Asking the Right Questions

The Question Formulation Technique

“Our methods often presume students can pivot effectively from an information need to information discovery. The QFT does away with that presumption.”

I’ve devoted a fair amount of time to studying a classroom activity that has the potential to strengthen a soft spot in my teaching. The Question Formulation Technique (henceforth referred to as “the QFT”) works to empower students in the middle stages of their research from conception to conclusion. And, it promises to do so in harmony with the TWP’s overarching philosophy.

The Question Formulation Technique on one slide
Sessler, J., & Williams, C. (Producers). (2018). Asking questions in the age of Google webinar.

Tackling a Wicked Problem seeks to engage students by giving them a hand in their own practical education. This approach follows from the belief, supported by data, that students are more accountable when they help determine their own learning objectives. In addition, people are more motivated when working together toward a real-world outcome.

In short, students learn better when they have agency and work harder when it matters outside the four walls of the classroom.

Several pedagogical ideas are invoked in pursuit of this philosophy: open pedagogy, project-based learning, design thinking, and wicked problems.

But these methods often presume students can pivot effectively from an information need to information discovery. The QFT does away with that presumption.

The Question Formulation Technique in a High School Science Class

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the QFT combines “authentic practice” with “metacognitive reflection” (Eyler, 2018), motivating students not just to investigate the content, but to gain insights and self-awareness they can transfer to other classes and challenges. It does so by following these steps:

  1. Determine the question focus
  2. State the rules for producing questions
  3. Produce questions
  4. Categorize the questions
  5. Improve the questions
  6. Determine next steps
  7. Reflect

The following describes each step in detail. The intervals shown are recommended by the Right Question Institute, a nonprofit organization directed by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, originators of the QFT. However, as with many activities, the QFT will take longer the first time (about 45 minutes) than with experienced groups.

Determine the question focus

Determining the question focus is the one step performed by the instructor and is done before the QFT session begins. They can and should, therefore, craft the focus carefully while keeping in mind the types of questions their students are apt to generate.

The question focus, which QFT practitioners often abbreviate as QFocus, is typically the same for the entire class. The QFocus is never itself a question.

The focus is often a statement that is clear and incisive, but can be something else, such as a photograph. Whatever form it takes, it should stimulate thoughtful interest in the subject of investigation. For example:

“In the digital age, some students are not asking questions.”

Sessler, J., & Williams, C.. (2018). Asking questions in the age of Google webinar.

“American imperialism at the turn of the 20th century.”

Right Question Institute. The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) for Summative Assessment

“Once we were slaves. Now we are free.”

QFT Small Group Worksheet

State rules for producing questions

2 minutes

Because the rules are fixed, this is sometimes not listed as a discrete step, but instead included in the next step. Either way, the rules are:

  1. Write down as many questions as you can related to the question focus
  2. Number each question
  3. Do not stop to answer, judge, or discuss the questions
  4. Record the questions exactly as they were asked
  5. Change any statements into questions

Students may find it difficult to adhere to some of these rules, so it is worth going over them early (even before announcing the QFocus), and handing a copy to each group.

Produce questions

4 minutes

If the class has not already formed groups, divide the students into teams of 3 to 5. Instruct each group to designate a note-taker.

The teacher should visit each group to ensure they are following the rules and that they continue producing question throughout the time allotted. Encourage group members to generate a volume of questions without pausing to evaluate them.

Improve the questions

5 minutes

In this step, students will fine-tune the questions to lead to better results. First, the groups will mark each question as open-ended or closed-ended. Closed-ended questions are those that can be answered with one word. Yes/no questions fall into this category. All other questions are considered open-ended.

Next, ask each group to brainstorm some advantages and disadvantages to each type of question. This metacognitive task prompts the students to reflect on their current and future thinking.

Finally, instruct each group to change one closed-ended question to open-ended and vice versa. Allow them to switch additional questions if they feel inclined.

Prioritize the Questions

3 minutes

The students will now identify one or more priorities and pinpoint the top three questions that serve each priority. Some example priorities:

  • Which questions most interest you?
  • Most important questions
  • Those that will be most helpful in your project
  • The ones you need or want to answer first

Remind the students to keep the QFocus in mind when selecting three questions for each priority.

You can have the students report some of their questions to the class. For example, you could ask each group to share the questions they changed from closed to open and vice versa.

Another approach is to have them read their priority questions and then observe for the class where in the list they came from. That calls attention to how early or late in the process the priority questions came up.

Determine next steps

2 minutes

At this stage, each group will have a list of fine-tuned and prioritized questions. They then must figure out how to go about answering them. For example:

  • Conducting an experiment or survey
  • A Google search
  • Contacting a reference librarian
  • Scheduling an interview with an expert in the field


3 minutes

The final step prompts students to contemplate the QFT. Because the QFT is detailed and transparent, students can focus their reflections on any specific part of the process. The teacher might choose to prompt the groups to discuss and answer some questions:

  • What did you learn?
  • What is the value in learning to ask your own questions?
  • What are you going to take with you going forward?


The Question Formulation Technique upends the traditional model in which teachers ask questions and students answer them. Empowering students to ask questions gives them agency to take their project work in directions they find authentic. Formalizing the process of finding questions not only leads to better results, but it fosters metacognition. The QFT also connects to our Habits of Mind: purposeful communication and problem solving.

I’m excited to use the QFT to further the methods and philosophy of TWP.

Additional Resources

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