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Helping Students to Ask the Right Questions

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This post was written by Amara L. Alexander, the 2019-20 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.

As the Albert Einstein Fellow at the Library of Congress, I have gained insight into a variety of teaching strategies to incorporate in the classroom. One is a questioning technique that helps students to generate their own questions. Guiding students to formulate their own questions fosters critical thinking while supporting students’ ability to absorb content-rich information. Recently, the Library hosted – and recorded  - a webinar to introduce educators to the Question Formulation Technique (QFT), a strategy through which individuals develop their ability to ask, work with, and use their own questions. When I return to my classroom, here’s how I might apply what I’ve learned about QFT.

Start of super heating union. Martin W. Bode, 1906

The goal is for students to generate questions based on a prompt or question focus. Create a question focus that is provocative, such as this image – or another selected from the Library’s robust online collections.

  • Divide students into collaborative groups of 3 or 4, providing them with chart paper and a writing implement.
  • Display or distribute the image and ask students to produce as many questions as they can about the photograph without discussion, judgment, or re-phrasing.
  • Encourage students to record questions as they are stated and to number each question.

Provide students with a time frame and allow the questioning to begin.

After time has expired, prompt students to categorize their questions as either open or closed. Closed questions generate one-word answers while open questions require more lengthy responses. With their partners, urge students to read each question aloud and determine the category of each question. Discuss with students the advantages and disadvantages of each type of question. Next, ask students to select two questions and direct them to change the format of the questions: closed-ended to open-ended question and open-ended to closed-ended question.

In the same groups, instruct students to select three questions that are most important to them. Probe students to explain their reasoning for selecting those questions, and ask students to consider how they could follow up on their questions as an individual or group. Allow students time to conduct necessary research and discover the answers to their questions. Reflect with students: What did they learn? What value does it have? What new questions arose through the research process?

The Question Formulation Technique provides a step-by-step guide to facilitate questioning within the classroom. The questions arise from the students’ inquiry and can be used in varied ways. This technique can be used to quickly assess student’s prior knowledge, identify gaps in information, or as a review of student learning.

In your classroom, how often are students asking questions?  What further discoveries does questioning lead to? Pairing primary sources with QFT can encourage students to construct questions and evaluate evidence while they are processing information.



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