Students Generating Questions as a Way of Active Learning

By Alberto Najarro* Class of 2022

Dr. Gu

Born and raised in Yangzhou, China, Dr. Gu grew up experiencing the pristine environment in his hometown. However, he mentioned that by the time he went to college, “the environmental situation had worsened.” He added that “air and water were getting dirtier. Environmental pollution incidents were increasing.”  These first-hand experiences ultimately defined what kind of career he wanted to pursue. By the time he attended college at Nanjing University to earn his B.S. in Environmental Science, it was a relatively new field of study. “Its interdisciplinary nature was, and continues to be, attractive to me,” he shared.  

After holding faculty positions at the Appalachian State University (USA) and Beijing Normal University (China), Dr. Gu joined Duke Kunshan University in October 2020 as an Associate Professor of Environmental Science and has been teaching environmental science courses.

Field trip to the natural history museum in Shanghai, China

A “Secret” Strategy to Foster Student Engagement 

Dr. Gu is always looking for ways to engage more students in the field of environmental science, where he has specialized on how water moves around and across environmental components and how it transports pollutants. For that, he has designed a teaching strategy to make the topics studied attractive. “The key here is to get everyone engaged, interested in the course material.” This is a piece of a more significant part of his overall teaching strategy for the course. Dr. Gu requires students to generate test questions, some of which will end up being included in the tests after rounds of editing. 

Dr. Gu mentions that “this is a sort of informal exam review because students will have to go over their notes and the studied material to produce great questions.” The activity seeks to release some of the stress that students might experience as the test approaches because they will get the chance to shape what might appear in the test. “They will have digested all the class materials thoroughly to come up with good insightful exam questions. Great way to reinforce their understanding of the course material by the end of the session,” Dr. Gu assured.  

It is commonly recognized that students’ generating questions for exams or pre-exam review enhances their understanding of course materials and promotes deep learning (Rosenshine and others 1996; Draper 2009). In addition, student-generated questions that involved higher cognitive skills (compared to a simple recall) have been linked to self-directed learning and improved conceptual understanding (Chin and others 2002). However, this strategy has been underused in practice and needs to be adequately contextualized with sufficient scaffolding to be productive. 

What Implementation Steps Should Be Considered? 

Dr. Gu has shared what he considers an essential set of steps to carry out students-creating questions successfully:

  1. Instructors give clear instructions of what is expected as a GOOD question – if possible, an in-depth explanation with examples using Bloom’s taxonomy framework.  
  1. Instructors solicit questions on Sakai forums a day or a few days ahead of the class discussion. Hopefully, students will have posted some answers or initiated conversations before class discussion. 
  1. During class discussions, instructors will divide students into groups. Each student must come up with at least one question, with 20 minutes of class time designated for group discussions—free-format discussion. 
  1. Each group presents their questions to the whole class, and everyone discusses them and tries to provide answers. If necessary, faculty can step in and give a hint to how to answer the question, not necessarily answering the question but an insight into how to find it. Point out resources for them to answer the question themselves. If faculty provides the answers, students might lose the self-exploring opportunity. 
  1. Instructors will ultimately compile, screen, edit and select the questions that will appear on the test. 

How Does It Benefit Student Learning? 

Beyond Dr. Gu’s expectation, students showed great passion and gave very positive feedback about this activity. As he recalled, some students proposed up to eight exam questions, and the questions were very insightful and intriguing. For Dr. Gu, faculty can implement this strategy in introductory and high-level courses and any class size. He also reflected on the impact of this activity on active student learning.   

It increases students’ motivation to record and retrieve materials learned in the past and think deeply about the class material. Students need to invest time digesting the material to generate good questions if they want their questions to be in the test.  

Students can practice generating good questions as a result. Anyone can come up with factual questions because these require low-level thinking (e.g., what are plate tectonics?). However, good questions require critical thinking, synthesis and implication (e.g., what is the relationship between environmental degradation and a pandemic?). In-depth, critical thinking is essential for students’ future careers. 

This activity also gives students the sense that they are actively contributing to the development of the course and advancing the course objectives. “It increases students’ ownership of the course. Students’ level of engagement is significant for students’ learning experiences.” Students can sometimes be shy but sometimes the quietest students can write the best and most insightful questions. This activity offers an excellent opportunity for the student to write a great question, speak up and contribute to the class.  

*About the author: Alberto Najarro ’22 is majoring in Environmental Science/Public Policy track. He is a native of El Salvador. He worked as a student partner in the Center for Teaching and Learning, DKU for two years. He is a student representative in the Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board to the Chancellors, works as a research assistant in the Global Health Research Center, and is the DKU correspondent to the DukeStudents networks at Duke University. He is also a co-founder of LATINO (Latin American Involvement Organization) and 94°C.