Found ways to help students answer their own questions
Michael Theall, Youngstown State University; Derek Bruff, Vanderbilt University; Amy Gross, The IDEA Center
Author: Nancy McClure, Fairmont State University; Updated by Mindy McWilliams, Georgetown University
Why this Teaching Method Matters
Teachers who find ways to help students answer their own questions first help students to formulate good questions, and then guide students to answer these questions through inquiry and problem-solving. Active learning techniques can be employed in both forming and answering questions, thus fostering students’ sense of curiosity and empowering them to engage in a process of discovery, rather than one of rote memorization or application of known formulas. Inquiry-based methods, such as the case-study approach, debates, role-playing activities, and simulations promote active learning (1). Through these types of activities, students begin to assume responsibility for their learning by identifying issues, asking questions, seeking information, and developing creative solutions. According to constructivist theories of learning, students who are actively engaged in the discovery process are building their own understanding of the world through experience and reflection upon that experience.
Another conceptual approach to helping students answer their own questions is to apply the lens of research, which involves asking questions, investigating them, and contributing to moving knowledge forward. In some disciplines, such as the sciences, the concept and practice of doing research fit more naturally into coursework with activities such as labs and experiments. However, all disciplines employ techniques of investigation and interrogation, whether of a text, a cultural or historical period or event, or market fluctuations. Sharing your own research questions and investigative processes with students may excite and motivate them. Allowing students to see you struggle and work through the challenges of research may be uncomfortable for you at first, but it will provide them with a model of expert learning and knowledge-creation in your field.
Be aware that many students practice what Perry calls dualist thinking (2). These students expect any question to have a single correct answer, one known to the instructor. These students perceive their role in learning is to listen for correct answers shared by their instructor and then memorize those answers for later use on assessments. These students will be uneasy when asked to try to answer their own questions. Illustrating to these students that some questions have multiple defensible answers, some perhaps better than others, can help move them away from dualist thinking. Reminding students that when they leave school, they will need to be able to answer their own questions is another way to motivate them to take seriously the learning activities described here.