PBL Pro Tips from John Larmer: How Are Student Questions Used to Guide Inquiry?

One of the most prominent features of project-based learning is inquiry. However, I’ve seen that the concept of inquiry and how to manage it is one of the most challenging aspects of PBL for many teachers. This may be because moving to an inquiry-based approach is one of the biggest shifts from traditional instruction. I’d like to offer some practical tips for managing inquiry that will, I hope, make it seem more doable.

Traditional instructional methods, while useful for some purposes, are generally not inquiry-based. They’re mostly about transmitting knowledge from a teacher to a student using didactic methods such as lectures, textbooks, or teacher-centered lessons. Students usually answer questions posed by the teacher. If students do ask questions, it’s usually to clarify something the teacher said or ask for help in understanding or doing something. They are not asking questions about what they want to learn or need to learn to accomplish a task–as they do in PBL.

Inquiry means that instruction is framed by students’ questions and the pursuit of answers. 
Inquiry doesn’t simply mean “looking something up” in a book or online. It’s not like a straightforward research task, where students read about a topic and copy down information. Inquiry is a more in-depth, iterative process. Students ask questions, find resources to help answer them, then ask more questions as they dig deeper into a topic or consider potential solutions to a problem. Inquiry in PBL might include gaining knowledge from traditional sources of information, but it can also include interviewing people–community members, experts, stakeholders in a problem, or end-users of a product or service–or doing fieldwork, experiments, and data-gathering.


A Process for Generating Student Questions

In PBL, student questions are typically generated right at the launch of a project. On Day One, an entry event or hook engages students and ignites their curiosity. An essential question or driving question is presented (or co-constructed with students), or some projects may be framed by a challenge to do or create something. Then students learn more about the project–its goal, the authentic situation or problem, and the major products to be created (although in some projects students may propose products a bit later in the process, after they’ve learned more about the topic, issue, or problem, and audience).

The project details may be given to students in the form of an “entry document” such as a letter, email message, or request from a guest speaker (live, online, or recorded) that gives students their “mission.” Some teachers hand out a “project sheet” with the details – and in Defined Learning’s online performance tasks the details are provided in the Introduction.

Once students are engaged and have a sense of the project, the teacher provides a structured activity for generating questions, typically on Day One. I’ve seen teachers use a simple prompt such as “What questions do we have?” and go from there. The familiar-to-many “Know-Wonder-Learn” chart works well. A common format in PBL is the “Know/Need to Know” two-column chart–sometimes with a third column for “Next Steps.” That’s the process I’ll describe here.


Tips for Generating Student Questions:

  • Before introducing the project, anticipate what students’ “Need to Know” questions are going to be; create a list yourself. Consider whether the activities in the project launch will generate the questions you think are important at this stage of the project. This will also help you plan ahead for support, resources, and lessons students will need.

  • Use a 3-column chart to record students’ ideas (on chart paper, whiteboard, or digitally). For column headings, write “What do we know?” “What do we need to know?” and “What are our next steps?”

  • Ask students to reflect on the questions, coaching them to think about:
    • What they know about the task and the topic, including prior knowledge they might have about it and any skills they already have that might be useful
    • What they need to learn or what skills they would need in order to answer the driving question, create the products, and successfully complete the project. They might also have questions about the process: will we work in teams, when are the deadlines, who are we presenting to, etc.
    • What next steps they should take to get started on the project: meet with their team and make a plan, find resources, contact experts, etc.

  • Give students time to think individually before meeting in pairs or teams to generate or refine questions and then engaging in a whole-class discussion. This is especially helpful for introverts or those who need time to process their thoughts.

  • List the “Knows” fairly quickly–spend more time on the “Need to Knows.” Make sure the Need to Knows are in the form of a question.

  • Record items in students’ own words; don’t edit them except for clarity. It should be their list, not the teacher’s. Record all suggestions; if a student suggests something that later proves to be irrelevant or unimportant, that’s a good lesson in critical thinking.

  • If you notice students are missing key items for the “Need to Know” list, coach them to add more. Ask questions like, “What about this part of the project…?” or “Do you know what the word ____ means?”

The Know/Need to Know List as a Living Document

Don’t make the PBL rookie mistake of creating a nice Know/Need to Know chart, posting it on the wall, and then forgetting about it. It should be a living document used all during a project. It helps students feel a sense of ownership over the process, connects them back to the entry event and driving question, and marks the progress of their thinking and their work. And it’s key to the iterative nature of the inquiry process.

Tips for Using the Know/Need to Know List Throughout a Project:

  • Keep the chart posted/displayed/accessible to students.
  • Refer to the chart when providing lessons, resources, or doing activities. (“Today we’re going to answer your question about ____ by ____”)
  • Regularly revisit the chart--even every day or two. Check off Need to Knows that have been answered; move them to the “Know” list. This helps students review what they’re learning and see where they need to go next. It can be motivating to see the list of what they know growing and see how their questions are getting deeper.
  • Add new Need to Know questions to the chart as students learn more, get deeper into their research, hear from experts, get feedback, and create products.
  • Ask students to reflect on which questions may not be relevant or necessary after all. Some questions might still be interesting for a “side investigation” if a student wants to pursue it.
Once students gain more experience with PBL, they’ll know what inquiry looks like and welcome it. They’ll be familiar with the process and be able to rattle off need to knows easily. They’ll take ownership and gain a sense of agency–and how rewarding is that for a teacher to see?!



About the Author:  

John Larmer is a project-based learning expert. In his 20 years at the Buck Institute for Education/PBLWorks, he co-developed the model for Gold Standard PBL, authored several books and many blog posts, and contributed to curriculum and professional development. John is now the Senior PBL Advisor at Defined Learning.


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