Center for Instructional
Innovation and Assessment


Thor Hansen
Tim Pilgrim
Matthew Roelofs
Linda Smeins
Portfolio Contents


Dr. Thor Hansen
Department of Geology



The Power of Questions

Design and Practice

I love inquiry. I enjoy doing original scientific research or just investigating an interesting topic in the literature. My intellectual life is centered on questions. I am happiest as a teacher when my students are involved in inquiry or just asking questions. If I have lectured for 10 minutes and get no questions from the students, I am disappointed as well as confused (Did they get it? Is it too boring a topic to bring up questions?). But when something I do generates questions from the students, especially those which engender other questions and discussions among the students, then I am happy.

What is so special about questions? When students ask questions in class it shows they are engaged. It also gives me an assessment of their comprehension. For instance, some questions reveal difficulty grasping the material ("I don't quite understand that last graph."), some show them making connections ("Is that reaction similar to what you see when milk curdles?"), and some show application of concepts ("If you move the pinhole closer to the light, will the image reverse?"). Often, when I am talking to a class, I don't know how much of what I am saying they are taking in. But when I answer a question, I KNOW the questioner is ready to receive and is more likely to integrate it into their worldview. Questions work both ways. When I ask questions of the students during a class (and wait for the answers) I can assess their comprehension. It also wakes them up when I ask a question. If I have been droning on for a while, nothing energizes the class better than asking the right question; one that results in a few moments of awkward silence followed by tentative attempts to answer it.

Using inquiry in teaching is a tool to achieve objectives or outcomes. The outcomes I desire for students are:

  1. Can think critically
  2. Can write and speak well
  3. Can think quantitatively
  4. Work well in teams or independently
  5. Are problem solvers
  6. Are knowledgeable in the subject matter of the course
  7. Enjoy discovery and learning ("life-long learners")

I also have objectives in the way my classes "look". In my classes I want:

  • Students asking questions and engaged in the topic
  • Students talking to each other; explaining/discussing/debating the topic
  • Students noisy and animated but on task, attentive.
  • Students making connections in class, mastering concepts, posing hypotheses
  • Students seeing connections and commenting on them outside of class

I try to structure all of my classes around inquiry and achieving the outcomes above. The extent to which I can do this depends on the class size. For example my upper level class in Paleontology (average class size 15), has no lectures at all and is entirely built around a series of questions that they analyze in teams. The questions are chosen to address the content I want to teach. The basic content topics for this class are:

  • To develop an understanding of how marine ecosystems work,
  • Understand what is lost from the ecosystem in the fossilization process,
  • Understand how marine ecosystems differ in space, i.e. how do ecosystems change with latitude?
  • Understand how a modern marine ecosystem is different from an ancient one.

On the second day of class I divide them into teams (I choose the first teams so that each team has at least one expert on Excel spreadsheets) and give each team a sample of mud and animals dredged from Burrows Bay near Anacortes. The samples have been taken from four or five sites in the bay, including one in a marina. Their first question is: "Where would be the best site to build a new marina and have the least adverse impact on the environment of the bay?". To answer this question, they need to:

  1. identify and research the organisms in their sample in order to understand the community at their sample site;
  2. compare their data with the data from all the other sites to understand the ecosystem of the bay as a whole;
  3. specifically look at the sample from the marina so they can assess its effect on the environment; and then
  4. decide which site outside of the marina would be least affected by a new marina.

They must do all of this in two weeks, so the teams share data to answer the question. Once I give them their samples and they understand the problem to be solved, they immediately have questions: How do we process the samples? How do we identify the animals? I respond to these questions with "mini-lectures" on each topic. It is important to note that these are short explanations in response to a request for information by the student. They want this information and they immediately use it. I also give the students plenty of leeway to make mistakes. Because they need to share data, I tell them early on to discuss and agree on standardized processing protocols so their data is in similar formats, but they never do. This suggestion is forcefully driven home when they are hastily comparing data the night before the reports are due and find that they all used different methods of data collection.

The teams write up reports which go through at least one revision. Each team produces a joint report with introduction, methods and results, but each individual writes up their own discussion and conclusions section. In this manner they learn to write in a group and individually. They give an oral presentation of their results on the last day of the project. All of my learning objectives are achieved by this process. Critical thinking and problem solving skills are stressed by the very nature of the question. They work in teams but also contribute individual efforts. Their data is expressed quantitatively and they give oral presentations. They learn a lot about the subject (how marine ecosystems work) although in this case they have learned a lot about a particular ecosystem. This approach also accomplishes the classroom objectives (how I want the class to "look"). The students are self-directed and come to class ready to work on their project. Usually when I arrive in the classroom, it is already filled and the students are in their teams and discussing their projects. Attendance is nearly 100% because not showing up for class means that you have let somebody down on your team and they will have to do the work for you.

This initial project is followed by one in which the students process a fossil sample and then compare it to the first one in order to see how the fossilization process affects our record of marine communities. I change the teams randomly with each project by having the students pick colored candy (usually Skittles, although M&M's will do) out of a cup and then they form teams according to the color they chose. Although they are hesitant about working in teams on the first project (Who will be leader? Who will do what task?), by the second project they are veterans of team work and look forward to seeing who their new partners will be. Once the teams are chosen they quickly exchange phone numbers and email addresses and pick team leaders. After the project has been agreed upon (at this stage in the course, the question may be modified by input from the students), my role is to guide. I address questions about how best to present data, how to narrow a search on the internet, how to improve a draft of a paper, or comment on connections they are making with other aspects of the projects. The students are very motivated and generally excited about their work.

In larger classes, where it is difficult to follow such a writing intensive model, I use a different strategy. For example, in my Dinosaurs class (80 students) I emphasize critical thinking by inviting the students to make observations about skeletons and draw their own inferences about how these extinct animals lived. First we look at the skulls of living animals and see how their teeth and the shape of their jaw correlate to their food and how they eat (e.g. chews foods or just bites and swallows). Then the students make observations of a dinosaur skull and make inferences about what and how it ate.

In order to understand how skeletons are adapted for speed (and alternatively how to tell if a dinosaur was fast by looking at its skeleton) I display on an overhead the legs of three animals with different running speeds; an armadillo (relatively slow), a coyote (fairly fast) and an antelope (very fast) and have the students make observations about the relationship of the leg bones to running speed. In this case I incorporate group interaction by asking the students to work in teams of three and spend several minutes looking at these legs and comment on the differences they see. I will call on several groups to offer their observations and accumulate a list of skeletal features that characterize running speed. I then have them test these concepts by looking at images of the skeletons of 8 unidentified animals (the heads are removed) and arrange them in order of inferred speed. After I have accumulated several lists (most differ in at least one choice), I identify the animals and we compare their known speeds. They find that they can correctly predict running speed to a first order approximation, i.e. they have successfully applied the conceptual knowledge they derived by observation. They also find that there are caveats and ambiguities in real life. For example, the skeleton of a grizzly bear has all the characteristics of a slow animal, yet it can catch a horse in a running spurt. Understanding these limits to our observations is useful in evaluating what we "know" (i.e. what the experts say) about how dinosaurs lived. We then apply these concepts to a dinosaur.

A Note About Groups

Even though the students in this class are not working on team projects, whenever possible I have them work in small groups to answer questions. There is a lot of pedagogical literature that discusses the benefits of students interacting. I appreciate this literature and it is probably all true, but I mainly do it because it "feels" right to me to have students discussing questions. My favorite example of this is when I give an exam retake. Rather than use a period for pre-exam review, I give a retake immediately after an exam. The exam is given in the normal way; in class, closed book, and strictly individual work. The next period I give the same exam but this time students are allowed to work in groups of three or four and share information. They do not know their scores from the first exam, nor have I posted an answer sheet. Their final grades for the exam are calculated by adding a portion of the overall class increase between the two exams to each person's first exam score. In this way, a student benefits from having as good a score as possible on the first exam and also by making sure that each student understands the right answers on the retake, because each person benefits by having the highest possible class average on the retake. Exam retake day is one of my favorite teaching moments because after I hand out the test, I say not a word and the students spend the rest of the class arguing about the answers and coming to a consensus.

In my Historical Geology class I incorporate inquiry with the "Create a World" project. In this assignment, students work in pairs and create their own model planet (using a large rubber ball) complete with plate tectonics, continents, oceans circulation patterns, vegetation and deserts. If they choose, they can make the world very unearth-like by giving it a radical axial tilt or changing its rotation direction and speed. But whatever they do, the planet has to "work". That is, it must behave according to natural laws. If the student wants to make a tropical world, he must have a reasonable explanation for it, e.g. unusually active sea floor spreading and volcanism creating a green-house effect, which of course would have ramifications for the plate boundaries on the map, etc. All of the characteristics of the planet must fit together into a reasonable whole, which requires the student to really understand the interrelationship of geology, oceans and atmosphere. The lectures are geared towards giving them the tools to create their world so all of the information they receive in class contributes towards solving their "problem" of creating a realistic working world.

Moonsnail Project

In the Moonsnail Project I am trying to integrate genuine scientific inquiry into middle schools. For the last ten years I have been studying the evolution of predation and, in particular, testing an hypothesis in evolutionary research called the Hypothesis of Escalation. Escalation states that predator-prey systems have gotten more intense over time, i.e. predators have gotten fiercer or more effective at killing prey and at the same time, prey have developed better defenses to cope with predators; kind of an evolutionary arms race. This is a controversial hypothesis with numerous supporters and detractors. The problem is that this is a difficult hypothesis to test because very few predators leave a distinctive signature of their attack, e.g. if a lion kills a wildebeest the bones of that wildebeest in the fossil record will show signs of attack, but it will not be traceable to a particular predator. One of the few exceptions to this rule is the moonsnail; a carnivorous marine snail that kills clams and snails by drilling a distinctive round hole in the shell of its victim. Anyone can pick up a shell that has been drilled by a moonsnail and immediately identify both the victim and the attacker. I have been studying the fossil record of moonsnail predation in deposits ranging in age from 0.5 to 100 million years old. I have published numerous papers documenting the intensity of moonsnail predation over time, but we still have very little knowledge of how moonsnail drilling rates vary in space. No one has ever conducted a serious investigation of living moonsnail predation in different parts of the world and how it changes with respect to latitude, yet this is very important information if we are going to interpret changes through time.

Voila! Thorness appears! Here is a real scientific question (what is the latitudinal variation in moonsnail drilling rates?), and the data to answer the question can be found on beaches all over the world and is easily collected and analyzed by kids. So we got funding from NSF to do a workshop for middle school teachers in which we will train them in the fundamentals of marine ecology, the background for our moonsnail drilling studies and how to collect data to test a real scientific hypothesis. They will take their classes to the beach, collect shells, analyze the drilling percentage and then call up their sister schools all over the country and compare their data and test the hypothesis themselves. We're talking websites, science, education, video conferencing, kids on the beach, Thor on the beach, it doesn't get any better than this! We now have participants from Alaska, Wa, Oregon, Ga, Fla, NC, NJ. Cool!

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