Want better questions? Teach students how to ask them.


I recently did some professional development in my district on asking good questions.  Since learning always starts with a question, I think it is one of our jobs to teach students to go beyond surface-level questions and get to those meaty, juicy questions that generate all sorts of good thinking and – even better – more great questions.

Why do we have to teach students how to ask better questions? In my opinion, three reasons:

  1. Let’s be honest – students mostly ask surface level questions because that’s what they mostly see from teachers.
  2. Surface-level questions are easy to generate in a person’s brain; thick questions take some time to formulate.
  3. Students never get the time to practice formulating those nice and meaty questions, mainly because the need to “cover” content is often prioritized (often unintentionally) over slowing down for a second to let students practice learning skills.

So here is a simple way we can have students practice writing better questions

By using what I have creatively termed “The Question Chart.”

I cannot take credit for this chart; I randomly found it on the internet one day when I was still teaching, wanting my students to generate better questions during the Know/Need to Know phase of a problem-based learning unit I was doing. (THANK YOU random internet person!)  All I know is that, in about 5 minutes, your students will be writing better questions.  Here’s how:

A. Tell the students that they will use the question starters along the top and bottom to generate questions.

B. Have students pick one starter from the left and one from the top, and trace along the chart to the box where their fingers meet.

C. Students write the two question starters they chose in the box, along with their question.

D. Tell students the blue shaded area generally creates more “thin” or surface-level questions while those in the white area create “thick” or higher-level questions.

If you’re really interested in getting students to recognize the difference between a think and thick question so they can better generate a thick question for you, have them transform a thick question into a thin one and vice versa, much like they do in QFT.

So what do students do after they generate some bright and shiny new thick questions for you?  Well…anything you want, really.  They could be generating them for an upcoming discussion, making them in response to a reading passage and then posing them to a small group of students, or creating them to answer themselves as a self-generated writing prompt.  The possibilities are are as endless.

Another crazy insane use for this chart is for the teacher.  It can be used to plan discussion questions ahead of time (which I think is a necessity, because awesomely deep questions rarely just roll off the brain when you’re trying to manage 30+ students in a room) OR write assessment questions at varying levels of thinking.

I think the time and effort spent on having students generate thick questions is well worth it.  After all, we can’t expect students to come pre-loaded with how to ask amazing questions if all they’ve ever seen are the questions that come from the generic publisher test banks, can we?

And also remember this – all learning starts with a question.  The type of learning you get is directly related to the depth of the question that’s asked.


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