Inquiry-Based Learning • Formulating the Research Question

Once students have spent some time exploring a topic, they can begin to narrow down the focus of their inquiry by formulating specific research questions. To help students develop questions that will provoke substantive research, define different categories of questions for students, such as knowing, analyzing, and creating, and discuss the cyclical nature of questioning itself.

Identifying different types of questions and seeing what those questions reveal can not only help students move towards deeper inquiry, but help them develop their own sense of metacognition. Here, we'll group questions into knowing, analyzing, and creating questions. The exact vocabulary used to describe these question types may vary from school to school—the important thing is for all teaching faculty to use a common terminology to support student understanding.

Knowing questions get at the basic information about a subject: who, what, where, and when. Questions like "What was the California Gold Rush?" or "Who uncovered the Watergate scandal?" help students build important background knowledge, even if such Google-friendly queries don't lead students to that illuminating "aha!" moment. In a deep inquiry process, knowing questions set the stage for more complex analyzing and creating questions.

Analyzing questions depart from basic information gathering and venture into deeper territory where students begin to draw conclusions from the information they uncover. How and Why questions are often valuable in this pursuit. After learning what the California Gold Rush was, students can deepen their inquiry by asking, "How were the left-behind families impacted by the Gold Rush?" After learning who was behind the discovery and reporting of the Watergate scandal, students can then ask, "How did the Watergate story change the way political news stories were reported afterwards?"

Creating questions allow students to evaluate, make judgments, and draw conclusions. "What lessons from the California Gold Rush can we apply to cryptocurrency today?" "What political news stories today might have the same impact on journalism as the Watergate scandal?" As students learn how different types of questions can reveal different levels of knowledge, they can assume more ownership over their own learning.

As students formulate and pursue their research questions, they'll benefit from learning about the cyclical aspect of the inquiry process. As we know, one question may lead to some answers, which in turn may provoke more curiosity and new questions. The concept of cyclical questioning can be a somewhat unsettling one for students, especially if they're used to posing one closed question, Googling for one answer, and letting that be the end of their research. They may feel frustrated at first, but as they embrace the idea that identifying new questions is just as important as finding answers, they'll feel more comfortable with the act of deeper, exploratory research.

The more students understand the value of formulating questions, whether knowing, analyzing, or creating, the more they can see and appreciate research as an ongoing process, rather than a quick path to an easier answer.

MLA Citation "Inquiry-Based Learning: Formulating the Research Question." School Library Connection, July 2019,

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Entry ID: 2214574

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