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A Research Question Should Spark Learners' Ideas About the Answer
Namsoo Shin & Steven McGee
Copyright © 2003

What is sparking ideas about the answer?
The wording of the research question needs to connect with learners’ current level of understanding. This will help even the youngest learners use ideas they already have about the topic. These ideas serve as good starting points for the investigation. As learners progress through the investigation, these ideas should be challenged with the analyses they conduct. Researchers call this process activating prior knowledge. Learners use their prior knowledge to make sense of new information and solve problems (Anderson, 1990; Machiels-Bongaerts & Schmidt, 1995). Activation of the prior knowledge occurs when learners face new experience. They search long-term memory to find similar experiences and retrieve those experiences into short-term memory (Goss, 1999; Harris & Hodges, 1995; Cunningham, Moore, Cunningham, & Moore, 1995).

Why is sparking learners’ ideas important?

Sparking learners’ ideas improves learning. Sparking learners’ ideas or prior knowledge plays an important role in learning (Goss, 1999; Dochy & Bouwens, 1990; Rumelhart & Norman, 1978). Without the right prior knowledge activated in short-term memory, it is difficult to learn and remember new information (Pearson, Roehler, Dole, & Duffy, 1992). Researchers found that activating prior knowledge helps learners learn better and retain information longer (Anderson, 1990; Richards & Gipe, 1992). Cunningham et al. (1995) advocated, “learners who activate prior knowledge in a content area have advantages over those who do not” (p 92). These studies show that the more learners use their prior knowledge, the better their learning will be (Pearson, Roehler, Dole, & Duffy, 1992, p 155).

How does a designer spark learners’ ideas about the answer?

Provide a familiar context. Learners are able to better activate their prior knowledge when they are given problems within a familiar context (Anderson, Reynolds, Schallert, & Goetz, 1997). Wording the question from the perspective of a learner provides a meaningful context and facilitates the activation of prior knowledge (Anderson & Pichert, 1978). For example, if a designer would like learners to investigate the influence of rising temperatures on plant physiology, he or she could pose the problem of whether increased temperatures would help or hurt the agricultural industry.

Phrase the question so that there are multiple reasonable answers. Learners effectively activate prior knowledge when they are given the opportunity to take sides on a particular issue (Baillet & Keenan, 1986). Approaching a problem from a particular perspective allows learners to be purposeful in retrieving information from memory and searching for new information (Anderson & Pichert, 1978). For example, the problem of searching for evidence of life on Mars has multiple valid positions. At the most general level, these positions take the perspective of either there is or is not evidence of life on Mars. Having that perspective will help learners in using their prior knowledge to learn the basics of astrobiology.

Focus the question on common misconceptions. Research questions can be a powerful means to draw out ideas that learners have difficulty with (Minstrell, 2000). For example, learners in introductory physics classes often enter instruction with the belief that air pressure has something to do with weight since air presses down on objects. Learners could be given a research question about how the weight of an object will change if the object is placed under a vacuum-sealed dome. The learners will quickly reveal their understanding about the role of gravity in determining weight.

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Anderson, J. R. (1990). Meaning-based knowledge representations. In Cognitive psychology and its implications (pp. 112-145). New York: Freeman.

Anderson, R. C., & Pichert, J. W. (1978). Recall of previously unrecallable information following a shift in perspective. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 17, 1-12.

Anderson, R. C., Reynolds, R. E., Schallert, D. L., & Goetz, E. T. (1977). Frameworks for comprehending discourse. American Educational Research Journal, 14, 367-381.

Anderson, R. C., Spiro, R. J., & Anderson, M. C. (1978). Schemata as scaffolding for the representation of information in connected discourse. American Educational Research Journal, 3, 433-440.

Baillet, S.D., & Keenan, J.M. (1986). The role of encoding and retrieval processes in the recall of text. Discourse Processes, 9, 247-268.

Cunningham, P. M., Moore, S. A., Cunningham, J. W., & Moore, D. W. (1995). Reading and writing in elementary classrooms: Strategies and observations (3rd ed.). New York: Longman.

Dochy, F. J. R. C., & Bouwens, M. R. J. (1990). Schema theories as a base for the structural representation of the knowledge state. Open University, Netherlands (ED 387 489).

Goss, G. (1999, August). Improving reading comprehension strategies using student-produced CDs combined with more traditional activities. Paper presented at the European Conference on Reading, Stavanger, Norway.

Harris, T. L., & Hodges, R. E. (Eds.) (1995). The literacy dictionary: The vocabulary of reading and writing. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Machiels-Bongaerts, M., & Schmidt, H. G. (1995, April). The relation between the nature of prior knowledge activated and information processing: To elaborate or to infer? Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco. (ED 392 831).

Minstrell, J. (2000). Student thinking and related assessment: Creating a facet-based learning environment. In Committee on the Evaluation of National and State Assessments of Educational Progress. N. S. Raju, J. W. Pellegrino, M. W. Bertenthal, K. J. Mitchell, and L. R. Jones (Eds.), Grading the nation’s report card: Research from the evaluation of NAEP (pp. 44-73). Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Pearson, P. D., Roehler, L. R., Dole, J. A., & Duffy, G. G. (1992). Developing expertise in reading comprehension. In Samuels, S. J., & Farstrup, A. E., What research has to say about reading instruction (2nd ed.). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Richards, J. C., & Gipe, J. P. (1992). Activating background knowledge: Strategies for beginning and poor readers. The Reading Teacher, 45(6), 474-476.

Rumelhart, D. E. (1980). Schemata: The building blocks of cognition. In R. J. Spiro, B. C. Bruce, & W. F. Brewer (Eds.), Theoretical issues in reading comprehension. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Rumelhart, D. E., & Norman, D. A. (1978). Accretion, tuning, and restructuring: Three modes of learning. In J. W. Cotton and R. L. Klatzky (Eds.), Semantic factors in cognition. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


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