Getting Students to Ask Their Own Questions

Last year’s Provisions Fellow, Dr. Jim Allen, focused on the idea of asking questions as key to critical thinking.  One of the texts he wrote about and presented on was Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana’s book, Make Just One Change:  Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions.  Pete and I added the book to our reading list for this year (and I would go so far as to recommend that it be required reading, along with John Bean’s Engaging Ideas, for all future Provisions Fellows).

I am going to use Jim’s description of the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) that the book is based on and then move onto notes from my own implementation — broken into the seven steps:

They discuss a questioning strategy they refer to as the Question Formulation Technique (QFT). The focus of this strategy is to help students develop their divergent, convergent and metacognitive thinking abilities.

As the name suggests, the method is very structured in its approach in teaching students how to formulate, modify, improve, and use questions to deepen their learning. There are seven basic steps of QFT where both the teacher and students work collaboratively in the process. The teacher is involved in facilitating the process by setting a “focus” for the questions, discussing with students a set of “rules” for the process of creating questions, monitoring students so that they follow the rules, and providing direction for using the questions to learn specific course content.

Recently, I decided to try out the QFT process for the first time with my students with the goal of  creating focused research questions for their midterm projects.  Since they are all working with different course readings, based on their own selection, I put them in small groups that shared the same chosen course reading.  For this reason, I needed to come up with a total of five QFocus prompts — a different one for each group.

  • “Conservatism of Emojis”:  emojis are can be cultural artifacts
  • “Media Ecologies”:  genres of participation describe online practices
  • “Why Youth Heart Social Networking Sites”:  The importance of youth participation in new media
  • “Activists”:  civic engagement is influenced by digital technologies
  • “The Internet”:  The internet means interaction/connection

Despite my reservations about following the QFT’s strict rules and rigid guidelines, we proceeded through all of the steps (saving the last step of reflection for our next class meeting session) as described by Rothstein and Santana.  Here are some notes/thoughts/recollections on each of the steps:

1.  Discussion of QFT RULES (5-7 minutes):  The four rules are deceivingly simple (as is the entire process, really):  1) Ask as many questions as you can.  2) Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any question.  3) Write down every question exactly as it is stated.  4) Change any statement into a question.

To facilitate discussion, I went over the rules and then gave my students a copy of the templates on pages 52 and 53 of the book, which give them space to describe whether they think the rules will be easy or difficult to follow and why.  After filling out the sheet, they discussed their answers as a group.  There was little consensus among group members; however, overall the class as a whole felt that most of the rules would be easy to follow.  #2 — not discussing or answering any questions — was described as the most challenging because students said that they tend to instinctually want to respond when they hear a question posted.  One student was honest in his description of why #1 — generating questions — would be challenging:  Because how do I know what the right questions are to ask.  How do I know how to formulate questions (paraphrased response).  This response is important because it actually describes the genesis of the book and the QFT:  The authors discovered that parents of students in the school they were working in didn’t know how to ask questions that would enable them to participate in their children’s education.

My surprise to the discussion was immediate because I had felt sure that discussing the rules would result in students sitting there silently.  I wasn’t convinced, having never done such an assignment before, that they’d be able to envision what they were about to do and discuss it with any depth.  But they did!

2.  Produce questions (5-7 minutes):  I wrote a reminder to myself:  Do NOT give examples; Only tell them they can start questions with words like what, when, how….  The goal here is to make sure students produce their own questions without any influence from the teacher.  Our role is to monitor time and observe the group work, only to remind students of the rules in case they forget.

It took a bit of prodding to get a couple of groups working on this collaboratively rather than writing down their own individual list of questions, but beyond that, the students followed the rules and seemed engaged for the entire process.

3.  Introduce closed- and open-ended questions — As a class we defined these.  For example, Is it going to be on the test (closed) vs. what will be on the test (open-ended)?  Is/do/can ( lead to closed questions) vs. Why/How questions (tend to be open).  Both kinds of questions can result from, what, who, where, when?

The students had no problem defining the types of questions, but when it came to labeling their questions they found that some questions were tough to categorize — that is, they could result in one word responses (closed), but that really they would need more elaboration than that.  This wrangling is a typical and important part of the process.

Ultimately what matters is the discussion around dis/advantages of both types of questions.  The students had no problem coming up with these:

  • Disadvantages of closed:  you get only one word answers, might not get enough information, doesn’t facilitate further thinking/discussion
  • Advantages of closed:  cut and dry, not confusing, doesn’t go on a tangent, could produce more follow-up questions
  • Disadvantages of open:  too much information, could get boring or go on tangent, answer could be confusing, not clear-cut
  • Advantages of open:  elaboration, allows more thinking about the subject, get more information

The point is to show students that there is clear value in asking both kinds of questions.  The students then label their list of questions as either C or O.  Lastly, they change one question into its opposite form (4 mins), because “being able to change the questions makes them feel more confident about working with questions and figuring out how to solve problems for themselves” (82).

Even more importantly, in my mind, is the idea that by changing the wording of the questions, students can see more clearly that “the construction and phrasing of a question shapes the kind of information you can expect to receive” (85).

4.  Prioritize the questions:  Students collectively choose the three questions that will best help them meet some kind of criteria you’ve established.  For me this goal was coming up with a research question, and so I prompted them to choose the questions that would best help them shape and move forward with their research project, and I added a reminder that the first draft should reflect what they’re trying to figure out; what they’ve learned from their sources; how they respond to their sources.  The goal for me in this process was to get them to “think about a problem from a different angle” and to “unlock something” (114).

5.  What to do with all the questions:  As I mentioned in the last step, the purpose of our question generating activity was clearly established from the start — to produce a research question for their midterm projects.  Rothstein and Santana, however, give examples of ideas for uses of student questions at the beginning of a unit/class, mid-unit or class, and for the end.  There are many options given in the book for using student generated questions.  For example, for opening class discussion, to use as guides for a reading assignment, to use in preparation for a test, and so on.   

6.  Reflection:  

“[Students] need the opportunity to name for themselves what they have learned, why it is valuable, and how they can continue to use the process of creating questions beyond this one assignment” (117).

This last step is important because it is yet another aspect of this process that reinforces metacognition.  By asking students to name what they have learned, “they deepen their learning, develop greater confidence for moving forward…, and reveal…a new depth of understanding that may not have previously been detected” (119).  Requiring students to reflect on the activity should also help save it from the realm of a “classroom exercise whose importance teachers recognize, but that the students follow only because the teachers require it” (120).

I saved this step for the following class period, as we had already spent more than forty-five minutes of class time (this is the minimum amount of time needed the first time you implement the QFT with a class) on the activity.

I stuck to the simple metacognitive question of:  What did you learn?  And asked them to follow that up with:  Did/how did it help you (move forward with your project)?  I had them write their responses, and I received feedback like:

  • I learned how to ask questions that really allow me as the writer to expand my thinking and come up with answers that will help me in the writing process. I also learned that narrowing down the important questions is difficult but is definitely vital to the whole process and will allow me to write a better essay.  It is important to utilize the right type of question in order to get the right answer.
  • The sheets we did on monday made us ask questions about our topic and think a little outside the box.  It helped put some of my thoughts on my topic into words.
  • From mondays class I learned new ways to discover questions on certain topics. This helped me formulate an opinion and think about ways i could express that idea. It did help me while writing my piece because i resorted back to it when i became stuck and it helped me to keep writing.

[Side Note:  I indicate at the start that there are  seven steps involved in the QFT.  The first step is for teachers outside the classroom — and that is developing the QFocus prompt.  While I did not detail the “how-to” for this step, I gave examples of my own prompts.  Further information for this step can be found on pages 28-35 of the book.  I numbered only the steps that actually occur in/during class.]

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One Response

  1. Wow, Jenn, this is great. Thanks for the detailed summary of your work on this. I know when we met to talk about QFT, we were both struck by how prescriptive the process was. Rules, rules, rules.

    But it’s very interesting to see that you stuck to them and had some real success. I love the comments you received from your students. I can’t imagine how this exercise will not have a big impact in helping your students frame their research questions — and doing this successfully can certainly influence the whole process that follows.

    Great job!

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