The Right Question Institute: ‘A Small but Mighty Bunch’
In 2017 the Right Question Institute (RQI), in collaboration with Brandeis University, began work on a National Science Foundation funded research grant. The development of new resources and the research aims to explore how the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) may support researchers as they learn to ask better, more transformative research questions. As you may know, the QFT is a powerful, yet simple, discrete strategy that provides the opportunity for all individuals to learn how to ask their own questions. It has been integrated into the work of professionals in many fields, spanning education, voter engagement, social services, innovation, and beyond.
RQI is not a large organization. But, as my colleague Sarah Westbrook affectionately says, “we are a small but mighty bunch.” Indeed, RQI has an outsized impact in no small part due to the fact that members of our staff are extremely passionate about democratizing access to the skill of question formulation, and have been for 30 years. For me, that was to the tune of 33 active learning workshops, keynotes, posters, and panel presentations in 2019, primarily focused on working with faculty in higher education and researchers. In the spirit of democratizing access to the QFT, and to better understand the QFT’s influence on teaching in higher education and researchers’ skill development, I have facilitated active learning workshops for tens-of-thousands of learners. With those workshops has come about thirty-three introductions to me—RQI’s Director of Strategy.
Intellectual Inquiry at Citrus College
Of those thirty-three introductions, the introduction I received from Professor Salwak at Citrus College stands out. Professor Salwak shared an anecdote from his own education, one that he also captures well in a book he wrote on the art of teaching. In Teaching Life: Letters from a Life in Literature, Salwak tells of a unique approach to teaching he learned from one of his history professors. He says:
“The second day of the semester we arrived having read a chapter in our text the night before. The professor asked, ‘Does anyone have any questions about the reading?’ No one spoke, and so he said: ‘Fine, class is over. I’ll see you Friday.’ Friday arrived; we came to class having read another assignment, and once again he asked ‘does anyone have any questions about the reading?’ Again, no one spoke, and so again he said, ‘I’ll see you Monday.’ Well, by now, we began to catch on. When we arrived on Monday, we had not only read the assignment but also generated some questions. The entire semester was conducted in this way, and I have to say that it was one of the most inspiration classes I’ve ever experienced. The professor taught and lectured and led discussions from the questions we asked about the material.”
Professor Salwak believes that as an educator, part of his role is to, “create an atmosphere conducive to intellectual inquiry and expansion.” For the rest of the day at Citrus College, I facilitated a QFT experience with about 50 faculty members who would hopefully use it in their classrooms—conceivably as soon as the next day. I cultivated a learner-centered environment, conducive to intellectual inquiry, so faculty could then create this type of environment with their students.
One faculty member planned to, “use the QFT to generate curiosity at the beginning of semester and to let students generate research paper ideas at semester end.” A month after the active learning workshop, another faculty member wrote to say, “I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for leading the QFT workshop at Citrus College…I have begun using the technique in my sociology classes, and the initial results have been exciting.” The second time she integrated the strategy into her classroom, “one smiling student loudly called out, ‘Miss! This is a lot of critical thinking!’” She also wrote, “We’re three weeks into the semester, and students are becoming animated and engaged. And they appear to be developing into a community of thinkers. Thank you so much for teaching an effective technique that is so easy to incorporate.”
Many other participants went on to include the QFT in their pedagogical toolbox, and I later heard about another adjunct professor who had never taught before and found the QFT was a deliberate way to foster more student engagement in class that spring semester. Imagine the power of one eminently practical strategy that can foster a more engaged and curious student population and diffuse so easily around campus.
A Vision for All Campuses to Be More Conducive to Intellectual Inquiry
Many college presidents and leaders would also agree that the practice of asking questions is incredibly valuable–for shifting the onus of learning from educator to learner and for effecting change across a community. In his most recent address to incoming students, Peter Salovey, the President of Yale University, remarked that, “we are here to ask questions—questions about one another and about the world around us. We are [here] to nurture a culture of curiosity.” This is no different than what college presidents were naming as pivotal skills students should learn at the dawn of the 21st century. A New York Times interview of college presidents highlighted these very same skills—Nancy Cantor, now a chancellor at Rutgers University offered that, “…the best we can do for students is have them ask the right questions.” Leon Botstein, the President of Bard College, echoed this when he said, “the primary skills [for college students to develop] should be analytical skills of interpretation and inquiry. In other words, know how to frame a question.”
Besides recent elevated discourse on question formulation, it is a skill that has been named as valuable for centuries. In his book Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence President Joseph E. Aoun of Northeastern University shares a quote from Cardinal John Henry Newman, a 19th century intellectual, who believed that someone with a college education, “is able to converse…is able to listen…can ask a question pertinently.”
Despite these emphases on question formulation, recent research has found that only about 27% of college students believe they have developed their ability to ask questions during college. Further, other research by the National Survey of Student Engagement has found that question formulation behaviors tend to persist in students from their final year in high school. In other words, seniors who are inquisitive, agents of curiosity tend to continue to pose questions as first year students at college. Seniors who do not ask questions tend to have their curiosity remain dormant during college.
It does not have to be this way. As a part of our work at the Right Question Institute we have built on our robust network of over 350,000 educators and sharpened the QFT so it may support learners across all institutions of higher education. Colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to foster these abilities and skills in students. Moreover, we have also seen how the QFT can support innovative research conducted by faculty.
The QFT in Higher Education: 2020 and Beyond
Since my workshop at Citrus College in January 2019, RQI has worked with many different institutions two- and four-year colleges and universities, institutions that primarily support traditionally underrepresented students, public and private colleges and universities, organizations that support faculty and researchers across many institutions, and beyond. This includes institutions from geographically diverse areas as well, including colleges, universities, and institutions in California, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oregon, and Tennessee. You can see a curated list of these institutions below.
We have heard from undergraduate students at the Oregon Institute of Technology how, “just the act of brainstorming questions led to more questions. It really helped me understand not only what I didn’t know about the subject, but also what I wanted to know.”
After working with hundreds of doctoral students, emerging research suggests that over 95% of individuals find that the QFT helped them develop better research questions, and over 95% of individuals report that they plan to use the strategy to support their research in the future. As one doctoral student at Northeastern University reported after learning the QFT, “There is more than one way to ask a question and revising questions can be a very productive, and effective, strategy to innovate…the QFT helped me take time to really think through what it is I want to do with my projects, as well as consider potential, new directions.”
At the University of Missouri, a professor wrote that through using the QFT for research, “I thought of new questions I didn’t realize I was curious about once I started brainstorming all the options.” Another faculty shared that the QFT, “helped refine questions I did not think could be serious into strong questions that could lead to better advance my research.”
No matter the amount of research experience nor the locale, question formulation is one powerful way for learners and researchers to name what they are most interested in investigating and navigating the unknown.
What we have seen and learned from faculty, researchers, and learners at these institutions aligns well with what college presidents and leaders expressed: A good question can cultivate curiosity and catalyze creativity and innovation. Through deliberately teaching and honing the skill of question formulation, students and researchers alike can further develop critical thinking, problem-solving, literacy, and civic engagement skills. In the coming months, we will continue to share the stories of these institutions and the work of faculty and researchers as they integrate the strategy into their own work, and use it to facilitate learning environments where questions serve to catalyze more inclusive, inquisitive campuses around the world.
A few institutions we have worked with over the past few years
American Society for Engineering Education
Boise State University, Boise, ID
Brandeis University, Waltham, MA
Citrus College, Glendora, CA
Columbus State University, Columbus, GA
Columbia University, New York, NY
Mercy College, Dobbs Ferry, NY
Mt. San Antonio College, Walnut, CA
Northeastern University, Boston, MA
Oregon Institute of Technology, Portland, OR
Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, TN
Southern New Hampshire University, Manchester, NH
The Library of Congress
The National Science Foundation
The Ohio Department of Higher Education, Columbus, OH
The University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT
The University of Massachusetts Lowell, Lowell, MA
The University of Missouri, Columbia, MO
The University of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island
Union College, Schenectady, NY