Faculty Development & Learning Assessment

Encouraging Student Questions


Isadore Rabbi, a Nobel-prize winning physicist, tells a story of his childhood in the Jewish ghetto of New York. When the children came home from school, their mothers would ask them, “What did you learn in school today?” But Isadore’s mother would ask him, “What good questions did you ask today?” Dr. Rabbi suggests he became a physicist and won the Nobel Prize because he was valued more for the questions he was asking than the answers he was giving (Barell, 1988). Instructors will find these question prompts useful for promoting students’ critical thinking and for framing their own discussion questions. Developed and researched by King (1992; 1990; 1995), these question prompts or stems are based on Bloom’s Taxonomy, a hierarchical way of analyzing levels of thinking. The nature of the prompt requires students to design questions that go well beyond the usual “What is?” “What is?” “What is?” Requiring students to email you discussion questions or to post them to Moodle prior to a class session can encourage students to read assigned materials.

To initiate this activity, instructors assign outside reading or conduct a short lecture on a course-related topic. Students use the generic question stems or prompts as a guide for formulating their own specific questions about the content. You can email the following list to students (or post to Moodle), telling them how many questions—all using different prompts or stems—you expect them to submit for discussion. They fill in the blanks with appropriate content from the reading/lecture material. Encourage them to make the questions authentic, ones they truly want to discuss rather than ones they already have a pat answer for.

Generic Question Prompts/Stems:

  • Explain why ____. (Explain how ____.)

  • What would happen if ____?

  • What is the nature of ____?

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of ____?

  • What is the difference between ___ and ___?

  • Why is ____ happening?

  • What is a new example of ____?

  • How could ____ be used to ____?

  • What are the implications of ____?

  • What is ____ analogous to?

  • How does ___ affect ____?

  • How does ___ tie in with what we learned before?

  • Why is ____ important?

  • How are ____ and ____ similar?

  • How does ____ apply to everyday life?

  • What is a counter-argument for ____?

  • What is the best ____, and why?

  • What is the solution to the problem of ____?

  • Compare ____ and ____ with regard to ____?

  • What do you think causes ____? Why?

  • Do you agree or disagree with this statement: ____? What evidence is there to support your answer?

  • What is another way to look at ____?

  • What does ____ mean?

  • Describe ____ in your own words.

  • Summarize ____ in your own words.
  • Adapted from Barbara J. Millis, Director, The TEAM Center, University of Texas at San Antonio http://www.utsa.edu/directory/. Contributed by Tasha Souza.

    Tip References

    Barell, J. (1988). Cited in Costa and O’Leary (1988). Co-cognition: The cooperative development of the intellect. In Davidson, J. and Worsham, T (Eds.) Enhancing Thinking through Cooperative Learning. (1988, April). Cogitare: A Newsletter of the ASCD Network on Teaching Thinking, 3(1).

    King, A. (1990). Enhancing peer interaction and learning in the classroom through reciprocal questioning. American Educational Research Journal, 27(4), 664-687.

    King, A. (1992). Promoting active learning and collaborative learning in business administration classes. In T. J. Frecka (Ed.), Critical thinking, interactive learning and technology: Reaching for excellence in business education, 158-173. Arthur Andersen Foundation.

    King, A. (1995, Winter). Guided peer questioning: A cooperative learning approach to critical thinking. Cooperative learning and college teaching, 5(2), pp. 15-19.