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Teaching Tips & Tricks, Truth for Teachers Collective   |   Aug 1, 2021

Students won’t answer questions? Have them generate their own.

By Tricia Maher

Gr 11-12 Literature Teacher

Students won’t answer questions? Have them generate their own.

By Tricia Maher

When I first stepped into the high school classroom two decades ago, I — like many other new teachers — was fresh out of graduate school and eager to share my passion for literature.

My graduate courses had explored esoteric topics such as Shakespeare and the Law and Irish Feminist Drama. I was bursting with newfound knowledge that I couldn’t wait to impart to the young adults in my classroom. In other words, they were the urn and I was the font of knowledge.

I quickly learned that the classes in which I waxed poetic about whatever novel we were reading fell woefully flat. I had loved Pride & Prejudice in high school (and in college, and in grad school, and to this day) so I couldn’t imagine why our discussions about Austen’s witty irony and the sly narrator didn’t resonate with my students. Weren’t they too laughing at Austen’s clever put-downs of Mr. Collins and rooting for dashing Darcy and his soulmate Elizabeth? Well, apparently my students weren’t. In fact, my students didn’t even seem to be reading the chapters assigned nightly for homework. I’d get frustrated with their lack of attention to their homework, they’d come to class seemingly unprepared, and the disappointing cycle would continue.

I looked around for solutions and — in those prehistoric years before the online teacher community and resources we have now — resorted to prepared study guide questions and bribes that I would show the movie when we finished the unit. These techniques may have helped a bit, but not really. I was holding students ‘accountable” but were they thinking? Making connections? No way.

For the most part, the use of what I’ll call “pre-packaged” guided reading questions seemed like a crutch for students while they’re reading and ultimately limited their ownership of the assigned material. In ELA classrooms, the questions often implied a single “correct” interpretation of the assigned reading. Take, for example, a typical question: “How does Zora Neale Hurston use the pear tree as a symbol of Janie’s sexual awakening?” As students read this question, the question essentially tells them that the tree = symbol = sexual awakening. What is left for them to figure out? And here’s another drawback to using these questions: if you teach in an academically competitive school like the one I teach in, the students’ temptation to cheat here is pretty hard for them to resist. Students quickly circulate what they believe to be the “correct” answers, and if you plan to use similar questions again next year, I would reconsider. I can pretty much guarantee that one of your savvy students will have a Quizlet posted with the questions and the answers that future students can — and do — access.

Fortunately, after nearly two decades of trial and error, I’ve come across some routines that work in my classroom, a cycle that centers my students’ voices — and their questions — throughout our whole class literature units.

Centering student voices is a challenge for so many of us, especially when we struggle with issues like classroom management as new educators. For some of us this year especially — we’re just downright tired and it’s easier to use class time to plow through content by relying on these pre-packaged guided reading questions. Or we stand in the front of the classroom and lecture while our students dutifully (or not) jot down our words of wisdom in a notebook for a future test.

I’m preaching to the choir here, I’m sure. If you’re reading this blog, you’re already embracing innovation and (hopefully) dismissive of the lazy, elitist teacher-centered practices that I have fallen into. So, kudos to you. I admire your passion to make your classroom a student-centered hub that buzzes with authentic learning.

But for those of us whose curriculum is in some ways predetermined, perhaps we can all use that nudge — especially after this year of pandemic learning. Now more than ever, teaching is tiring and we have fallen into patterns where we prioritize efficiency and — frankly — survival to get through the lesson planning, the grading, the technical challenges that have overwhelmed us this year. So, if along with the upcoming school year, you too need a fresh start or some spring cleaning in terms of instructional practices, I’m here to offer an easy-to-use option that can be used across disciplines and integrated into your everyday practice and teaching repertoire.

Student-Generated Discussion Questions

What we may already be doing

Student-Generated Discussion Questions (SGDQ) aren’t radically innovative but prioritizing the use of them can really be a game-changer in terms of helping to minimize your voice in the classroom and instead amplify the voices of the young adults in our physical (and virtual) classrooms.

Many of us have probably asked students to “make a sample quiz” at the end of a unit. For some of us, it was a throw-away activity — one last low-stakes activity that provided some hopefully effective pre-test review. “Make a 5-question quiz for a classmate about Transcendentalism. Don’t forget an answer key,” we might suggest as a homework assignment.  It was a way to synthesize a student’s knowledge, while simultaneously promoting student accountability as they began to study for a summative assessment.

Recent studies have shown how effective this technique can be. In a 2020 study, Mirjam Ebersbach and her team found that “question generation yielded positive effects on factual and transfer knowledge.” Ebersbach’s study suggests that student-generated questions require and promote the increasingly significant practice of retrieval because “previously processed information must be retrieved” to generate or “formulate adequate questions.” So, as we may already be doing, requiring students to write quiz or test questions at the end of a unit is a productive use of the students’ time and effort. And it’s low stakes for the students: Ebersbach’s work even concluded that the “depth of the generated questions was not related to students’ final test performance.” Therefore, just the process of writing the questions was beneficial to the students.

But how does this technique amplify student voices, rather than the teacher’s? Ebersbach suggests that the “rephrasing” involved in question-creation requires students to use their own words, their own voice, to become more active participants in their retention. Consider the contrast between this active notion of “rephrasing” and a student who passively reviews notes from a teacher-lecture or re-reads material from a textbook. Some teachers take the practice a step further by including some of these student-generated questions in the final assessment. This additional step not only promotes student questions but values and rewards them, centering their input as essential to the class’s growth.

Ways to use student-generated questions throughout a unit

A couple of years ago, I read Peter Smagorinsky’s brilliant Teaching English by Design in which he promotes using SGDQ throughout literature units, not just at the tail end of the unit, as I had been doing . Smagorinsky requires small groups of students to generate questions about a particular section of a novel. This small group is then responsible for leading a class discussion on their assigned section. Brilliant. The students lead the way — from start to finish — and each student’s voice plays an essential role in a class discussion during the course of the unit. I was immediately hooked.

But getting the students to generate substantial questions seemed difficult. My initial attempts resulted in only factually-based questions and short-lived class discussions that quickly fizzled. How far can you get in a discussion with a question like “What does Gatsby do to impress Daisy?” or (worse yet) “Who is the narrator of the novel?”

Fortunately, Smagorinsky offers some detailed suggestions. He begins the year by carving out time to teach students how to create different types of questions. And, through my trial and error, I’ve realized this is a critical step. I started by borrowing Smagorinsky’s categories. He suggests teaching students to create questions in the following categories: inference, generalization, effects of literary form or technique, the purpose of a particular event, evaluations, emotions, and personal connections. His text provides detailed lesson plans, directions, and descriptions of these different types of questions.

So, like Smagornsky, I take a day early in the year to teach the types and quality of questions that I expect of students. Using our very first texts, I begin by modeling questions and creating a set of questions with the whole class. The first step to success is encouraging the students to begin their questions with the words “How” or “Why.” These “How” and “Why” questions promote critical thinking and, as we begin to use these SGDQ to conduct class discussions, these types of questions eventually transfer into more sustained discussion in class (as opposed to my “Who is the narrator?” dilemma of previous attempts). Utilize the I Do-We Do-You Do strategy here: have students break into small groups and create questions of their own. Then assign some for students to make individually, either in class or for homework.

I’ve begun to rely on SQGD so much that I’ve built a template that I share with the students to use throughout the year. I post it prominently wherever they can easily access it — our class web page, their digital notebooks, my daily digital agenda, etc. I’ve used Smagorinsky’s categories and tweaked them a bit, offering sample questions that pertain to our summer reading novels. Smagorinsky’s categories stretched in the reverse direction, ending with emotional responses and personal connections. While I encourage students to fill in the table in whatever order they wish, I’ve found that allowing students to start with the reader-response type questions has been more productive. Students feel less intimidated and are less inclined to give up on the assignment or reach out for help from online sources. By the time they get to the bottom of the table, they’ve hopefully built up a little confidence about their insights and may be willing to take a chance on a simple literary device they noticed in their assigned reading.

You’ll notice that the questions are designed to generate open-ended responses and all start with higher order thinking question words like “How” and “Why.” This assignment is one I use frequently — about 3-4 times per unit. Students create their own questions for homework and we’ll kick off class by sharing our questions in small groups. The small group discussions are organic and authentic. Each student has something to contribute and the small-group discussions are far superior to the discussions when I pass out questions designed by me or assign study guide questions that I find at the end of a story in a textbook or anthology. That small group work is brutal: the kids merely divide-and-conquer the questions, rarely talk to one another, and generally are just not invested in the discussion.

As the unit progresses, the students build a portfolio of questions about a text. We’ll use their questions for our Harkness discussions. Each student feels prepared for these discussions because they have a body of work — of questions — to contribute to the conversation. While there will always be some students who are less at ease in these whole-class student-guided discussions, each student knows that their safety net in the conversation is the list of questions they have in front of them. And these student-centered discussions are fruitful and energizing. My voice is minimized and practically eliminated as students showcase their knowledge, dig deeper into challenging texts, and make connections that I — a generation removed from my students — do not have the ability to make for them.

For those of you teaching other disciplines, these literary-focused categories may not work for you. But the categories can be easily adapted to various disciplines. Consider some of these basic variations:

  • Emotion, reaction, or personal connection (during a Genetics unit in Biology): How has your family’s health been shaped by genetics?
  • Generalization from text to today’s society (during a History unit on the Civil Rights Era): How has our nation today progressed or regressed in terms of civil rights?
  • Purpose of a particular skill in terms of the bigger unit (during an Algebra lesson on single step equations): Why is it important to do the computation inside parentheses first?

You can add other, more original categories that relate to your particular content-area. Lots of disciplines could utilize some of these categories:

  • Identify areas of confusion, either factual or conceptual. Go simple and ask students to pose a question about something they didn’t understand in an assigned reading. Students may ask something like: Why did FDR sign an executive order forcing the relocation of Japanese Americans? How does that treatment of the Japanese Americans differ from the treatment of Jews duirng the Holocaust?
  • Leverage textbook structure. Students could create a unique question for each of the sections or subsections of a textbook chapter: How are the bolded words in this section important to this section of the chapter titled “Precipitation”?
  • Create an original problem. Students could create a unique Geometry problem. When you think about it, a student-generated problem is a question in and of itself. Or, better yet, students could ask a metacognitive process question about an original problem: Explain how you would solve for the area of a triangle that has sides of equal lengths of 6?
  • Create Bloom’s taxonomy. Students could create one question from each of the six levels of Bloom’s hierarchy of questions.
  • Utilize a visual component. Students could find a graph, chart, political cartoon, or photograph and ask a relevant question about it: How does this photograph capture the mood of the 1920s? Why does this map of the 13 Colonies look different than the map on p. 192 of our textbook?
  • Gamify it. Students could create Jeopardy-style 100-point, 200-point, 400-point, Double Jeopardy level questions. Instead of the table-style template I created, students could enter these questions into a readily available digital Jeopardy template.

Can you imagine the great questions — and subsequent conversations — students might generate with these creative categories?

At various points in the school year, we’ll stop and do a quick refresher lesson on question-writing. Sometimes the students have gotten a little lazy or sometimes they’re ready for a nudge to take things up a level. If they’re ready to increase the complexity of the questioning, I offer them a couple of specific suggestions:

  • Add a direct quote to a question:  When Hamlet says  “A little more than kin, and less than kind,” why does he use two words that sound so much alike?
  • Add a statement before your question (this really works well when using the questions for discussion): I noticed that Fitzgerald mentions “water” a lot. How is “water important to this story?
  • Double Up your questions (create a follow-up question or two related questions): Why does Harjo use a tree as her central image? Why does imagery from nature figure prominently in this poem?

Using SGDQ in your classrooms can hopefully serve as springboards in your classroom for more critical student-centered work. As I prioritized using my students’ questions to lead our learning, I found myself looking for more ways to really hear more of my students’ voices and less of my own. And how refreshing that is — foregrounding their voices, not mine. Just the way it should be.

Tricia Maher

Gr 11-12 Literature Teacher

Tricia teaches sophomore American Literature and junior British Literature at Archmere Academy in Claymont, DE where she also serves as the moderator for the school newspaper. She has taught high school English for almost twenty years in the Washington, DC,...
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  1. What a fantastic article! Incredibly well-written and chock full of practical applications for every discipline. Bravo!

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