Student-Generated Research Questions

Students and questions: it’s a topic written about with some regularity in this publication (and on the Teaching Professor Blog, for that matter). The concern starts with the quantity and quality of questions students ask in courses, but it goes beyond that, as Mara Brecht discovered in a major’s capstone course.

Like many capstones, this one required an independent research project. It was a small class of eight students that allowed the instructor “to teach the research process more slowly and methodically” (p. 299). She started early in the semester by asking each student for a brief description of their research area, including the research question they were considering. What she got were proposals that fell into one of two categories. Either the idea was so broad that there was really no point of entry, or the idea was so specific that all the research could do was “prove” the point. Class size made it possible for her to meet with each student individually, and those interactions revealed a significant disconnect between how she taught and talked about research and students’ perceptions of it.

Students with very general projects said they couldn’t be more specific: “How am I supposed to know what I’m going to talk about until I do the research to know what I’m going to talk about?” (p. 300). Those with the specific proposals were equally perplexed: “I thought . . . my capstone project was supposed to be thesis-driven” (p. 300). After some further reading and reflection on research in her humanities discipline, Brecht came to understand the problem: “My students did not question. Either they identified topics but were unable to ask the kinds of questions about their topic that would lead to a hypothesis . . . or they produced hypotheses without first articulating questions that these hypotheses ostensibly answered” (p. 300). Her teaching hadn’t given students the opportunity to practice questioning.

That was the problem with how Brecht had been teaching the research process. There was also an issue with how she talked about it. She shared with students her conviction that “research is dialogue,” that scholars talk to each other through their writings (p. 301). She says, “When students research, I tell them they participate in an authentic academic dialogue” (p. 301). Their research projects are about creating truth. (It’s a theology and religion capstone.)

She exclaims, “Talk about romanticizing!” (p. 301). Those meetings with students revealed that what she thought was a pep talk the students heard as intimidation. She states they heard: “The project had better be good enough, and you had better be smart enough to do it!” (pp. 301–2). Additionally, the students did not get the conversation piece. They thought that they had to work on their project alone, that the thoughts, ideas, and even others’ questions had no place in their research.

She decided to change both the teaching and the talk about research with an activity focused on question generation. She started with a Google document that contained a statement for each student. “Megan would like to learn about . . .” The students she named then filled in the blank with a place, person, time, object, idea, or process they were interested in exploring. Then each of the seven other classmates posed a question below each of the statements on the Google document. Using their starter statement and the seven questions, each student classified their classmates’ questions using a field-specific classification system. From that they generated three of their own questions and then classified and evaluated them. Brecht includes a number of examples in the article that clearly show movement in the direction of good research questions.

Brecht makes a strong case for doing the project online as opposed to simply passing around a sheet of paper. The technology supports how students are used to conversing with each other. And she believes there was another benefit: “The online questioning activity created transparency in the student research process and . . . ultimately led to greater trust among the class” (p. 305). A student comment supports this conclusion: “I found this exercise was very helpful because a multiplicity of questions and topics are now out in the open and I am more likely to reach out to fellow classmates to talk about our topics, as well as for feedback throughout the research process” (p. 305).

The activity described in the article is a good example of an approach that helps students discover some important lessons about questions. As the author notes, if the class is large the same activity could be done with groups of students working on each other’s questions. In addition, the article is commendable for its honest and constructive exploration of a skill students are missing. Instead of blaming students for what they didn’t do, the teacher consults research and uses it to reflect on how her teaching might be contributing to the problem students are experiencing. And that’s followed by a creative solution. It’s a good piece on scholarship on several different fronts.

Reference: Brecht, M. (2016).  Collaborative questioning through digital media:  A strategy for catalyzing student research “conversations.”  Teaching Theology & Religion, 19 (3), 299-308.

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