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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Hinton

The Question Formulation Technique: Teaching Students to Ask Their Own Questions

"There is no learning without having to pose a question." ~ Richard Feynman

Nobel Laureate, Physics, 1965

In the 21st-Century classroom, teachers should strive to produce independent learners who take responsibility for their education. Unlike education of the past in which students were required to memorize a relatively static body of established “facts,” today’s education systems should prepare students for an incredibly fluid world. What we believe and know to be true today can be made obsolete tomorrow. Computer technology and the internet have profoundly democratized information so that anyone with a smartphone can find information about almost anything, anywhere, at any time. Best estimates suggest that at least 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are produced every day. That's 2.5, followed by 18 zeros. Facts and data are essential, but knowing what to do with that data has taken precedence. That includes knowing what questions to ask. Asking the right questions has become the new currency of the 21st-Century economy because students skilled in asking good questions lead to independent thinking and creative solutions to vexing problems.

Like most teachers, I spend a significant amount of instructional time asking my students questions. It is one of the most effective and time-honored pedagogies, famously going back to Socrates. But getting my students to ask their own questions is a bit more problematic. To become more proficient in this area, I recently had the opportunity to participate in the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s online workshop titled Teaching Students to Ask Their Own Questions: Best Practices in the Question Formulation Technique (QFT). In this blog, I will describe the QFT and how to implement the strategy with your students.

University professors have recognized the need for students to ask their own questions as a fundamental skill required of all students to succeed. Stuart Firestein, the former chair of the Department of Biology at Columbia University, stated that “We must teach students how to think in questions, how to manage ignorance.” Leon Botstein, the President of Bard College, pointed out that “The primary skills should be analytical skills of interpretation and inquiry. In other words, know how to frame a question.” And Nancy Cantor, Former Chancellor of University of Illinois, stated, “…the best we can do for students is have them ask the right questions.” Yet, despite the desire for students to ask their own questions, few actually can. According to Dr. Alison Head, the director of Project Information Literacy, only 27% of college graduates reported that their college prepared them to ask their own questions. But the process of students asking their own questions dissipates long before they reach the ivory tower. A study in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry pointed out that young girls from working-class and middle-class families asked between 24 and 29 questions per hour while at home. At school, the same girls asked an average of 1.4 and 3.7 questions per hour. Why did this happen? Why are young people interested and eager to explore their worlds outside of school but in school become passive bystanders of the educational process?

What the Research Says

Research indicates that asking good questions increases student engagement and achievement. For example, studies of metacognition (awareness and understanding of one’s thought process) show that when students formulate their own questions, especially at the beginning of a lesson, they improved learning by nearly 50% (Hattie, 2008, Pg. 193). In addition, a meta-analysis published in 2011 shows that curiosity did, indeed, influence academic performance. In fact, it had quite a significant effect, about the same as conscientiousness. When putting together, conscientiousness and curiosity had as substantial an impact on performance as intelligence (Stumm, Sophie & Hell, Benedikt & Chamorro-Premuzic, Tomas, 2011).

How to Implement the QFT

The Right Question Institute created the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) to “make democracy work better by teaching a strategy that allows anyone, no matter their educational, income, or literacy level, to learn to ask better questions and participate more effectively in decisions that affect them.” The technique is pedagogically straightforward and consists of four steps: 1. Students produce their own questions, 2. They improve their questions 3. They strategize on how to use their questions, and 4. Finally, they reflect on what they have learned and how they learned it. The Right Questions Institute points out that teachers must follow four facilitation principles for the QFT to be effective: monitor student adherence to the process, do not give students examples, do not get pulled into group discussions, and finally, acknowledge all contributions equally.

Rules for Producing Questions

The first step in the QFT process is for the teacher to generate a Question Focus or QFocus. Developing the QFocus can be accomplished by showing students a provocative image, quote, or video that pertains to the lesson for which you want students to generate questions. Next, have students working in collaborative teams generate questions in response to the QFocus. There are a few simple rules for this process, they are:

1. Ask as many questions as you can

2. Do not stop to answer, judge, or discuss

3. Write down every question exactly as stated

4. Change any statements into questions

Students can record their questions using standard poster paper or using technology such as Flipgrid and Padlet.

The next step is to have student Improve their questions. Have students indicate if the questions they created are closed-ended or open-ended. A close-ended question can be answered with a simple yes or no answer. A closed-ended question requires a more thoughtful explanation. Students should mark their open-ended questions with an “O” and their closed-ended questions with a “C.” Explain to students that both types of questions are suitable and depend on the question's purpose. For example, if you seek basic information or need a quick response, a closed-ended question is appropriate. On the other hand, if you desire a more profound understanding of a topic, then an open-ended question may be a better choice. Next, students will select one close-ended question, convert it to an open-ended question, take one open-ended question and change it into a closed-ended question. This step will require students to think more deeply about their questions engaging students in metacognition.

The next step is to have students Strategize. Students will prioritize their questions by reviewing their lists and selecting the three questions they consider to be the most important related to the question focus. After the students have chosen their three questions, ask them to think about why they selected the questions they did. Next, ask students to think about where their priority questions are located on their list. Are they at the beginning? Are they at the End? In the middle? The next step is called the Action Plan. Have students think about their priority questions, what do they need to know, or what information do they need to answer the questions? In other words, students will need to think about how they will research their priority questions. They must consider what sources of information they will use and whether they have access to that information. Students should also ask themselves what they will need to do. In other words, they will need to consider the tasks required to answer the question. The last step of the strategy component is to have students share what they have done. Sharing should consist of four steps.

  1. Questions you changed from open/closed

  2. Your three priority questions and their numbers in your original sequence

  3. The rationale for choosing priority questions

  4. Next steps from your action plan

The last step is to have students reflect on their learning by thinking about what they learned and how they learned it.

Teaching students to ask their own questions can be the most critical skill we can teach students to help them become independent, creative, critical thinkers, which are essential 21st-century skills that all students need to succeed in college, careers, and civic life. When students ask their own questions, we empower them to think at higher levels by showing them how to become creators of knowledge, rather than just consumers of it. When students ask questions, they learn from one another, as no student is as intelligent as all students working together. When students ask questions, they push each other in new and unexpected ways of thinking and growth. The teacher also benefits when students ask questions because they are able to explore, assess, and plan for further learning experiences by better understanding what their students know and areas they require growth. As Albert Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”

QFT at a Glance

1) Question Focus

2) Produce Your Questions

ü Follow the rules

ü Number your questions

3) Improve Your Questions

ü Categorize questions as Closed or Open-ended

ü Change questions from one type to another

4) Strategize

ü Prioritize your questions

ü Action plan or discuss next steps

ü Share

5) Reflect


Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to


Harvard Graduate School of Education: Teaching Students to Ask Their Own Questions: Best

Practices in the Question Formulation Technique



“Source: The Right Question Institute (RQI). The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) was

created by RQI. Visit for more information and free resources.”

Stumm, Sophie & Hell, Benedikt & Chamorro-Premuzic,

Tomas. (2011). The hungry mind-

intellectual curiosity is the third pillar of academic performance. Perspectives on

Psychological Science. 6. 574-588. 10.1177/1745691611421204.

Question Formulation Technique in Action

Tizard, B., Hughes, M., Carmichael, H., & Pinkerton, G. (1983). Children’s questions and

adults’ answers. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 24, 269-281.

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