your research assignments. The earlier we expose them to gathering information this way, the more prepared they will be by senior year. 

Be prepared.
I will always remember the name J. Patrick White. He was the county attorney I often had to interview for criminal cases in Johnson County, Iowa. And he was tough. He let you know if you were wasting his time by asking him weak questions or not having the facts straight prior to calling him up. At least one time, I hung up the phone and started to cry. Students need to have background information about a topic in order to generate effective questions and hold a conversation that isn’t wasting anyone’s time. It’s helpful that Composition teachers require a few sources for the I-Search before they require the first interview to be completed; in a way, that forces the students to educate themselves before they have the chance to embarrass themselves. No one should have to hang up the phone wanting to cry!

Ask effective questions.
Along with knowing their topic, it’s important for students to brainstorm objective, open-ended questions prior to the interview. I usually recommend pre-writing 8-10 questions. Students should know the purpose behind every question they ask—what information they hope to garner through their interviewee’s answer and how it relates to their research. I also recommend showing the interviewee that you’ve done your homework by referencing information from background reading and asking him or her to respond, clarify, or expound upon an idea or fact.  

Organize questions.
I organize questions so that the conversation flows and makes sense to the interviewee and his or her train of thought. Much like how we instruct students to write introductions and conclusions in their papers, we should instruct them how to organize their interviews. Always start with the easy, get to know you questions. I typically like to ask for credential information or other simple background information. By the end of the interview, students should be asking the more difficult questions—ones that address the counterargument or that in some other way might make the interviewee a little tense. Hopefully by this time, the interviewee feels more comfortable with the interviewer and, therefore, more willing to answer those tough questions honestly. Always, always, always end with the question, “Is there anything you’d like to add?” I find that this is where you get the best quotes for your research and/or new information about which you hadn’t thought to ask.

Interview in person.
I have an image of a man in a coffee shop who smiled all of the time and leaned back in his chair to laugh when something was funny. That’s an image I would not have in my memory if I had interviewed him about his debilitating car accident over the phone or through email. I was able to capture those images of him in my writing to more completely tell the story about a mentally handicapped man who successfully ran a coffee shop in Iowa City. Encourage students to get the whole story about a person by visiting them in their office or home, as long as they feel safe doing so. What’s hanging on their walls? What are they wearing? What is their expression when they are asked a difficult question? How do these observations relate to the research topic and what role might they play in the paper? Interviewing in person also allows students to ask follow-up questions right then and there instead of going back and forth through email—emails that might get lost in an inbox. Second best option: over the phone. Last resort: email.

Be courteous and professional.
I remind students that they should show simple courtesies such as thanking their interviewee for their time, shaking his or her hand, dressing for the part, and sending emails using proper grammar, spelling, etc. I also remind them that these individuals might be potential interview candidates for future I-Search students; it’s important to leave them with a good impression of District 117 so they are willing to meet with students in the future.

As always, please contact Barb Mason at or me at if you want more ideas for how to instruct your students on using people as sources for their research. And don’t forget about our Information Literacy LibGuide at, which contains all kinds of helpful information about the research process for students—from developing a topic to putting together a Works Cited or Reference List to interviewing.


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