Strategies For Asking Good Questions

Teenage Mutant Ninja Questioners

Randy Meredith, Ed.D. 2014.

Who asks the most questions in your classes? You, or your students?

Who learns most deeply? The one who is given “the answers”, or the one who struggled to discover “the answers”?

Would you describe your typical class as:

  1. One where students receive answers via lectures or presentations?
  2. One where students develop questions they want answered, and then work to discover those answers?

University faculty are expected to do a great number of things. Not the least of which is motivating students to learn, while being highly engaging in the classroom (virtual or seated). Yet, for many, trying to motivate students reminds them of the myth of Sisyphus, who was doomed to be forever pushing a rock up a mountain. But, upon reaching the summit, the rock eludes his grasp and tumbles to the foot of the mountain, and Sisyphus would have to return to the foot of the mountain and begin again.

Perhaps a different perspective on motivation would be helpful, even encouraging. Consider this possibility. What we currently have in our classrooms is not a deficit of motivation, but rather a deficit of curiosity. How might stoking the fires of curiosity in our students increase their motivation to learn?

A 2013 British research report indicated mothers of 4 year old girls were asked nearly 400 questions per day, on average. That works out to nearly one question every one minute and fifty-six seconds of a four year old child’s waking day. Children are natural question-askers—you know this if you’ve had kids. However, a strange phenomenon occurs as our children proceed through our educational systems—they ask far fewer questions. In fact, the number of questions asked by children drops precipitously by the time they reach high school. Of course, part of this phenomenon is the maturation process, they no longer need to ask “What is this?” But research suggests a troubling relationship between questions and engagement—as students ask fewer questions, they simultaneously become less engage in school.

A 2013 Gallup study on student engagement showed students in elementary grades (who tend to still ask lots of questions) were, on average, 76% engaged. As those students moved through Middle school (where questions decline significantly) students were only 61% engage. By the time they are in high school engagement has fallen to 44%. Granted, by this time students have no need to ask the kind of questions asked by a 3 year old. But more importantly, are we encouraging students to ask their own questions? Or, is the bulk of teaching filled with giving them the “right” answers so they can pass a test? Clearly, the majority of high school graduates entering the university are well trained to take tests, but poorly trained as thinkers.

I suggest there are important relationships between curiosity, engagement and learning. In fact, I suspect we can improve motivation if we can increase student curiosity.

 Curiosity Cycle graphic, Meredith, 2014

 Figure 1. The Curiosity Cycle (Meredith, 2014)

As seen in Figure 1, I suggest curiosity is an important first step in the domino effect of producing students who want to learn, who learn successfully, and ultimately become life-long learners. Producing graduates prepared to become ethical, active citizens requires our students to become more proficient in developing and answering their own questions, and to view the process of asking good questions as the core of the critical thinking process.

Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, co-directors of the Right Question Institute, have developed a Question Formulation Technique (QFT), designed to rekindle the spark of curiosity and the desire to learn.

At the heart of the QFT process are 2 items that comprise, as it were, the engine of the entire process. The first of these 2 items is the QFocus, or Question Focus. This a stimulus phrase that prompts students to develop questions. It can be a simple statement, an image or media that triggers student thinking expressed by questions. An effective QFocus:

  • Has a clear focus
  • Is not a question for students to answer
  • Provokes/stimulates thinking and new ideas
  • Does not reveal the instructor’s bias or preference

The second item is the simple rule set used by students to develop a broad range of questions related to the QFocus. The rule set takes into account the natural tendency we all have—to answer questions immediately, or engaging in discussion rather than developing more questions. These simple rules facilitate very important dynamics in the group process of question formulation.

Rule

What does it accomplish?

  1. Ask as many questions as you can.

Gives license to ask

  1. Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any question.

Creates a safe space and protection.

  1. Write down every question exactly as it is stated.

Levels the playing field so all questions and voices are respected.

  1. Change any statement into a question.

Insists on the discipline of phrasing, asking, and thinking in questions, not statements.

 

The QFT is a small group activity, and consists of three steps: Produce your own questions, Improve your questions, Prioritize your questions.

  1. Produce your own questions
    1. The Question Focus

i.     The instructor sets goals for use of the QFT and develop a QFocus

  1. Rules for producing questions

i.     Instructor introduces the rules and asks students to consider & discuss possible challenges in following the rules:

  1. Generate as many questions as possible within the time limit given
  2. Write each question down exactly as stated
  3. Don’t debate, judge, discuss, or try to answer the questions
  4. Change any statements into questions

ii.     Metacognitive activity: Think and hear from each other about the challenge of “thinking in questions”

iii.     Write or post the QFocus where everyone can read it

iv.     Announce time limit

v.     Divide students into small groups

  1. Categorizing open- and closed-ended questions (5 – 7 minutes)

i.     Give instructions to start task

ii.     Monitor and support student use of the rules

iii.     At end of time limit the class comes back together

  1. Metacognitive activity: Divergent thinking by producing their own questions in keeping with the rules
  2. Improve your own questions
    1. Define Open vs Closed
    2. Discuss advantages and disadvantages of each type
    3. Students mark each closed question with a “c”, and all open questions with an “o”
    4. Metacognitive activity: Thinking about the purpose and use of different kinds of questions for securing information; Convergent thinking by practicing changing questions to sharpen the scope of their inquiry.
    5. Students required to change at least one of their open ended questions into a closed-ended question, and vice versa.

 

  1. Prioritize your questions
    1. Instructor provided instructions on how to prioritize their questions
    2. Re-form small groups
    3. Students discuss, compare, assess, prioritize questions
    4. Instructor monitors and supports student prioritization efforts
    5. Students select 3 priority questions and explain their choices
    6. Metacognitive activity of convergent thinking by analyzing, comparing, assessing all their questions and selecting 3 as focus for next steps

A QFT should wrap up by having students reflect on the process and learning they experienced, and how it may benefit them.

Next steps

  • Instructor provides direction for using the 3 questions
  • Students use the 3 questions for purposes set by the instructor
  • Metacognitive activity of convergent thinking for using the questions for specific purposes and learning goals.

Reflection

  • Instructor facilitates the reflection process
  • Students discuss:
    • What was learned
    • How it was learned
    • What they now know
    • What they now feel differently about
    • Metacognitive activity and convergent thinking about the thinking & learning process, and about where they are now compared with where they were when they began

The Curiosity Cycle can be effectively initiated by the QFT process. Rothstein and Santana’s (2013) research suggest students are very motivated to seek answers to questions that interest them. This may lead to increased engagement in exploring issues relevant to their 3 most important questions. Seeking and developing answers to their own questions can improve student confidence in their ability to inquire and learn, and this confidence can translate into a satisfaction in learning that prompts them to subsequent explorations and achievement.

The Right Question Institute provides several free resources for instructors to help them facilitate the QFT process in their courses. All of the free resources are available under a Creative Commons Share alike license, which means you’re more than welcome to use, adapt, revise, re-purpose and share their materials.

The collection of resources available to Educators is freely available at: http://rightquestion.org/educators/resources/

Please reference the Right Question Institute by including “Source: rightquestion.org” on any materials.

 

References:

Berger, W. (2014). A more beautiful question: The power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. New York: Bloomsbury.

Rothstein, D., & Santana, L. (2013). Make just one change: Teach students to ask their own questions. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Education Press.

The Right Question Institute http://rightquestion.org