Asking and answering questions is essential for learning, so much so that Rosenshine made it the third of his Principles of Instruction.
But while this Principle mainly focuses on the benefits of teachers asking questions to their students, students creating their own questions is also a powerful learning technique. So, why is this the case? And how can you help your students generate useful questions?
The benefits of students generating their own questions
When students create questions about what they learn, they develop critical thinking, logical reasoning, and can assess their own understanding. This happens both when students ask these questions to each other as well as when they ask themselves.
Since generating questions is a metacognitive skill, it helps increase students’ self-awareness of where they can improve their reasoning. Research has shown that students who use this strategy were more willing to change their thought processes compared to students who only answered questions.
Another benefit is that when students generate their own questions, they have an active role in their learning, which keeps them engaged in the task. Then they can focus on relevant content, identify any gaps in knowledge, and make links between different topics. Their questions also serve as a way to use Retrieval Practice to study for future assessments and to consolidate their leaning. By taking charge of their studies in this way, your students can become self-motivated independent learners.
How to help your students generate their own questions
Students tend to focus on factual recall when they study, so encouraging them to ask themselves higher-order questions can help to promote critical thinking. You can help to do this by using prompts to scaffold the structure of effective questions – here are some examples…
Identifying main ideas
Asking your students to point out the main idea of a passage and then challenging them to form their own questions about it can support them with question generation.
There is a lot of flexibility with this approach since students can ask themselves any question about the main outline of each paragraph. For example, they can describe, evaluate, and explain the main idea, as well as compare it with other similar ideas. Students might not know where to start when basing questions around main ideas, so your guidance is key for pointing them to the most relevant content.
Story grammar categories
Using story grammar categories means that students generate questions about each element of a story – a great strategy for literature-based subjects. Younger students could focus more on key events in the story whereas older students may focus their questions on more complex aspects such as themes and character development. Studies have shown that this technique is effective when teachers give students model questions and then supervise them throughout the task.
Generic questions stems
Providing your students with generic question stems can help them generate effective questions without needing to exert too much cognitive effort. For example, stems such as “How are … and … alike?” and “What are the strengths and weaknesses of …?” allow students to think more deeply about what they learn by filling in the blanks with relevant examples.
These stems also help students make connections with what they already know to boost their understanding and memory. Evidence has shown that using question stems can improve comprehension for secondary and university students; due to the question types used, this approach is probably less appropriate for younger students.
Reciprocal questioning is when students respond to a question from a teacher or another pupil and then ask a new question in return. Directly asking questions to students gives them a model of how they can structure their own questions and allows them to practice this in a verbal way.
Students can also benefit from the Protégé Effect when they use reciprocal questioning with each other, such as in pairs or group discussions. Responding to questions is one of the most effective types of Retrieval Practice, so this approach means that students can benefit from both asking and answering questions.
Prompting students with the words “who”, “what”, “where”, “why”, “when”, and “how” can help them structure questions related to a subject. A review investigating all these scaffolding techniques found that using signal words helped to improve students’ grades the most.
This may be because students heavily rely on their own retrieval to form each question since they’re only given a one-word stem, meaning they form stronger memory associations between the question and answer. This strategy also requires less cognitive demand than some of the other techniques, which may reduce the likelihood of students experiencing cognitive overload.
As we can see, there are many practical approaches that you can easily include in your lessons to get your students to generate great questions for themselves. It is essential to choose strategies that suit the age of your students and consider which strategies work best for your subject.
The key here is that students must exert some cognitive effort in generating their own questions – giving them too much help can lead to “overprompting”, which is much less effective than scaffolding. Overall, teaching students how to generate questions can really help to elevate their learning.