How to Get Students to Ask Better Questions

Student holding a question mark in front of their face
Image by Anemone123 from Pixabay

By Christine Goedhart

Being able to ask good questions is particularly important in science, because good science begins with good questions. But when you think of someone asking a question in a classroom, who do you picture? If the classroom is like a typical science classroom, it is probably the instructor who is asking the questions and students who are answering them (e.g., through iClicker questions, worksheets, quizzes, exams, etc.).

Asking effective questions is a foundational aspect of discovery and learning, serving to both focus wonder and advance one’s knowledge and understanding beyond the current state. In particular, higher-order questions that involve application, extension, and integration of ideas tend to be more productive for learning.

Students are generally trained to answer questions, but not as much training goes into helping students develop the skill of asking effective questions. As a result, student-generated questions are rare in science classrooms, and when students do ask questions, they tend to be fact-based and task-oriented (lower-order), resulting in shallow understanding and surface-level thinking.

The good news is that students can learn to ask better questions if they are given explicit instruction and opportunities to practice developing the skill.

As you prompt students to ask questions, you may find that they are reluctant or that they struggle to ask the right kinds of questions. This is totally understandable. Asking questions can be challenging and intimidating for students, especially if they aren’t used to it, but there are ways to make it easier and more comfortable for them.

Here are some tips for getting students to ask more and better questions in your class:

Make it valuable

Students are more likely to put effort into asking questions if they care about the task and are held accountable for completing it. Students tend to value tasks associated with marks, so embedding question formulation elements into graded assignments, activities, or assessments can help motivate students to participate. You can also help students see value in asking good questions by associating it with learning or with professional skills that students might want to develop (e.g., critical thinking, scientific investigation). Finally, you can let students know that you will use their questions to guide your teaching decisions so that you can better meet them where they are. When you show students that you value their questions, they will start to value them too.

Provide an interesting stimulus

Students are more likely to ask questions about something that they are intrinsically interested in, so giving students a question focus that is relatable, real-world, hands-on, tangible, or mysterious can pique their attention and drive their natural curiosity, resulting in better questions and more learning. This can be a graph, figure, image, object, story, etc. If possible, bring in topics that have a societal component or reflect current events (e.g., effects of climate change, infectious diseases, biotechnology, etc.)

Model how to ask good questions

Question formulation can be domain specific and students may need help learning what types of questions are relevant to ask in the context of the course. You can demonstrate or show students the types of questions you want them to ask to clarify your expectations and help them see what “good” questions look like in your context. You can also provide students with question stems that they can complete to facilitate higher-order thinking, such as: What if…, Why does…, Why are…, How would…?

Teach students how to use questions

Because students are generally not trained to ask effective questions, they will likely need some basic instruction on different types of questions and when they should be used. The 50 Questions assignment and the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) provide frameworks to explicitly teach students how to formulate, evaluate, categorize, and prioritize their own questions. You can also provide students with a rubric to help them assess and evaluate their own questions.

Establish question formulation as part of the classroom culture

Start as early as possible and use it frequently so that students get used to asking questions. Students are not likely to spontaneously ask questions on their own, so explicitly asking students to generate questions in class and regularly embedding question formulation in classroom activities will help to ingrain it as a normal component of student behaviour in the course. Here are some ways you can provide students with opportunities to ask questions in your course.

Create a psychologically safe classroom atmosphere

Students may feel self-conscious about asking questions for fear that they are showing a deficiency in their knowledge or thinking. Fostering an encouraging classroom atmosphere receptive to inquiry will help students develop the courage it takes to ask questions. You can make students feel more comfortable by using both your words and your body language to validate the question and question-asker, such as nodding, maintaining eye contact, making affirming comments (e.g., great question!), and seeking a way to find an answer. Establishing a collaborative classroom culture can also reduce competition and improve peer support, making it safer for students to put themselves out there by sharing their questions.

Base it around something familiar  

It takes considerable understanding of what is already known and not known to be able to ask good questions. If students don’t have a sufficient knowledge base or understanding, they might not even know what questions to ask. To prevent frustration and disengagement, ask students to generate questions around something they already know about or are familiar with in their own lives. You can also encourage students to consider how their own personal experience or prior knowledge relates to the task or prompt, nudging students to make creative connections between disparate ideas and draw upon concrete examples based in their own experience.

Set the stage for inquiry

When students are too concerned with following procedure, completing a task, or getting the “right” answer, they tend to focus on lower-order thinking and develop a more shallow approach to learning. To counteract this tendency, provide classroom tasks and prompts that are open-ended and involve inquiry-based and problem-solving elements, rather than procedural with an expected answer. Regularly engaging in active learning tasks that allow for complexity and multiple answers puts students into a frame of mind where they can be creative and think expansively.

Incorporate scientific research literature

Science is based around questions, so scientific research articles can serve as a way to both normalize the role of questions in science and expose students to the types of questions that are asked in your specific discipline. Students can also use the information in a scientific study as a jumping off point to pose their own questions, for example, questions concerning further research or questions they’d like to ask the author.

Provide sufficient space and time

The act of generating questions will probably be a new and difficult exercise for your students, and it may take them a while to get the hang of it. When asking students to generate questions during class, make sure that you set aside a sufficient chunk of time to allow them to think about and formulate questions, especially the first few times, and check in with students to see how they’re doing with the task so that you can gauge their progress. Some students may also benefit from having extended time outside of class to think about and formulate their questions in the form of homework or a pre-class assignment.

Include collaborative components

The questions that students ask reflect their own unique background experiences, perspectives, and knowledge. When students share their questions with peers, it allows them to learn from one another, stimulate and build on each other’s thinking and thought processes, and expand their understanding in a way that they wouldn’t be able to do on their own. For example, one student’s question might trigger another student to start thinking differently or to ask additional questions, allowing for social construction of knowledge.

The ability to ask good questions is a key aspect of learning and an important scientific habit of mind, and like any other skill, it must be developed over time with guidance and intentional practice. By providing students with the appropriate instruction, prompts, encouragement, and space, you’ll be setting up a supportive environment that will enable them to develop this skill, allowing them to ask more meaningful and effective questions, and resulting in greater learning.

If you’re interested in helping your students ask better questions, I encourage you to try out one or more of the above tips. You might also want to spend some time diagnosing the root problem to determine which tips are most useful in your context. For example, if students are struggling with asking the right kinds of questions for the discipline, you may want to provide explicit instruction or do some modeling to show them how to ask good questions in your context. Alternatively, if you sense that students are worried about receiving negative reactions from their classmates, you might choose to work on creating a psychologically safe classroom atmosphere.

If you’d like support in implementing any of these actions, please reach out – I’m happy to help in any way I can!

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