Just Right Research Questions

My kids are burning out. Every day for attendance we check in with “how are you feeling” using a scale from the “how are you on a scale of” meme and moods are clearly trending down. I’m right there with them. I’m a solid 5 on this one today.  My first instinct is usually “scrap it all…do something silly and fun” and that’s not necessarily a bad choice, but we’ve just started a research project in AP Seminar. I sense that some of their stress is coming from the fact that this is an AP class and they want to feel prepared. Escapism is not the mental health break they need. The other end of my spectrum of instincts tell me to lean hard into spicy topics. There’s so much going on in the world right now that THAT might be the motivator to spark their interest. Again, not necessarily a bad choice, but I know that for some, their weariness is coming from the constant barrage of toxicity in the news. 

It’s a Goldilocks moment. How do I engage them in research that’s relevant and challenging without forcing them to continuously engage in this disastrous news cycle if they truly need a break?

The answer was plopped right in the ol’ porridge bowl for me this morning–a just right way to help students generate research questions that fit their individual needs so they’re researching about things they actually care about right now. After today’s lesson, I realized that this is how I should be approaching research question generation in all my courses.

Research as Listening

Years ago, I ran across a line in Jennifer Fletcher’s Teaching Argument that changed everything about how I approached teaching research (thank you!). I’d quote it if I wasn’t currently teaching from home–I can picture exactly where the book is in my classroom–but I’ll do my best to paraphrase. She explained that we needed to teach students to listen to the conversations they wanted to enter. Only those without manners overhear a snippet of a conversation and barrel in uninvited, right? Listen, then join. The same should apply with our writing. Read, study, think–then write. 

I’ve been doing that with my students for a few years now, but I’ve always approached it as listening once they’ve already chosen a conversation. I think I’ve been missing a step because for so many students, choosing a conversation to enter is the toughest part! For my students this year, when everything feels like just too much, they need help figuring out where to start listening. 

Stimulus materials

The AP Seminar course has a research assignment where kids get a stimulus packet –6-7 loosely connected sources from all different genres. For example, the 2020 stimulus materials had everything from a video to a short story to a philosophy essay to an article from the Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology and Economics. Going through the packet is usually a bit of a slog because someof the articles are dense and tough for the kids to connect with.  I was dreading today because I knew energy was down, and we were scheduled to tackle (in my opinion) the toughest one: an economic analysis of how industries regulate themselves.

Despite my fears that today would be awful, here’s what they plopped in my porridge bowl: 

“It was dense but it was actually super interesting!”

“I love business so this was good.”

“All the charts made it easier to follow.”


To be clear, they didn’t all love it–one student admitted falling asleep–but many did and it sparked their interest in a way the painting we’d looked at yesterday (that I had hoped they’d all think was super cool) had bored some to tears. 

So what does that mean for generating questions?

Generating research questions is so tricky. Too often we give students choice, but too much. We mean well so we leave research completely open: You can do anything! What are you interested in? Follow your passion! For many kids, that’s overwhelming! But we can also go too far the other way and shoehorn students into topics about which they aren’t interested in the least. 

Here’s my takeaways from watching this particular research project unfold:

Takeaway 1 Give your students a truly wide variety of texts–even ones (especially ones) that don’t speak to you. 

Until this morning, I’ve never truly appreciated the diversity of texts in the stimulus materials for AP Sem, but the one we read today was precisely what some of my kids needed to spark a question. And I would have never chosen it. For future research assignments for other classes, I need to push myself to choose texts from a wide variety of fields. I need to move beyond my usual sets of poetry, visual art, essays, op-eds and make sure I add business, science, technology, etc. 

Takeaway 2 Let your students find the theme

I’ve used text sets to spark research in other classes, but almost always during a Thematic Unit–capitalized because the theme takes center stage. One of the most interesting things about the AP Sem stimulus materials is that there is no official “theme” connecting them. That task is left to the students. If you tell students the theme of the unit is justice? Everybody’s research question is almost certainly going to cling to that word. When they know there isn’t a “right” answer, suddenly their thinking is much freer and their perspectives more fresh. 

Takeaway 3 Give students a framework for their listening

If you’re asking students to listen for potential research ideas, they need a way to organize that listening or good ideas will get lost! I adapted this a few years ago from some lovely person in the AP Sem world (probably @msforshey because she makes all of the best things). As we work through the stimulus materials, we keep our notes in this one chart. By the time we are done, students have loads of research questions from which they can choose. 

But this seems like it just adds a ton of time!

It does. I would argue, though, that investing the time up front to help students find questions that truly interest them is worth it. Research projects can so quickly devolve into hunting missions where students are simply looking for ‘good quotes” to back up what they already believe. If we take the time to help them identify questions about which they are curious–things they actually to know–all of that can be avoided.


How do you help your students generate research questions that matter to them? I love talking about new ways to spark my students’ curiosity! Share your ideas below or connect with me on Twitter @TeacherHattie or on the Moving Writers Facebook page.

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