print page

Developing Scientific Inquiry Questions: Three Strategies

Scientific inquiry is fundamentally different than inquiry in other disciplines, such as history. Scientific inquiry is characterized by five essential features identified in Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A Guide for Teaching and Learning (NRC, 2000) and refined in Why Does Inquiry Matter? Because That’s What Science Is All About! (BSCS, 2006):

  1. Students engage in scientifically oriented questions.
  2. Students give priority to evidence in responding to questions.
  3. Students formulate explanations from evidence.
  4. Students connect explanations to scientific knowledge.
  5. Students communicate and justify explanations.

A scientifically oriented question is one that centers on inanimate objects, living organisms, or phenomena in the natural world. Such a question also lends itself to experimentation (in which one variable is purposefully changed while others are controlled) or to the collection of data from the natural world (the appearance of the moon over the course of a month or the types of organisms observed in an ecosystem, for example). These types of data are then used as evidence as students construct explanations in response to the question.

Successful inquiry activities hinge on a rich, compelling question. Not only does the question invite students to participate, it also helps to define the components of the inquiry itself. While all questions are interesting and worth pursuing, not all can be answered through scientific inquiry. Some are simply research questions that require a different set of instructional activities to satisfy. Additionally, some scientific disciplines, such as physical science, naturally lend themselves to inquiry, while others, such as life science, require more time and consideration to craft high-quality questions that can be answered through inquiry.

Crafting successful inquiry questions is an art. Fortunately, teachers, librarians, and students can develop skill with practice over time. Here are three strategies that are particularly useful when composing questions for scientific inquiry.

1. Use sentence stems.

Using sentence stems, or sentence starters, is a great entry-level activity when writing inquiry questions. This is a long-standing strategy for younger students and English Language Learners, but it is equally effective for older students and even teachers as they plan investigations and units.

A type of questioning known as “productive questioning” was first proposed by Jos Eltgeest in the 1980s (Eltgeest, 1985). A productive question is one that leads to physical or mental activity. Many productive questions are also excellent questions for scientific inquiry. Martens (1999) describes six categories of productive questions: attention-focusing, measuring and counting, comparison, action, problem-posing, and reasoning. These categories and associated sentence stems provide a starting point for composing inquiry questions:

Productive Question CategoryDescription of categorySentence StemsSample Inquiry Questions
Attention-focusingHelp students attend to significant details

●     What have you noticed (observed) about…?

●     Have you seen…?

What have you noticed about the shape of the moon?
Counting and measuringHelp students increase the precision of their observations

●     How many…?

●     How often…?

●     How much…?

●     How long…?

How many legs does the mealworm have?

How far does the ball travel when rolled down a ramp?

ComparisonAsk students to analyze and classify

●     How are these the same or different?

●     In what ways are these alike?

●     In what ways are these different?

●     How do these compare?

How do the life cycles of a butterfly and a mealworm compare?

In what ways are plant and animal cells alike?

ActionAsk students to make predictions about phenomena.

●     What happens if…?

●     What would happen if…?

●     What if…?

●     How does this affect that?

What happens to the distance a ball travels if its surface is changed?

How does the enzyme change the rate of the reaction?

Problem-posingAsk students to implement solutions to problems

●     Can you find a way to…?

●     Can you figure out how to…?

Can you figure out a way to sort these animals into groups?

Can you find a way to make the lightbulb light up?

ReasoningAsk students to reflect on findings and construct explanations

●     Why do you think…?

●     What is your reason for…?

●     Can you invent a rule for…?

Why do you think the ball travels farther on a smooth surface than on a rough surface?
Categories and sentence stems adapted from Martens, 1999.


2. Turn “why” questions into “how” questions.

Students frequently ask questions that begin with “why” — Why is the sky blue? Why is there lightning and thunder? Why does earth orbit the sun? Many “why” questions cannot be answered through scientific inquiry, but a second category, “how” questions, often can. In many cases, rephrasing a “why” question to a “how” question is sufficient. For example, if a student poses the question “Why do rocks contain crystals?” a teacher might guide the student in changing the question to “How do crystals form?” The latter can be investigated by observing the formation of crystals using simple materials such as sugar or Borax. Students may also conduct experiments with different water temperatures or the degree to which the water is saturated with solute.

Following data collection, students should be able to use evidence to explain the process of crystal formation. Teachers may then provide a context in which to place this inquiry experience by directing students to read nonfiction texts about crystal formation, groundwater, and the rock cycle. At the end of this process, students will ultimately be able to answer both questions. Rephrasing the question to allow for an inquiry experience ultimately promotes a deeper conceptual understanding than simply directing a student to search for the answer to a “why” question.

3. Teach students to differentiate between research questions and those that can be answered through inquiry.

Beginning in the upper elementary grades, students can be taught the difference between questions that can be answered by research and those that can be answered through inquiry and/or experimentation. Teachers can achieve this by using direct instruction to introduce the difference between two categories and then using modeling and think-alouds to demonstrate with sample questions. Providing students with sentence stems for inquiry questions and discussing the differences between “why” and “how” questions will help them have meaningful criteria by which to classify questions in the future. As students become more comfortable with the concept, they could pose questions about a given topic and then work to sort them into the two categories. Taking the time to teach and practice classifying questions will pay dividends in the long run, as the quality of student-generated questions will improve dramatically.

Asking thoughtful, compelling questions is challenging, regardless of the content at hand. When it comes to scientific inquiry, it is imperative that the question supports data collection and student explanation based on evidence. With time, practice, and the strategies previously discussed, teachers and students alike can become masters at questioning for inquiry.


Works Cited:

Biological Sciences Curriculum Study. Why Does Inquiry Matter? Because That’s What Science Is All About! Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company. 2006. Web. 8 Dec 2015.

Eltgeest, J. "The Right Question at the Right Time," in W. Harlen (Ed.), Primary Science: Taking the Plunge. Heinemann, 1985

Martens, Mary Lee. “Productive Questions: Tools for Supporting Constructivist Learning.” Science and Children (1999): 24-27, 53. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.

National Research Council. Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A Guide for Teaching and Learning. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2000. Web. 8 Dec 2015.

About the Author

Jessica Fries-Gaither, MEd, is a lower school science specialist at Columbus (OH) School for Girls. She earned her master's in education from the University of Notre Dame's Alliance for Catholic Education program. She is licensed in Ohio as a middle childhood science teacher, and has teaching experience in middle school math and science, upper elementary self-contained (all subjects), and elementary math and science. Jessica has published articles online and in professional journals and is the co-author of the award winning book, Inquiring Scientists, Inquiring Readers: Using Nonfiction to Promote Science Literacy, Grades 3-5 (NSTA Press, 2012).

Select Citation Style:
Fries-Gaither, Jessica. "Developing Scientific Inquiry Questions: Three Strategies." School Library Connection, January 2016,
Fries-Gaither, Jessica. "Developing Scientific Inquiry Questions: Three Strategies." School Library Connection, January 2016.
Fries-Gaither, J. (2016, January). Developing scientific inquiry questions: Three strategies. School Library Connection. Retrieved from

Entry ID: 1995096

back to top