Identifying Questions to Investigate

A Research Question Should Spark Students' Ideas About the Answer

Namsoo Shin & Steven McGee
Copyright 2003

What is sparking ideas about the answer?

The wording of the research question needs to connect with students’ current level of understanding. This will help even the youngest students use ideas they already have about the topic. These ideas serve as good starting points for the investigation. As students progress through the investigation, these ideas should be challenged with the analyses they conduct. Researchers call this process activating prior knowledge. Students use their prior knowledge to make sense of new information and solve problems (Anderson, 1990; Machiels-Bongaerts & Schmidt, 1995). Activation of the prior knowledge occurs when students face new experience. They search long-term memory to find similar experiences and retrieve those experiences into short-term memory (Goss, 1999; Harris & Hodges, 1995; Cunningham, Moore, Cunningham, & Moore, 1995).

Why is sparking students’ ideas important?

  • Sparking students’ ideas improves learning.
    Sparking students’ ideas or prior knowledge plays an important role in learning (Goss, 1999; Dochy & Bouwens, 1990; Rumelhart & Norman, 1978). Without the right prior knowledge activated in short-term memory, it is difficult to learn and remember new information (Pearson, Roehler, Dole, & Duffy, 1992). Researchers found that activating prior knowledge helps students learn better and retain information longer (Anderson, 1990; Richards & Gipe, 1992). Cunningham et al. (1995) advocated, “students who activate prior knowledge in a content area have advantages over those who do not” (p 92). These studies show that the more students use their prior knowledge, the better their learning will be (Pearson, Roehler, Dole, & Duffy, 1992, p 155).

How does a designer spark students’ ideas about the answer?

  • Provide a familiar context.
    Students are able to better activate their prior knowledge when they are given problems within a familiar context (Anderson, Reynolds, Schallert, & Goetz, 1997). Wording the question from the perspective of a student provides a meaningful context and facilitates the activation of prior knowledge (Anderson & Pichert, 1978). For example, if a designer would like students to investigate the influence of rising temperatures on plant physiology, he or she could pose the problem of whether increased temperatures would help or hurt the agricultural industry.
  • Phrase the question so that there are multiple reasonable answers.
    Students effectively activate prior knowledge when they are given the opportunity to take sides on a particular issue (Baillet & Keenan, 1986). Approaching a problem from a particular perspective allows students to be purposeful in retrieving information from memory and searching for new information (Anderson & Pichert, 1978). For example, the problem of searching for evidence of life on Mars has multiple valid positions. At the most general level, these positions take the perspective of either there is or is not evidence of life on Mars. Having that perspective will help students in using their prior knowledge to learn the basics of astrobiology.
  • Focus the question on common misconceptions.
    Research questions can be a powerful means to draw out ideas that students have difficulty with (Minstrell, 2000). For example, students in introductory physics classes often enter instruction with the belief that air pressure has something to do with weight since air presses down on objects. Students could be given a research question about how the weight of an object will change if the object is placed under a vacuum-sealed dome. The students will quickly reveal their understanding about the role of gravity in determining weight.


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