February 25, 2016

The Benefit of Student-Generated Questions

by Theresa Brush, Pharm.D., PGY-1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Suburban Hospital

How many times have you sat in a classroom and had an instructor ask, “Do you have any questions?” What follows, most often, is silence. The silence does not necessarily indicate a lack of interest by students, but they may feel uncomfortable asking questions or have not sufficiently digested the information in order to even ask one. A possible solution to this problem has been explored — student generated questions.

Questions are such an integral part learning.  Indeed, “the act of asking questions and the consequent search for answers is key to active learning.”1 Student-generated questions are exactly as the name implies; students create their own questions regarding the subject matter and this, in turn, directs their learning.

But how can we help students create good questions?  One of the methods that has been successfully used to develop student-generated questions is called the Question Formulation Technique (QFT).2 The QFT is a step-by-step process that helps students learn how to produce their own questions, improve them, and strategize how to use them. This six-step process includes:

1. The Teacher Designs the Question Focus
  • The teacher presents a Question Focus in the form of a statement, visual, or auditory stimulus that focuses and attracts student attention. This focus is not in the form of a question but rather a prompt from which students develop questions.

2. Students Brainstorm Questions
  • Working in small groups, students brainstorm and record lots of questions. Students produce as many questions as they can.  They should not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any of the questions.  The questions should be written down exactly as stated.  Any statements should be changed into questions.

3. Students Improve Their Questions
  • Students then improve their questions by categorizing them into one of two categories:  open-ended and close-ended.  At this point the teacher should have a discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of both types. Students are then asked to change at least one of their open-ended questions into a closed-ended question.  And vice versa. This step furthers students’ understanding of how the phrasing of questions can affect the depth, quality, and value of the answer.

4. Students Prioritize Their Questions
  • The teacher then offers criteria or guidelines for selecting questions. For example, the criteria may be, “Choose the three questions you want to explore further.” Students then select their priority questions based on the criteria.

5. Students and Teachers Decide on Next Steps
  • Students and teachers decide together on how to use the questions. For instance, the questions may be used to stimulate discussion during the next class.

6. Students Reflect on What They Have Learned
  • The teacher reviews the steps of the QTC and has students reflect on what they have learned through the process.

This method of having students develop their own questions encourages them to go deeper into their thinking and (hopefully) develop a new thirst for learning.2 One study demonstrated the impact of student-generated questions on learning.3 In an undergraduate psychology course, students were given the opportunity to earn extra credit by submitting questions to the instructor concerning the material covered in class the previous week. The questions could be regarding concepts that were unclear, additional information the student would like to explore, or how the issue applies to other courses or relates to other concepts. The performance of students who developed questions was compared to students who did not write questions. The results demonstrated that the slope of improvement in performance on the exams was directly proportional to the number of questions generated. These results provide some evidence regarding the effectiveness of student-generated questioning to motivate learning and promote deeper understanding.

Seeing the Forest Through the Icicles
Not only have student-generated questions helped improve students’ understanding of course material, but student-generated questions can be used to evaluate and assess students’ learning. Instructors can use student-generated questions to construct multiple-choice examinations and open-ended essay questions.4 Learning activities that involve student-generated questions help students shift from merely acquiring knowledge (from the teacher) to learning knowledge (self-directed learning), increasing their confidence about the subject matter, and promoting more diverse and flexible thinking.5  However, student-generated assessment questions have been criticized because it forces students to focus their attention on finding details in the material around which they can construct questions.  This may limit their understanding of the material and they may not comprehend “the big picture.” If a teacher uses this technique, awareness of this criticism should force the instructor to use a set of parameters for students to follow when creating questions.  Moreover, students should be encouraged to give feedback on how to improve the use of this technique.

Techniques to improve student-generated questions can be used to enhance class participation and engagement as well as to construct evaluations and assessments. This QFT is a great tool for instructors to have within their toolbox and promotes deeper learning.

  1. Chin C. Student-Generated Questions: Encouraging Inquisitive Minds in Learning Science. Teaching and Learning [Internet]. 2002 Jun [cited 2016 Feb 3];23(1):59-67.
  1. Rothstein D, Santana Luz. Teaching Student to Ask Their Own Questions [Internet]. Cambridge (MA):Harvard Education Letter; 2011 Sep [cited 2016 Feb 3].
  1. Berry JW, Chew SL. Improving Learning Through Interventions of Student-Generated Questions and Concept Maps. Teaching of Psychology. 2008;35:305-312.
  1. Pittenger AL, Lounsbery JL. Student-Generated Questions to Assess Learning in an Online Orientation to Pharmacy Course. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education. 2011;75(5) Article 94.
  1. Yu FY. Scaffolding student-generated questions: Design and development of a customizable online learning system. Computers in Human Behavior. 2009;25:1129-1138.

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