There’s something special that happens when students start asking questions, and it shows up in their body language. They perk up, lean in, look intently, and you can almost see the wheels turning in their heads as they struggle to make sense of what is eluding them. They’re ripe for learning.
Humans are naturally curious, so getting students to generate questions can be a powerful pedagogical tool for promoting engagement and learning. If you want students to be motivated to learn something, get them to ask questions about it – they are much more interested and invested in finding answers to their own questions than to any questions that you might ask.
In addition to stimulating curiosity, student generated questions can also benefit learning in other ways. When asking questions, students activate prior knowledge, exposing misconceptions and gaps in their understanding that they can then address. Questions also allow students to verbalize their uncertainty, giving them the opportunity to interrogate, reconsider, and expand on their ideas. Confronting one’s own ignorance can be difficult and painful, but the personal nature of asking their own questions makes this process relevant and safe, causing students to be more open to learning new information and changing their minds if needed.
And the benefits are not limited to students. As an instructor, you can learn a lot about your students through their questions. Their questions serve as a window into their minds and allow you to see how students are thinking, what they are confused about, what is catching their attention, what they think is important, and what they want to know.
You can also get a sense of the quality and depth of students’ knowledge about a topic by the types of questions they ask. Not all questions are created equal, and while there are many ways to categorize questions (see Chin and Osborne (2008) for some examples), they can be broadly classified into the following two types, based on the level of cognition involved in asking and answering them (Chin and Brown, 2002):
- Lower-order questions are information-based and factual or procedural in nature. These questions tend to be closed and convergent, meaning that there is often a single correct response that can be conveyed in a word or sentence, and finding the answer generally requires relatively little effort (e.g., a quick search online or in a textbook). Lower-order questions typically involve more surface-level thinking. Here are some examples:
What does helicase do? What do the letters ATP stand for? What happens during the S phase of the cell cycle? How does the flu shot work?
- Higher-order questions are concept-based and involve application, extension, and integration of ideas. They tend to be open and divergent, meaning that they often have multiple answers and allow for the exploration of diverse perspectives. They are used when relating new and existing knowledge, creating explanations and predictions, building associations, and evaluating information. When shared with others, they can stimulate dialogue and additional questions, leading to co-construction of knowledge. Higher-order questions tend to require deeper thinking and are more likely to lead to new understandings. Here are some examples:
Why might someone not want the COVID-19 vaccine? What would happen if plants were no longer able to photosynthesize? How will climate change affect people in Canada? Should CRISPR be used on human embryos?
Both types of questions can be useful and appropriate, depending on the situation and needs of the learner. For example, when first introduced to a topic, students will probably need to ask lower-order questions to establish and orient a basic foundation of knowledge. As their understanding progresses and they start to think more deeply about the topic, they will be able to ask higher-order questions, demonstrating greater learning.
So you can also use students’ questions as an alternative assessment tool to determine their knowledge and understanding. If students are asking higher-order questions about a topic, it means that they probably have a firm understanding of it, but if their questions are mostly lower-order, their understanding might be more limited and shallow.
As you can see, there’s a lot to gain from having students generate their own questions. Here are some ways you can provide students with opportunities to ask questions in your course:
- Before covering a lesson or topic, give students time to formulate questions about it. You can provide a prompt related to the topic (e.g., picture, graph, object, phrase, story, reading, etc.), or nudge students to find and explore connections to their own life. This will stimulate their interest in the topic, uncover their prior knowledge, and serve as an anchor by which they can absorb new information.
- Stop the lesson periodically and give students time to write down and/or ask any questions that are arising for them. This will provide students the opportunity to process the information they’re getting, integrate it with what they already know, and consider what they do and do not yet understand. You can also provide a chat-like forum where students can post their questions in real time during the class session (e.g., Piazza, Canvas Chat, etc.).
- After covering a lesson or topic, ask students to write down and share any further questions they have. This can be included in an exit ticket or reflection activity and can help both you and your students gauge their understanding at the end of the lesson and reveal what questions remain.
- Embed a question-generating element into course activities and assignments you’re already using (e.g., guest speakers, Scientist spotlight activities, course readings, laboratory assignments, scientific research articles, etc.). Adding this to existing activities is a low-barrier way to include student-generated questions in your course.
- Outside of class, encourage students to post their questions to a shared web-based forum (e.g., Piazza, Canvas, Padlet, etc.). In addition to asking their own questions, students will also benefit from seeing questions from their peers and reading and contributing to the answers.
The questions that students generate through these activities will stimulate their interest and empower them to become active participants in their own learning process. As they ask questions about something, it will become more personal and relevant to them, and they will be more open to learning about it.
Students’ questions will also let you see what’s going on in their minds and help you learn more about them. You can then use their questions to inform your teaching decisions (e.g., what, when, and how you cover content), allowing you to better meet students where they are and more effectively set up the learning conditions needed to get them where you want them to be.
“When we can successfully stimulate our students to ask their own questions, we are laying the foundation for learning.” (Bain, 2004, page 31)
Learning for students, and learning for ourselves.
Bain, K. (2004). What the Best College Teachers Do, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Chin, C. & Brown, D.E. (2002). Student-generated questions: A meaningful aspect of learning in science. International Journal of Science Education, 24:5, 521-549. https://doi.org/10.1080/09500690110095249
Chin, C. & Osborne, J. (2008) Students’ questions: a potential resource for teaching and learning science. Studies in Science Education, 44:1, 1-39. https://doi.org/10.1080/03057260701828101