Student-Generated Questions: A Simple Technique to Increase Engagement, Critical Thinking, and Academic Argumentation

December 9, 2015 Les Lynn The Debatifier

by Karen Sheehan

Kids love to argue. Compelling students to argue in an academic way is the challenge. Fortunately, there is a simple solution: asking questions. The ability to ask well-conceived questions is the foundation for the ability to formulate well-conceived answers, which is the cornerstone of argument. Teachers who do not regularly require students to generate questions are missing out on an effortless opportunity for engagement and higher order thinking in an environment that fosters academic argumentation.

Step #1: Teach students to ask thought-provoking questions

When I first incorporated student-generated questions, I created templates based on Bloom’s Taxonomy. My directions to students were to use the following stems to craft questions.

Level 1: Remembering

  • Why did…?
  • How did __________ happen?
  • How would you explain…?
  • How would you describe…?

Level 2: Understanding

  • How would you compare…? Contrast…?
  • Summarize or paraphrase ___________ in your own words.
  • What is the main idea of…?
  • What is meant by…?

Level 3: Applying

  • How would you show your understanding of…?
  • What approach would you use to…?
  • How would you apply what you learned to develop…?
  • What facts would you select to show…?

Level 4: Analyzing

  • How is ___________ related to…?
  • What inferences can you make about…?
  • How would you classify or categorize…?
  • What evidence can you find to support…?
  • What is the relationship between…?

Level 5: Evaluating

  • Do you agree with the actions…? With the outcome of…?
  • Would it be better if…?
  • What choice would you have made…?
  • Based on what you know, how would you explain…?
  • What information would you use to support the view…?
  • Can you assess the value or importance of…?

I referred to the analysis and evaluation questions as “Critical Thinking Discussion Questions” or CTDQ’s, and they provided the basis for nearly all the discussion in my classroom.

Step #2 – Give plenty of opportunities for students to ask questions

When assigning readings, most teachers include questions that students must answer. This is a pretty standard practice in every content area. Requiring students to ask the questions, however, increases rigor and engagement in many ways.

Asking questions intensifies critical thinking; allows students to be actively involved in their own learning; helps teachers assess students’ comprehension and mastery of content and/or standards; enables students to identify and draw out arguments embedded in any class material; and challenges students to consider and defend their own positions and use evidence to justify their thoughts.

Teachers can require students to generate questions in almost every class activity.

  • Please Do Now (PDN) – Ask students to write questions related to yesterday’s content.
  • Annotation – Ask students to identify main ideas and important details, make connections, and write possible discussion questions.
  • Group work – Ask students to generate questions with their peers.
  • Exit slip – Ask students to write questions related to today’s content.
  • Assessment – Ask students to write questions that demonstrate mastery of content and/or standards.

Step #3: Provide structured activities for students to ask the questions they generated, respond using evidence, and defend their responses

The following are two simple ways to incorporate the questions in your class. Students typically will be engaged throughout the activity because they have already invested by writing the questions themselves.

Four Corners

  • Label four corners of the classroom: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree
  • Collect student-generated questions.
  • Turn the questions into an argumentative statements.
  • Project the statement.
  • Tell students to move to a corner based on their position.
  • Have students turn and talk to another person.
  • Have a spokesman deliver and defend their position using evidence from the class content.
  • Take turns sharing.
  • Facilitate a lively debate.

Socratic Seminar

  • Collect student-generated questions (based on a substantial reading or content focus).
  • Choose the best questions and type them into a handout.
  • Review the questions before starting.
  • Use a double-sided evaluation rubric: self and peer.
  • Explain the rubric.
  • Have students move into a large circle around the perimeter of the classroom.
  • Assign a moderator who will ask the questions and guide the discussion.
  • Encourage students to respectfully disagree and provide evidence to support their positions.

As a teacher, I wanted my students to really engage in thinking critically, being inquisitive, and discussing controversial/ academic topics. Asking questions is a good way to ignite creative minds and fuel the debate.


Karen Sheehan taught English for eight years and founded and coached the debate team for four years at Perspectives Charter School – Joslin Campus. As the Dean of School Culture, she coaches teachers on issues related to classroom management and still has regular debates with students…just not in the classroom.