Learning to question and questioning to learn

Ravindra P N

question-mark “Any questions?” asks the teacher at the end of the class. This is one of the few times that students are asked to question, but the students rarely utilize this opportunity. Why? A typical response you get from the students is, ‘I do not know what to ask.’ Since our exam-driven education system gives more importance to answering than questioning, it has been the only way of learning. Most students think that answering all the questions in an exam implies that they are doing very well. This notion may lead to unintended encouragement for rote learning. If students are doing well in answering questions, they think that their way of learning must be the best. Thus, learning to question rarely comes into the picture.

Questioning what they learn will motivate students to find the answers as they own the questions. But the fact that they often do not know what to ask implies that framing questions is a skill that comes with practice. It is often said that teachers learn a lot about their subject as they teach. This is perhaps because they constantly think about the questions that pop up in their minds as they teach. Can we expect this kind of learning in students as well? Why not imbibe the skills of asking questions in students? This will not only put them in the shoes of the question makers but also arouse their curiosity to find answers to their questions. Though not an easy skill to develop, it isn’t impossible either. Here, I present steps for a question-framing based pedagogy.

  1. After a chapter is taught, divide the class into a few teams and ask them to make a list of all the possible questions they can ask.
  2. Make rules for a question-framing game. For example:
    a) More points for using concepts from previous chapters/classes in framing the questions.
    b) Questions should not be copied from textbooks/other sources.
    c) Questions should not be close-ended (yes/no type) or factual.
    d) Questions can be multiple choice or any other type.
  3. Let them rate the collection of questions and present the top three questions from each team in the next class. This can make sure that even a student who is shy or reserved can contribute his questions as he can discuss more freely with his friends. The teacher can make sure that those who did not contribute any questions should, at least, present the questions in class. Do not expect the questions to be great. However, guide them as to how they can be improved.
  4. When a question is presented by a team, all other teams should try and answer it. Encourage discussion, arguments/debates around the answers. Also ask the students to analyze the questions. Each team gets points based on how good their questions are. The more creative the question, the more the points. If questions are plagiarized, they get negative points.
  5. Add the points and display in the classroom. Reward them by announcing ‘the best question of the day’. This will encourage them to think of creative questions the next time – the less textbook like, the better.
  6. The question-framing game can also be used in outside classroom teaching. For example, ask them to observe a trail of ants for half an hour and list all possible questions they can ask based on the observation. The questions can then be rated and the best one can be pursued to learn to design experiments to answer the question.

One might argue that one does not have time for activities like this as one has to finish the syllabus. But, this method, which may take one whole period, will not only encourage asking doubts or questions, but also improve the students’ understanding and participation in class. Once they learn to ask questions, they will start learning by asking questions. This game can then actually replace the usual class tests or assignments, which means no extra time is needed. I am sure teachers have already known/thought of different versions of this game. Why not put them into practice?

The author is a PhD student at Macquarie University, Sydney. He is planning to enter academia to fulfill his research and teaching interests. He can be reached at rvndrpn@gmail.com.