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Getting Students to Ask Worthwhile Questions

Jordan Catapano


“How long does this paper have to be?”

“Is this for homework?”

“Will it have to be typed?”

“What dates will we have to know?”

“Are you grading grammar and spelling?”

Too often, the only questions students spend time asking are the ones that seem completely worthless to teachers. Student curiosity appears limited to the specifications on graded work, and rarely do they seem to ask questions that actually matter. Why is this the case? What is it about this generation of students that narrows their curiosity to assignment-related questions?

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Well, what’s true about question asking now is what’s true about question asking always: People ask questions about things they want to know. So, students want to know about their assignments. And that, apparently, is it.

The question we should be asking is not “What’s wrong with these students?” but rather, “What can we do to make their questions about more than just assignments?” Students ask questions in school about what they believe to be valuable. This means that one of the few things teachers have pushed on students as valuable is their homework and the grade they receive on it. Far be it from students to ask meaningful questions about the actual content.

For students to ask deep, meaningful questions that expand their learning, they need to see the content and skills they’re studying as actually valuable. They also need training as good question askers. Good question asking does not just happen automatically; rather, as students see the range and type of questions that can be asked, they can actually improve their question asking skills.

How to Make Students See Value in Content

Most students come to school because they have to. This means that they learn what we teach them because they have to. The system demands it of them. The compulsory mandate of education puts them at a disadvantage, from a curiosity standpoint, despite the inherent value in the content they receive.

Teachers, therefore, must proactively reverse this. Although students must learn what we tell them, we should not assume they automatically perceive its value. Here are some methods teachers have used to create internal ways to motivate students:

  • Tell students why they are learning any particular content or skill.
  • Give students relevant applications of the curriculum to real-world situations they can understand.
  • Show students examples of how their content can be applied.
  • Ask students questions of your own that get them to consider how they can apply the content themselves.
  • Scaffold content, so that all learning connects to previously acquired knowledge.
  • Include a variety of instructional and application methods and other ways to motivate students, so they can acquire and apply the information in a way that best appeals to them
  • Intentionally show students conflicting, debatable, or contradictory examples so they can be drawn into examining the details of the information.
  • Use content to challenge students to define who they are and what they stand for.

The more students can internalize their learning, the more likely they will be to ask more meaningful questions. The trick is that you first, as the educator, must not settle for the assumption that the benefits of education are inherently obvious. You must proactively work to demonstrate that what the students are learning has significance for their lives and futures.

How to Train Students to Ask Good Questions

I frequently tell students that I’m not smart because I have all the answers: I’m smart because I have all the questions. Good question askers turn into smart people because their curiosity, their quest for knowledge, trains their minds to look for information. The more frequent and meaningful the questions, the broader and more applicable the learning becomes.

Students often ask the same assignment-related questions because those are the most accessible, applicable questions they know. However, when they realize many different types and methods for question asking exist, they realize they have extensive opportunities to take command of their own learning.  Here are some of the consistent applications of question asking that classroom teachers have successfully incorporated:

  • Teach students about the different types of questions that can be asked.
  • Actively model question asking.
  • Require students to write questions in their annotations when reading.
  • Require students to prepare for discussions with notes that include several questions to ask classmates.
  • Have students practice interviewing one another.
  • Provide students with sample questions, then have them add their own.
  • Create a “Questions We Have” chart in the classroom for students to write down their general inquiries, then research answers together.
  • Have students interview friends, family members, and neighbors with their own questions.
  • Show students debatable, controversial material that naturally stimulates curiosity.
  • Have students create questions about a subject they are naturally curious about prior to researching that topic.

When question asking becomes an integrated part of the learning process, then students more naturally incorporate good questions into their daily routines. As it stands, the mandatory nature of learning and grading drives students to see the questions related to assignments as the most important.

While these student questions certainly have value, the more we can train students to be naturally inquisitive people, then the more we can help them achieve more meaningful ways to ask questions.

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