Getting Students Asking Scientific Questions Using BioInteractive Resources
My students ask me many, many questions over the course of a school day. While my students seem comfortable asking to use the restroom or what they missed when absent, they are less confident when it comes to asking scientific questions that build deep understanding or could be the starting point of an investigation. When students do ask questions, they are often surface level, focused on procedures or facts, and they tend to move on quickly from the question to focusing on finding the right answer. For example, “What goes on the top row of my Punnett square?” or “Can you tell me if this is a dominant trait?” One of my year-long goals in any course is for students to feel comfortable and confident asking open-ended scientific questions.
Asking scientific questions is a foundational skill for doing science that takes practice and instructional support for students to develop. I often consider how to incorporate this into my high school Environmental Science and Chemistry classes. The importance of this skill is highlighted by its appearance in most standards, including the “Asking Questions” Science and Engineering Practice in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and “Science Practice 3: Questions and Methods” in AP Biology.
Classroom practices can help students ask better questions. The three practices I’ll discuss below are observation sentence stems, the Question Formulation Technique, and identifying questions in scientific articles and data. BioInteractive resources offer a variety of ways to support students in asking questions and sparking their curiosity. My examples will center around the phenomenon of elephant tusklessness — in particular, around a set of resources that explores an observed population-level increase in the trait of tusklessness in response to poaching pressures.
Observation Sentence Stems
BioInteractive resources have many phenomena that can be used to get students making observations, including Phenomenal Images, Data Points, and videos. To introduce a lesson exploring tusklessness in elephants, I present students with the two images below taken from the Phenomenal Images activity “Mystery of the Missing Tusks” and ask them to make observations in a think-pair-share structure. Try it out for yourself: what do you observe in the two images below?
Good scientific questions begin with careful observation. My students are naturally curious, but they do not all know how to translate that curiosity into making observations. Using sentence stems helps students build the skill of making high-quality observations. Students use these sentence stems with a phenomenon (video clip, image, quote, graph, etc.) that is related to learning goals and prompts curiosity. So with the images above, I would ask students to make observations using the sentence stems:
- I notice…
- It reminds me of…
- I wonder…
After several times using these, I add in one additional sentence stem when I want students to start building toward asking questions as part of planning and carrying out investigations or introducing claims, evidence, and reasoning.
- Could it be this… or could it be that…
I introduce these sentence stems on the first day of class, making sure students use this specific language, and continue to use these stems frequently throughout the year. While students sometimes say using the sentence stems feels clunky at first, they quickly start asking more questions — both among themselves and as part of whole-class discussion. By the start of November, I often hear students using these sentence stems unprompted during labs or other activities like analyzing models.
I also make sure to model using the sentence stems, as it’s helpful for students to hear scientists authentically using them. For example, in the Scientists at Work video Trophic Cascades in Salt Marsh Ecosystems, researcher Brian Silliman makes observations and investigates questions about salt marshes.
Question Formulation Technique (QFT)
The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) developed by the Right Question Institute is a classroom strategy that builds on this skill of making observations to elicit scientific questions. The steps I use for the QFT are outlined below.
1. Present the Phenomena
As with observation sentence stems, I start by selecting a phenomenon related to my learning goals that will prompt questions and encourage divergent thinking. For example, the start of the video Selection for Tuskless Elephants makes a great QFT phenomenon because it elicits student interest and allows for a wide range of student questions.
2. Introduce the Rules
Each time students engage in a QFT task, I review the following rules:
- Ask as many questions as you can during the given time.
- Do not stop to try to answer or discuss questions.
- Record questions exactly as stated.
- Prompt to change statements into questions.
3. Generate Questions
After we observe a phenomenon, I give students time to think and process, during which they generate two starting questions. Then, without providing examples of questions, I give student groups a set amount of time (usually 3–5 minutes) to generate as many questions as they can. To help ensure participation by all, I ask each student to share two individual questions in a round robin before anyone puts forward a third question.
A group representative should number and record questions, so I give groups paper or digital templates on which to do this. As students generate questions, I circulate to provide clarification but avoid answering any questions or giving examples. If groups get stuck, I prompt them with statements like, “Think about whether there’s anything you would like to know about the video we watched.” or “What did you notice or wonder while watching the video?”
4. Improve Questions
Once time is up, I ask students to categorize their questions as either close-ended (questions with a fixed answer, often answered by a single idea or word) or open-ended (needing more than one word to answer).
Another option is to categorize questions as either scientific or outside of science. The following Venn diagram, taken from the BioInteractive activity “Asking Scientific Questions,” helps students distinguish between the two.
Students categorize questions using colored highlighters or symbols. I then ask groups to practice “improving” a question by changing it from one category to the other, such as changing a close-ended question to an open-ended one or a question outside of science to a scientific one.
5. Prioritize Questions
Groups then prioritize three questions based on their interest and a prompt from me. For example, I may ask groups to choose three questions that help them to better understand or explain tusklessness in elephants. Or I ask them to prioritize questions they could answer by designing and carrying out an investigation.
6. Share a Question
After reviewing their questions, groups share one of their prioritized questions, which I record publicly (e.g., on the whiteboard, a slide, or poster paper). I have each group share the number of their question out of the total number of questions they asked. For example, students would say, “Our question 15 out of 17 was ‘How does the pressure of poaching affect whether elephants have tusks or not?’”
This is important because a group’s prioritized question is rarely their first. I use this to emphasize the importance of asking multiple questions and to show how one question often leads to a better one. After each group shares, I say “Thank you” or offer a similarly encouraging but neutral response. I try to avoid saying things like “great question” at this point, which can signal a bias toward some groups and not others.
7. Next Steps
Depending on the topic and my instructional goals, these prioritized questions could be the starting point for students to plan and carry out an investigation. Sometimes, I display them in my classroom to serve as an anchor point throughout the lesson or unit. For example, generating questions with the QFT after watching a video clip about elephant tusklessness can be followed with either the BioInteractive resource “Analyzing Data on Tuskless Elephants” or “Developing an Explanation for Tuskless Elephants” to answer student questions. The first resource presents data related to the video clip and scaffolds students’ creation of a claim-evidence-reasoning chart, while the second is more geared toward helping students collect evidence for a VIDA table, which is an organizational tool to help students better understand natural selection.
Identifying Questions in Scientific Articles and Data
One final classroom practice to build student skills in asking scientific questions is having them identify the driving question behind a scientific article or figure. This practice has the added benefit of developing students’ scientific literacy by having them read and analyze authentic sources.
BioInteractive Data Points highlight graphs and other published scientific figures related to a wide range of topics, like the one below from “Using Genetic Evidence to Identify Ivory Poaching Hotspots.” I ask students to use their sentence stems to observe the data in a figure and identify a possible scientific question the data is helping to answer. I start by showing students only the Data Point’s figure and caption, as the “Background Information” section in the “Student Handout” may state the scientists’ question.
Another way to get students asking questions based on authentic scientific research is outlined in the “Asking Scientific Questions” activity mentioned above. This activity has students go through a process similar to QFT to identify the scientific question being investigated based on the titles of scientific journal articles. For example, a student may read the article title “Ivory poaching and the rapid evolution of tusklessness in African elephants” (Campbell-Staton et al. 2021) and identify the question “How does ivory poaching affect the rapid evolution of tusklessness in African elephants?”
Asking questions is a foundational skill for doing science, but it takes practice and support for students to develop. The classroom practices of observation sentence stems, the Question Formulation Technique, and identifying questions in scientific articles and data can help students ask better questions.
Since using these practices in my own classroom, I have noticed that students are more willing to take risks engaging with questions or ideas they are unsure of. During group work, I also have fewer students asking me clarifying questions and hear more students asking questions of each other. Students have also reported an increased feeling that the classroom is an inclusive space that everyone can be successful in. Seeing these benefits has pushed me to provide more opportunities for students to ask questions as a way to build a deeper understanding of content, picture themselves in the practice of doing science, and engage more meaningfully with the world around them.
Bernice O’Brien currently teaches students science in Charlottesville, Virginia. Over the last decade, her goal has been to provide all students with opportunities for success through science, whether it’s in an AP or introductory biology, environmental science, or chemistry classroom. When not in the classroom, Bernice can usually be found spending time in the mountains or playing Dungeons & Dragons.
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