Various glassware filled with turquoise colored and clear liquid. Text: Teaching Science in 3D Podcast. What to do with student questions, episode 94

94: What To Do With Student Questions in Science

August 31, 2021

Asking Questions is one of the Science and Engineering Practices. But what is the significance of the practice? What do you do with those questions? Find out in this episode.

Why do students struggle with asking questions in science?

Young students are great at being curious about science content. But that curiosity tends to wane as students reach upper elementary and middle school. We get questions from teachers all of the time stating that their students simply don’t ask questions. Why does this happen?

The Negative Connotation

Students associate asking questions with not understanding what they are being asked to do. In many classes, the teacher provides instructions and asks students if they have any questions. In this case, the student will only have questions if the directions were unclear or if the student wasn’t paying attention.

Quote: Students don't want to ask questions because they worry you will think they weren't paying attention or they don't understand something.  - Erin Sadler
One of the many reasons that students don’t ask questions is because there is a negative association with asking questions.

Therefore, students don’t associate questions with curiosity. Instead, it’s associated with a lack of understanding. And, students don’t want to make it seem like they don’t understand.

Bringing Curiosity Back

Often, there is also a lack of interest or curiosity in the subject matter. This is where phenomena come in.

Phenomena relate your content to the real world. And, they help to spark student curiosity. When students are introduced to great phenomena, questions always follow.

To learn how to choose better phenomena for your storylines, check out this episode.

It takes time to spark curiousity.

In order for students to come up with great, scientific questions, give them time to do so. Too often, we don’t give our students the think time that is needed to develop these questions.

Text: Even as adults, we don't take time to just sit and think.  Or sit and consider stuff.  We're just rushing from one thing to the next. -Nicole VanTassel
It takes time to produce scientific questions. Make sure to allocate sufficient time in your classroom.

As teachers, we are in a hurry to get to our content. So, we don’t always allocate appropriate time for students to think and explore. But, in order for students to be successful in an NGSS environment, think time is vital.

We spend so much time in our school system telling students ‘Be quiet. Don’t ask questions. I am going to tell you what to do. This is today’s objective. This is your success criteria. This is what you need to know.’ And our students literally don’t have time to ask questions.

Nicole VanTassel, Teaching Science in 3D Podcast Episode 94

To learn more about why your students won’t ask questions, check out this video from Nicole.

How do you get your students to ask questions in science?

An important of getting your students to ask questions is making sure that you are giving them time to spark curiosity. Once you introduce a phenomenon, give students time to process it. Then, ask for questions.

Here are a few other strategies that work.

Notice and Wonder

Erin uses the notice and wonder strategy in her classroom. In this practice, teachers present students with phenomena. Then, teachers ask students what they notice and wonder.

This seems like a simple practice. However, the term “wonder” brings up feelings of curiosity. There are fewer negative associations than when we use the term “questions”.

Also, students list things they observe in the notice section. They are able to use these observations to develop questions.

To learn more about the notice and wonder strategy, check out Erin’s blog post.

Devote time to making observations and asking questions.

Asking questions is vital for learning. Therefore, it’s important to devote time to ask questions.

Nicole suggests giving your students ample think time. Then, allow them to share their questions in a small or whole group setting. At this stage, it’s important that the teacher does not give feedback about the questions. Rather, the teacher lists the questions that the students ask. This strategy gives all student questions equal value.

What do you do with all of those student questions?

Now that your students are asking questions, what do you do with them?

Too often, teachers require students to ask questions for the sake of asking questions. But, it’s important to do more than simply check off this practice.

Devote space to student questions using a driving questions board.

Create a space in your classroom where students pose questions. Many teachers use a driving questions board. This board houses all of the student questions related to the phenomenon. But also, it gives students a place to add more questions throughout the lesson sequence.

Also, using driving questions boards helps students to understand that questions are important throughout the lesson sequence. Students ask questions throughout the unit, not just at the beginning when the phenomenon is introduced.

Allow students to sift through the questions.

Allow students to work with the questions and determine what patterns exist. For example, give students access to a Jamboard that contains the questions. Then, ask students to group the questions using similarities and differences.

Use student questions in your lesson sequence.

Used a discovery-based approach to help students answers these questions through your lesson sequence. Students use science and engineering practices to make discoveries and answer these questions.

Erin suggests anticipating student questions so that you can plan your storyline. By anticipating questions, Erin comes up with a tentative lesson sequence. Find out more about this strategy in this blog post.

Putting Student in the Drivers Seat

Anticipating student questions is a useful strategy to plan storylines. It’s especially helpful at the beginning of the school year when students are still building skills.

However, we really want students to take the lead and determine which questions they answer and when. As students become more familiar with the scientific process, allow them to make more decisions.

Nicole suggests letting students choose which questions they answer. Lead students in a discussion to help them determine what order they answer the questions in. However, this should only be done once students have a deep understanding of the practices. Otherwise, this may be too frustrating or confusing for them.