How to Modify Student Questions for Inquiry Learning

By design, inquiry learning is meant to be authentic and organic. Whether a question was posed by the teacher to start, or if students come up with their own questions, they reflect genuine curiosity and wonder. Sometimes inquiries can start with an innocuous question and grow into a full-scale inquiry with lots of sub-topics to explore. Regardless of how they begin, it’s helpful to know how to steer students onto a path that aligns with their curiosities. Teachers can do this by modifying student questions in a few small ways.

To modify inquiry questions, it’s important to keep them aligned with the students’ interests and curiosities. Teachers may need to widen the scope of the question or narrow it down. They may also modify student questions by aligning them to curriculum objectives to ensure they are open-ended enough to invite deeper research.

The advice below can help teachers, education workers, and parents modify or expand student questions. This will help to align them more closely with their genuine interests and curiosities. Some links are affiliates. Please see our affiliate disclosure policy here.

Taking time to understand what a “good” question looks like

Generally speaking, “good” inquiry questions are ones that are engaging, open-ended, and cross-curricular in nature. They’re also referred to as “essential questions” and “driving questions”. Questions need to be relevant to students, otherwise they won’t be excited or curious about it, and will lose interest. A good inquiry question should engage students and motivate them to pursue further questions. A great book to add to your reading list is Connie Hamilton’s Hacking Questions. It helps a lot with scaffolding the question-generating process.

Ensuring that questions are open-ended is important as well. Many students (especially if they are new to inquiry learning) fall into the habit of asking “yes” or “no” questions. Other times, they ask questions that can easily be answered by a quick Google search. It takes time to build the skill of asking good questions. Opening a question is important because it helps students realize that many of their questions are not so black-and-white. It helps them realize that questions worth investigating go beyond basic fact-finding.

Related reading: Understanding the Difference Between Inquiry and Research

Questions that are cross-curricular are important as well because students often have trouble understanding how two seemingly unrelated concepts are connected to each other. Moreover, using cross-curricular approaches are a great way to bring together the main ideas and skills from more than one subject simultaneously. You can find more information about this in Modification #1 below (expanding student questions).

Practicing the art of asking questions

The process, or “art” of asking questions isn’t something that requires multiple lessons to teach. Rather, it’s something that can be embedded in your lessons and activities and modelled at various times during the day. A technique I’ve found useful over the years is saying my thoughts out loud. Students often show me their work, something they found in a book, or something from home that they’re interested in. I try to engage with them about what they’re showing me, and also ask questions out loud.

These kinds of situations occur often. For example, a few years ago a student brought some shells from the beach into school to show her friends. She showed me and I commented on the shape and texture of them. I asked “I wonder what kinds of things leave these markings on the shells?” and “I wonder if there’s a way to figure out how old they are?” Asking questions out loud is a great way of showing curiosity and modelling the art of asking questions.

Having a “Wonder Board” or a place to post questions also helps reinforce the practice of asking questions. Using a Q-matrix (download a copy here). There’s a lot of variety in the types of questions students can ask as well, including ones that:

  • Solve problems or tackle big concepts: For example – “How can we repurpose vacant buildings in inner-cities?”
  • Scenario-based questions: For example – “How would introducing a Universal Basic Income work in Ontario?” (we’ve written all about Scenario-Based Learning)
  • Alternative reality questions: For example – “What might have happened if Rosa Parks didn’t give up her seat?

Related reading: Creating Strong Driving Questions for Inquiry Learning

Staying aligned with the original inquiry

It’s important that while you’re helping students create strong inquiry questions that you stay true to their original question. It can be tempting to steer students in a direction that you find interesting. But remember that the questions are theirs. Kath Murdoch’s recent book called Getting Personal with Inquiry Learning is an awesome resource that helps teachers understand how to let students take ownership of their learning so that inquiry learning can be more meaningful. It also offers ways to “honour the learner’s right to own their learning” by acting as a facilitator of learning.

The importance of checking in

During inquiry, the teacher’s role is to facilitate learning. This means they help students understand their objectives, guiding them in the right direction if they veer off-course, provide support and resources, and help students to become independent thinkers and investigators.

Facilitation in the inquiry classroom allows teachers to learn with the student and fill in gaps of knowledge along the way, or encourage students to dig deeper with well-thought-out questions and prompts. The teacher doesn’t act as an expert imparting their knowledge, but rather someone who encourages the development of skills such as collaboration, communication, and resilience.

At times, students get so deep in their learning that they become overwhelmed or confused. For example, when an inquiry touches on several subject areas, students often have difficulty connecting the key ideas or seeing the big picture. This can be for a few reasons:

  • The students haven’t previously been given a lot of time or freedom to explore things that interest them, so they get overwhelmed with information and don’t know what to do with it all
  • They get distracted and focus solely on the “cool” facts, photos, or videos that they start departing from their original inquiry
  • They need more opportunities to practise their metacognitive skills (critical awareness of their thinking and learning)   

Regardless of why it’s happening, it’s important for teachers to help students make these connections and scaffold the necessary ideas that they might have missed. 

Modification #1 – Expansion

In many instances, students’ questions are too narrow. They focus on one specific question that will likely be answered in a matter of minutes. Sometimes their questions don’t meet the criteria for a “good” inquiry question because it’s one that can easily be searched. Other times, their question might be too “niche”, or focused on one particular sub-topic that doesn’t allow for expansion of thought.

Over time, students should be able to recognize when their question is too narrow or too broad. Their topic is probably too narrow if:

  • Very little (or nothing) is written about the topic at all, even after extensive searches
  • Information that is available is likely to come from unreliable sources, or websites that aren’t as credible as others
  • The student’s question resembles one that calls for a specific answer
  • The question includes “what”, “where”, and “when” in a way that requires specificity to answer and isn’t open-ended enough
  • Your student realizes they can explore their topic in much fewer words or in less amount of time than they’re being given
  • The question is binary (“yes” or “no”)

To modify these kinds of questions, students should think of broader categories into which their narrow topic fits. Then they can open up their question from there. Inquiry questions should go beyond basic researching and presenting; they should encourage students to dive deeper. Using question-storming helps students understand the process of expanding their topic by having their classmates sit in a circle and offer ways for the question to be expanded. When questions are read as a class, everyone has the chance to share their ideas for how to make the question broader and more open-ended. Pages 5-7 in this lesson can help students to work through this process and get better at asking questions.

Related reading: Too Broad or Too Narrow (exercise for high school students on how to modify their own questions)

Modification #2 – Narrowing the scope

Sometimes students who get super excited about inquiry projects are likely to ask over-the-top questions that need to be narrowed down. For example, they might ask “How do robots work?” which in itself is a fair question. However, to narrow the scope, encourage students to reframe the question within a particular scenario. For example, “How can robots help us improve the healthcare industry?”. Framing the question in a more narrow context allows students to still explore their original question, but the parameters for research are more manageable.

Using question prompts can help students narrow their scope by choosing words to fit into pre-made prompts. You can download the prompts in the photo as a PDF to keep in your classroom. This is a great way to modify student questions.

Sometimes it helps to have a discussion about manageability. In other words, is the question manageable? Does it match the amount of time given to investigate the answer? Will students be able to investigate the problem thoroughly with the resources available? Students who are really excited about inquiry (or just the idea of getting to pursue their own interests) often want to tackle all the things and can become overwhelmed easily if their question isn’t manageable. 

Modification #3 – Adjusting for deeper learning

The use of critical thinking when generating questions is important. Through inquiry, students develop a variety of skills, but if the questions don’t allow for deeper learning to occur, then critical thinking likely won’t happen. Teachers should not only help students formulate questions that strike a good balance between wide and narrow, but also nurture their ability to make judgments, defend their findings, and think critically.

To do this, students need to practise the art of slowing down and thinking thoughtfully about not only their questions but also the process they’ll use to investigate them. There are a few ways to do this:

  • Model asking students to explain their point of view and invite other students to respectfully challenge them as opposed passively taking them in
  • Provide opportunities where students need to support their reasoning or conclusion based on information that is clear, relevant, and accurate
  • Challenge students to ask evaluative questions in their inquiries. For example, ask students to decide whether or not they agree with their findings in light of their own knowledge, values, and experience. This doesn’t mean to dispute scientific fact, but rather to encourage students to evaluate what they find in relation to their own knowledge

Adjusting questions to allow for deeper learning is a great way to modify student questions. The Critical Thinking Consortium has a great handout about how to tweak questions to encourage deeper thinking, available here.

Modification #4 – Ensuring the questions are cross-curricular

A good inquiry question, by default, tends to already be cross-curricular in nature. It’s a good idea to try and modify student questions to ensure that they are touching upon different subjects. For example, a student investigating rocks will likely come across information about not only science and natural processes, but history and archaeology as well.

Not every inquiry question is going to be perfectly cross-curricular. You will have inquiries when students are fairly cemented into a subject with little flexibility – it happens. When it does, you can encourage cross-curricular thinking by asking the right questions. For example, if a student is exploring why different planets have different atmospheres, you can make connections to history by inquiring “I wonder when astronomers discovered the fact that different planets had different atmospheres”. You could also connect their inquiry to citizenship or sociology by asking “I wonder if life on a habitable planet with the right atmosphere would be the best choice for humans in the future”.

If you’re just starting out with inquiry learning, it’s important to try and build in cross-curricular opportunities for students. This is especially important for younger students. A good place to start is by working backwards. To do this, design the scope of the inquiry by determining the main concepts first, and working from there. Once your big idea is determined, create more specific framing questions. Think about the pathways students might take that will allow them to touch on multiple subjects. We’re written extensively about the benefits of using cross-curricular learning approaches in the classroom.

Related reading: How to Integrate Ontario Curriculum Expectations with Inquiry Learning

Do you have any other suggestions for how to modify inquiry questions? Leave your ideas below, or join the conversation on Instagram!

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