Answers That Lie in the Questions

Dr. Catherine Hurt Middlecamp, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Students need not only to raise questions but also to critically examine them and be able to determine what is learned—and not learned—by the answers. This lively activity, an ice breaker for the first day of class, engages students in learning about the questions they ask as well as the ones they don’t. The activity also gets students working in groups from the very beginning.

In small groups, students formulate one or more getting-to-know-you questions for the class to answer as a whole, and they write their questions on white boards. Then, all students circulate up to the boards and check off their answers. As students debrief the activity—examining both the answers and the questions themselves—they learn about one another. They also may learn things they might not have expected about the questions that they failed to ask and about the questions they did not realize they were asking.

Courses Into Which This Activity Could Fit

This Pearl is cast as an icebreaker for the first day of class. As such, it could be used in any class in which instructors desire to devote class time to having students get to know one another.

The benefit of this particular way of doing introductions is that it simultaneously accomplishes more than one task, including (1) acclimatizing students to group activities, (2) making the point that “doing introductions” can be carried out in multiple ways, each one with its own set of advantages and disadvantages, and (3) demonstrating that questions, and the constraints implicit in them, are a reflection of those who ask them.

Although this activity is designed for the first day of class, instructors can adapt it for use later in the course in order to offer a more sophisticated critique of the process of asking questions. For example, the activity could be used at a point at which it is important to demonstrate how an inquiry may produce certain kinds of knowledge but not others.

The ideal class size is 5 to 30 students. For larger groups, one option is to utilize smaller laboratory or discussion sections (if available). Another option is for students to use clickers to answer the questions.

The Activity

The activity proceeds in stages. Each has the potential to generate a whole-class or small-group discussion. Depending on the amount of discussion, the activity can take up to an hour.

  1. Present the activity. Tell students that there are many ways to “do introductions” on the first day of classes. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Today, their instructor has picked one that will involve everybody in designing a set of questions and possible responses.


  1. Model the format of the question. Give students an example of the type of question they are to construct, namely, one that can be answered by making a check mark (√) by one or more items in a list. Below is an example showing how students checked responses. Write a question such as this one where all can view it.
Which of these best describes you?

a morning person √√√√

an evening person √√√√√√√√

both √

neither √√

  1. Refine the format of the responses. Because student-generated questions may be incomplete or ambiguous, illustrate the process with the class as a whole. For example, students might pose the question “Where are you from?” or “What is your major?” With questions like these, students may generate responses that inadvertently leave out some class members. The set of responses below is an example. Some students immediately pointed out that none of the responses applied to them, exposing the inadvertent exclusion.
Where were you born?



East coast

West coast


The question “how old are you” quickly reveals that the categories for responses are arbitrary and depend on who is in the room. For example, below is a set of responses generated by college students in a first-year seminar. If an older or younger group generated the response categories, they would include different age brackets.

How old are you?

Less than18




Over 30

  1. Have students write questions of their own. The process works well in small groups. Have each group write one or more questions on a board where all can view. Continue until the allotted space is filled.


  1. At any time, allow discussion. Issues can arise during the process of constructing questions; for example, students may complain about the rigid format, saying that they cannot determine what they want to learn by asking fellow students to check a response. Fine! Their complaint will lead naturally to a discussion of how the manner in which you ask questions determines what you can learn.


  1. Set rules for answering the questions. Decide, for example, whether a person is allowed to mark more than one answer. Decide whether everybody is required to answer all the questions. Any rules are fine, but students should see that the rules chosen will influence the data gathered as well as potentially cause unexpected distress (see “Context and Concepts for Instructors” below for more about this).


  1. Have students answer the questions. Students should leave their seats, pick up chalk or a marker, and check off their answers to the questions. If everybody does this at the same time, the ensuing chaos makes this process somewhat anonymous.


  1. Invite student discussion of the data. Here are possible ways the instructor might frame it:
  • Examine the responses (“data”) provided by your classmates. What do you learn from these about the people around you?
  • Examine the responses a second time. What don’t they tell you? For example, from these responses you do not learn anybody’s name. You also do not learn who made which response or whether a person made more than one response.
  • Examine the responses a third time. How did the format of the questions dictate what could be learned? The choices are forced. How would they have been different if each person were able to freely answer the question?
  • Consider other ways of introducing classmates to each other, such as going around the room and having one person speak at a time. Make a comparison. What are the advantages of “doing introductions” in each way? The disadvantages?
  • Look around the room. What do the questions tell you about the people who constructed them? How would the questions have been different if others had been in the room?

9. Repeat the question design process. The value of this activity is enhanced if students do another round using the same format, constructing another set of questions using insights they gained in the first round about how to solicit useful information inclusively.


Scientific Concepts Addressed and Related Civic Issues

“What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” – Werner Heisenberg

“It is not the answer that enlightens but the question.” – Eugene Ionesco

This activity helps students better understand the process of asking questions. Any investigation is influenced both by which questions are asked and who gets to ask them. In addition, this activity engages students in data collection and analysis, prompting them to think about what is learned by asking a particular set of questions, as well as what is not learned.

Additional Considerations

Prior knowledge required

None needed.

Materials needed

A classroom with:

  • White boards, chalkboards, or poster boards in sufficient number for students to post their questions.
  • Enough space to allow the students to get up and record their answers to the questions on the boards.
  • Portable polling devices (“clickers”) if writing space does not exist. Using clickers is not ideal because only one question can be answered at a time and because the questions and their responses cannot be viewed simultaneously for group discussion.

Context and Concepts for Instructors

In this activity, students both ask and answer questions. As well, they experience the limits of what can be learned by the set of questions that they pose. The protocols and common lessons generalize to the larger scientific process of asking and answering questions.

This activity accomplishes several pedagogical objectives simultaneously:

  • It is an example of active learning.
  • Students get the opportunity to talk with each other in small groups.
  • Students examine aggregate data about their classmates.
  • Students may find that they come up with more creative ideas as a team.


Students generally begin with “vanilla” questions: They typically begin with questions such as age, academic major, hometown, favorite sport, and why they are taking the course. In a second round, students are likely to ask more creative questions, such as those relating to personal interests or opinions. They may even wrestle with questions of sex, religion, and politics.

Responses are revealing: The responses that students write to their questions are revealing and may afford opportunities for further discussion. For example, students may use “non-categories” such as non-scientist, non-major, or even non-Christian or non-U.S. citizen.

Protocols for answers are important: Give thought to the protocols for how members of the class should answer the questions.

  • Some questions have personal consequences that are unintended. For example, the question “Do you have children?’ may be painful to those who have lost a child or cannot have children. Similarly, “How many brothers or sisters do you have?” may distress those who have lost a sibling. The question “Do you believe in evolution?” may single somebody out (either way). For this reason, instructors should hold a discussion with students about the value of leaving everybody free to answer only the questions they wish to.
  • Some students may not want to be forced into making a single response, such as for categories relating to gender. For this reason, instructors should discuss with students the rationale behind allowing individuals to mark as many choices as they would like.

Questions can change over time: The questions that people ask change over time. For example, questions such as “will this drug produce birth defects?” and “can I recycle this plastic?” were not asked 100 years ago. At a later point in the course, instructors may find it useful to point out questions that are being asked only recently. Instructors also can point out that students are likely to be asking new questions in the future, perhaps replacing ones asked today.

Categories can change over time: The categories change over time as well. One useful example is the change in the categories on the United States census.


What students will be able to do

After completing this activity, students should be on their way to knowing more about their fellow classmates—their future partners in learning. In addition, they should be better prepared to critically examine questions asked later in the course. Depending on which parts of this activity their instructor emphasizes, students may learn to:

  • Compare two or more ways of doing introductions on the first day of class, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of each
  • Recognize ways in which questions are a reflection of the person or group of people who constructed them
  • Recognize that some questions can be stressful or painful to people, and think carefully about what questions they pose to team-mates or peers
  • Add new questions to their repertoire. Examples include:
    • Who or what is missing?
    • How does my framing of a question influence what I can learn?
    • Are some questions more useful than others?
    • Who gets to ask the questions?
  • Explain the meaning of this quote: “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning” (Werner Heisenberg)

Ways that this activity enriches the engagement of citizens with social and civic problems having underlying scientific issues

This activity connects to several SENCER ideals, including:

  • SENCER conceives the intellectual project as practical and engaged from the start, as opposed to science education models that view the mind as a kind of “storage shed” where abstract knowledge may be secreted for vague potential uses.

This activity launches with a small and timely task: to get to know each other. The knowledge gained is immediate and practical. At the same time, lessons learned can be useful later in the course. The activity encourages students to approach the issues raised in the course with more awareness of the process of how questions are asked and who gets to ask them. 

  • Extract from the immediate issues the larger, common lessons about scientific processes and methods.

In this activity, students both ask and answer questions. As well, they experience one or more of the limits of that which can be learned by their questions. The protocols and common lessons generalize to the larger scientific process of asking and answering questions.


Additional Resources

Catherine Hurt Middlecamp and Anne-Marie L. Nickel, “Doing Science and Asking Questions: An Interactive Exercise,” J. Chem. Educ., 77, 50 (2000).

Catherine Hurt Middlecamp and Anne-Marie L. Nickel, “Doing Science and Asking Questions II: An Exercise That Generates Questions,” J. Chem. Educ., 82, 1181–1186 (2005).

In addition, this activity is discussed in:

Catherine Middlecamp, “Culturally Inclusive Chemistry,” in Teaching the Majority: Science, Mathematics and Engineering that Attracts Women, Sue V. Rosser, ed., Teachers College Press, New York, NY (1995).