Rewarding curiosity

What if we started grading students on their ability to ask well-constructed questions?
Daniel Dries
By Daniel Dries
July 1, 2021
The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, (they’re) one who asks the right questions.
Claude Lévi–Strauss

“What is the white stuff? Where did it come from?”

I was in the lab, working on a demonstration I would use as part of an upcoming award lecture. As he watched, my 7-year-old son peppered me with questions: “Maybe they’re bubbles. Oh, look — the white stuff is falling down! What happens if you shake it up?”

In the two-and-a-half years since, this once-curious kid has been asking fewer and fewer questions. Instead, he’s more concerned with telling me everything he knows. I’m a proud father, of course, but I miss his questions (or, rather, looking up answers to his questions). So what happened?

Jason Jones/Juniata College
Dan Dries works with students in a chemistry class at Juniata College.

When I look back on my own time in grade school, I don’t ever remember being rewarded for asking a question — not in a letter grade and certainly not socially. My job was to absorb facts and practice skills. Questions advertised my shortcomings, the things I did not know and could not do. Questions interrupted the flow of class, irritating my classmates and teachers alike. Questions implicitly criticized the authority and competence of my teachers. Questions got me into trouble; answers got me praise. But shouldn’t my teachers and parents and friends also be celebrating my questions, my vulnerability, my willingness to learn?

While being taught chemistry and biology, I also was being taught to be ashamed of my ignorance and curiosity. Did Levi–Strauss have it wrong? If science is all about asking questions, where do the questions come from? If not from me, then whose questions will I answer? What if I’m not interested in those questions? Do I get a say in what questions I get to answer?

The (person) who asks a question is a fool for a minute, the (person) who does not is a fool for life.
Unknown (but frequently misattributed to Confucius or Mark Twain)

As instructors, we routinely solicit answers — on exams and quizzes, in discussion and in activities. Using answers as tools to identify concepts students still do not understand is problematic, as the answers are tightly constrained by the context of the question. Other techniques, like the muddiest point technique (in which students write down something from the lecture they still find confusing), are a start, but they tend to serve the instructor, soliciting hasty and superficial feedback from students rather than encouraging thoughtful development and refinement of a deep and meaningful line of inquiry.

So if asking questions is a fundamental and, indeed, indispensable element of scientific inquiry, why don’t we teach it? Why don’t we explicitly develop capacity for it in our students? Why don’t we incentivize it in our grading schemes?

A quick search through the literature returns several articles devoted to student-generated quiz questions or opportunities for student feedback but few devoted to contextualized, authentic inquiry. The dearth of such articles reflects my lived experience as both a student and a faculty member: Questioning skills rank far behind instructional design, classroom and laboratory activities, assessment of learning outcomes, and building an inclusive learning environment, to name just a few of the teaching establishment’s priorities. Moreover, this list of priorities is replete with top-down approaches for which the student is the object.

Imagine for a moment that students had more agency: What if students used questions to drive their own learning, to construct their own understanding of a topic?

Each time one prematurely teaches a child something (they) could have discovered (them)self, that child is kept from inventing it and consequently from understanding it completely.
Jean Piaget

Cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget recognized that we derive our knowledge from our experiences, the basis of constructivist pedagogies. Knowledge cannot be poured into a capped vessel. Our potential for growth is limited by our curiosity.

“But I have to teach my students the content,” I hear colleagues say, as if the only way their students could possibly learn would be from their instructors’ lips and/or writing.

Consider a class where you’ve just talked about the basics of enzymes. You’ve covered KM and vmax and showed velocity vs. substrate concentration plots. Sure, you could next lecture and set up activities covering Lineweaver–Burk plots and enzyme inhibition. But what if you instead showed your students a Lineweaver–Burk plot with and without inhibitor, told them it was a double-reciprocal plot, and asked them to interpret it?

After a minute or two of befuddlement (and possibly cursing your name), they might look at the axes and ask how the plot is related to the Michaelis–Menten equation. They might even infer the nature and utility of a double-reciprocal plot along the way. They might look for equations that describe a line. They might ask why the slopes of the lines or x- or y-intercepts differ. As they look into inhibitors, they might stumble across Lineweaver–Burk plots as tools for determining modes of inhibition. They might even then learn about the modes of inhibition themselves, leading them to allostery. All the while, they would be constructing their own knowledge by consulting textbooks, websites and one another. And as you listen to (or read) their conversations, you, the instructor, could learn about their misconceptions, graph literacy and problem-solving process, giving you insights into future lessons.

I have applied this inquiry-based approach to my own biochemistry courses. In doing so, I have borrowed from my mentor and former instructor Hal White at the University of Delaware. (And from another scholar: Socrates.) As early as the second undergraduate year, students explore primary articles in teams, using their own questions to drive discovery.

I no longer see blank faces during a lesson or unengaged students during activities — even in 8 a.m. classes. Small-group discussion dominates, and I hop from team to team to hear the questions students are asking (and to ask a few of my own). It’s refreshing, it’s liberating and it’s downright scary at times. Are they getting the content? Are they going to ask me something I don’t know? Am I even needed? These questions arise from my own self-doubt, never my students’ abilities, and the students and I are all better learners for it.

Over the six years since I adopted it, this method has worked beautifully: As I share in an upcoming manuscript, students perform equally well and show much more critical thinking on exams, with the added benefit of large gains in both science identity and collaborative learning.

There are no right answers to wrong questions.
Ursula K. Le Guin

We thought that we had the answers, it was the questions we had wrong.

If we want students to be curious, we must teach them to ask deep, meaningful questions. To colloquially paraphrase Le Guin and Bono: Garbage in, garbage out. Those few studies in the literature that explicitly ask students to develop authentic questions also note the need for — and the struggles to achieve — high quality. Indeed, similar to Hal White’s experiences and those of his peer facilitators, I’ve witnessed lively conversations grind to a halt when students see no need to move past a superficial understanding of a technique or figure.

For this reason, my students and I spend a significant amount of time writing, critiquing and refining questions — for which the students are graded. More than 10% of their final grade is based on their ability to develop high-quality, contextualized, answerable questions. In addition, students are asked frequently on an exam to develop questions based on a scientific passage. After all, if I’m not asking students to ask good questions, I’m setting them up for failure beyond the classroom, where life rarely hands them clearly articulated questions.

I’ve found that some of the best questions come from my more middling students; I’ve also found that some of those who struggle most with questions are the traditionally high achievers. After all, it’s the middling students who frequently need to ask more questions and the highest-achieving students who do not. By rewarding inquisitiveness, I’m acknowledging the willingness of students to reveal gaps in their knowledge. This has the added benefit of beginning to level a playing field skewed by students’ differences in access to opportunity and resources. Moreover, acknowledging the inherent value of another’s question validates that person’s right to be in my classroom and the unique perspectives they offer.

The principal goal of education is to create (people) who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done — (people) who are creative, inventive, and discoverers. The second goal of education is to form minds which can be critical, can verify, and not accept everything they are offered.
Jean Piaget

The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when (one) contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.
Albert Einstein

The effort I put into having students develop good questions — and the grading incentives I offer — sends a message to my students: To be a lifelong learner, you must ask questions of the material you consume. Anything less is deferential to power (and ego). Frequently, this power is rooted in whiteness and maleness, and the reluctance of an instructor to be questioned is a fear of being exposed. (Author’s note: I know that my own whiteness, maleness and other aspects of my identity give me the personal and professional privilege to make such a statement, whereas others feel they cannot. Therefore, I hope we can all acknowledge the power dynamics and privileges that present a barrier to classroom reform and keep these in mind as we support and empower our colleagues who engage in pedagogical risk-taking.)

And isn’t asking questions something that good scientists — and good citizens — do? Listen, research, formulate an understanding and question existing knowledge? Anything less is pedagogical despotism.

So start asking your students to generate questions. Look at what your students come up with, and ask how you might build your students’ capacity to ask better questions. (In their 2014 paper, “Student‐generated reading questions: Diagnosing student thinking with diverse formative assessments,” Erika Offerdahl and Lisa Montplaisir provide several lenses through which to do so.)

Reawaken your students’ childhood curiosity and empower them to question what they are told. But most importantly, listen to their questions: You might just learn something.

Daniel Dries
Daniel Dries

Daniel Dries is an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Juniata College in central Pennsylvania.

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