Burning Questions--Why Your Students Should Have Them

Matthew Pearson
Encouraging your students to write about issues that genuinely interest them is one of the best ways to help students to learn new things in your course and to write high-quality papers.

One of the challenges facing any instructor is trying to pinpoint why some papers are compelling and pleasurable to read, while others are difficult to get through, or simply not that exciting to read. Often, a central reason for less-than-stellar writing is that a few students do not have a genuine interest in their topics and a desire to know more about it. They do not, in short, have a “burning question.”

We cannot expect every one of our students to share the same passion for our chosen field as we do, but we shouldn’t forget that many of our students are genuinely excited about learning and we can help them to succeed on their writing assignments in our classes by asking them to research topics about which they have genuine, “burning questions.”

“Burning Questions” Defined

As she guides students through papers, Eileen Cheng-yin Chow, East Asian Studies professor at Harvard University, asks each of her students, “What do you want to talk about? Why is it so compelling [to you]? Why do [you] want to work on this topic? The ‘big burning question’ has to really be burning—[the answer(s) to it] has to be something you really want to get across” (Across the Drafts: Students and Teachers Talk About Feedback, Harvard Writing Project Video, 2005).

“Burning questions” help students to:

1. Research and write about topics of interest;
2. Write more focused and compelling papers;
3. Approach college-level research writing as inquiry, i.e., more than only displaying facts;
4. Focus the research and writing processes.

Differing Views on the Role of Questions in Writing

Getting your students to feel comfortable engaging more in honest and thoughtful inquiry rather than merely showing off information may initially be challenging. As Williams and Columb (2001) point out, beginning or novice college students and their instructors often value questions and answers in markedly different ways. Many students “think that their goal is to learn the facts and when asked, report them back accurately” (p. 37). While this assumption may make a lot of sense given their past experiences with school, where writing has served perhaps primarily as examination, what most of us who teach at the university level “want from students is not just answers but questions—critical thinking about what they hear and read, testing claims against alternatives and available evidence” (p. 37). Knowing this can help you to be explicit with your students about the changes they may have to go through in how they approach discovering and displaying knowledge. For some students, fact-based questions may indeed be burning ones, but we can ask students to reframe their questions to include the implications or applications of their topic of inquiry.

Learning to write in college often provides lessons in both increased humility regarding what one knows and, at the same time, coming to understand increased standards for what counts as knowledge. For example, many novice college writers have trouble initially with the degree of specificity and depth an effective academic paper often requires. Similarly, students need to know that sometimes questions cannot be definitely answered, given the complexity of the topic at hand, but that well-reasoned use of evidence can nevertheless allow one to know more about a given issue.

Helping Students Value Questions in Research

In her description of a technique designed to teach the process of scientific inquiry, “21 Questions to Conclusions,” Calabi (1997) offers an explanation you can share with students to help them understand the role of questions in college-level writing. Here, Calabi gives instructors language to help address the disparate assumptions about inquiry that Williams and Columb articulate:

Asking questions does not mean you are dumb; it means you are thinking. Asking questions is also a necessary first step in thinking, learning, and doing research. Without questions, there can be no predictions; without predictions, there can be no experiments, no data, and no conclusions.

Asking questions, however, can be tricky, for several reasons. People can feel exposed, that they are showing ignorance, being impertinent, talking back, or behaving inappropriately. Conversely, some people do not appreciate being asked questions, for some of the same reasons...

Yet to do science or really think about anything, it is essential to ask questions. The more and more fully articulated questions people ask, the better positioned they will be to get answers.

Though you may not include all of the above explanation, consider including some of Calabi’s language in your syllabus or course materials. If you choose to do this, try and find some class time near the beginning of the semester—and periodically throughout it—to talk through the role of questions in the writing students will do in your course.

Questions Focus the Research and Writing Process

As an instructor, you can encourage students to seek out sources and/or data that answer their question and to avoid looking at extraneous information. When students come to you with questions about their process, you can ask them, “How does this information help you to answer your burning question?”

Works Cited

Calabi, P. (1997). “How to” begins with “why?.” Hands On, 20 (2).

Williams, J.M., & Colomb, G.G. (2001). The craft of argument. New York: Longman.