Student-Based Inquiry: Questions Are the New Answers


How can you focus on ways to assess your students based on the questions that they ask as opposed to the answers that they give you?

Read on to learn nine quick formative check-ins with students and a special bonus for those who are looking for an alternative to the traditional research paper. If you are like me, while I found the research important, I did not always have the time to dedicate to writing and (for you) grading the traditional paper. That is your teaser to keep you reading, but do not skip ahead all the way to number ten first!

1. Topic of the Day

Give students the topic of the day and have them write a question that they have about the topic. Collect the questions and see what the students want to know and the type and level of their questions. That’s it. Try that one tomorrow and see what your students want to know about before they get to learn about the topic.

2. Background Information

Give your students some background about the different types of questions and then have them write a question about the topic. You can either assign them a specific type of question or leave it open. After each student has written down a question, give them someone else’s question, have them identify the type of question (if it wasn’t assigned), and have them rewrite the question as a different type of question. This will help students see the difference between different types of questions and give insight into what they know about the topic.

3. Use Related Quotes

Give your students a quote or statement related to the topic that is being studied. Let them know who said it (give time to research background knowledge if needed) and then have them write a question that could have been asked of that person to elicit that response. This helps students share their understanding of the context of the time and what they know about the person who said the quote.



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4. Classroom Jeopardy

In honor of the passing of Alex Trebek on November 8, 2020, consider using the Jeopardy! format in your classroom. I do not mean where you play Jeopardy! or review similar games, but rather have your students answer in the form of the question. If your students learned about the Emancipation Proclamation in class that day, as an exit slip give the students “the answer” and have them write the question for the answer. They may have the information necessary to write a good question, or they might be forced to ask, “This is the topic we learned about today?” Even if they say, “This was written by President Lincoln,” you can press them for more information because that question is not specific enough.

5. Likert Scales

I loved to utilize Likert scales (strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree) in my classroom. This is where I would have the students line up across the room based on how they felt. Too often I was left with some excited students on the far ends of the line ready to discuss/debate and a large group of students in the middle who “didn’t care.” They were OK hanging out in the middle because “I am in the middle because I don’t have strong feelings.”

The very nature of the Likert scale allowed them to opt out of deep learning by “opting in” to the middle. Eventually, I made “the middle” be my jury for the debate between the strongly agree / strongly disagree, and their assignment was to bring in a question to ask both sides. Members of the “jury” would not be allowed into class without a question or with a weak question. After asking their question, they had to explain which side answered their question better and then move so that they were no longer in “the middle.”

6. Countdowns

Toward the end of a unit, let students know that there is “one more day of learning about the topic” and that they will decide what the class learns about. Each student writes down “one more question” that they still want answered about the topic and submit it to you. You can either pick the topic for the next day or have the class discuss/debate/vote. Have students defend why their question (or any question) should be selected. Use the question each student wants to know more about to get some insight into what they know and what they want to know.



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7. Learning Targets

Do you have a learning target for your students? Do they refer to it as often as you do or at all? Make the learning target meaningful to them by having each student turn the learning target into a personalized learning question. Toward the end of class, ask the students to look at their own learning question and determine if they can answer the question or what additional information or steps would be needed to answer it. Not only does the question help you understand what the student is thinking and their ability to answer it, but it also identifies what additional support they may need in order to learn, which will help you plan your instruction as you move forward.

8. Maintain Student Interest

Create x– and y-axes on your board (or wall), with one axis labeled “Difficulty” and the other axis labeled “Interest Level.” Either assign students to ask a question by writing it on a sticky note or make it a practice of collecting the questions as they are asked in class. Once on the sticky note, have the student/class determine the x/y placement (difficulty/interest) of the note and then discuss/defend the placement. At the end of the class, take some time to see where the questions end up on the graph. If each student is assigned to write one question, don’t forget to look at all the questions to see what is on everyone’s mind.

9. Track Questions

Do you or your students ask questions in class? Of course! Do you track the type and frequency of questions that you and your students ask in the classroom? The best thing about tracking questions is that it helps you better understand what is going on in your classroom. The bonus about having your students track the questions as suggested below is that to have students track the questions, they must know about them. This was inspired by one of my classes calling each other out on DOK/Blooms because as a new teacher I had the visuals up in my classroom and I referred to them. In time the students understood them and pushed each other to do better. Some ways to track include

  • open/closed-ended;
  • factual/conceptual;
  • depth-of-knowledge level;
  • Bloom’s taxonomy level; and
  • questions like “Who asked the question” “Who answered the question?” and “Was the question interesting?”



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Bonus Research-Based Activity

Did you read ahead even though I told you not to?? What did you think of one to nine? For number ten, I loved the process of researching but hated grading the final product—so how can you have students show that they did the work and share what they learned without the paper?

After doing the research, assign students a person/position/group and have them write five to ten questions that the person/position/group ask about that topic. If they researched voting laws, what would a candidate ask them? How about an election official? If you want them to go deeper and show their learning beyond the scripting of the questions, have them put together a presentation that specifically answers those questions, and in the end you will have a great assessment of student learning that is not focused on reading through the usual research paper.


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Joe Schmidt taught social studies at the high school level for nine years and worked three years as a K-12 Social Studies Teacher Leader in Madison, Wisconsin. He currently holds the position of Social Studies Specialist with the Maine Department of Education, and teaches an elementary social studies methods course at the University of Maine. He is a founder of Joe Schmidt Social Studies LLC. and was recently elected to the NCSS Board of Directors. He also serves on the iCivics National Educator Network, sat four years on the Teaching Tolerance advisory board, and works with a number of other organizations that advocate and work actively to improve social studies education.  Check out his upcoming book, Civil Discourse: Classroom Conversations for Stronger Communities, available for pre-order now! 

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