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3 ways to develop students’ questioning skills with Oxplore

Posted By University of Oxford (Oxplore), 06 February 2020
The University of Oxford’s Oxplore website offers free resources to get students thinking about and debating a diverse range of “Big Questions”. Read on for three ways to get started with the platform, shared by Oxplore’s Sarah Wilkin…
Oxplore is a free, educational website from the University of Oxford. As the “Home of Big Questions”, it aims to engage 11- to 18-year-olds with debates and ideas that go beyond what is covered in the classroom. Big Questions tackle complex ideas across a wide range of subjects and draw on the latest research from Oxford. 
Oxplore’s Big Questions reflect the kind of interdisciplinary and critical thinking students undertake at universities like Oxford. Each question is made up of a wide range of resources including: videos, articles, infographics, multiple-choice quizzes, podcasts, glossaries, and suggestions from Oxford faculty members and undergraduates.
Questioning can take many different forms in the classroom and is a skill valued in most subjects. Developing students’ questioning skills can empower them to:
  • Critically engage with a topic by breaking it down into its component parts;
  • Organise their thinking to achieve certain outcomes;
  • Check that they are on track;
  • Pursue knowledge that fascinates them.

Here are three ways Oxplore’s materials can be used to foster questioning and related skills…

1. Investigate what makes a question BIG

A useful starting point can be to get students thinking about what makes a question BIG. This can be done by displaying the Oxplore homepage and encouraging students to create their own definitions of a Big Question:
  • Ask what unites these questions in the way we might approach them and the kinds of responses they would attract.
  • Ask why questions such as “What do you prefer to spread on your toast: jam or marmite?” are not included.
  • Share different types of questions like the range shown below and ask students to categorise them in different ways (e.g. calculable, personal opinion, experimental, low importance, etc.). This could be a quick-fire discussion or a more developed card-sort activity depending on what works best with your students.


2. Answer a Big Question

You could then set students the challenge of answering a Big Question in groups, adopting a research-inspired approach (see image below) whereby they consider:
  • The different viewpoints people could have;
  • How different subjects would offer different ideas;
  • The sources and experts they could ask for help;
  • The sub-questions that would follow;
  • Their group’s opinion.


If you have access to computers, students could use the resources on the Oxplore website to inform their understanding of their assigned Big Question. Alternatively, download and print out a set of our prompt cards, offering facts, statistics, images and definitions taken from the Oxplore site:

Additional resources:

This activity usually encourages a lot of lively debate so you might want to give students the opportunity to report their ideas to the class. One reporter per group, speaking for one minute, can help focus the discussion.

3. Create your own Big Questions

We’ve found that no matter the age group, students love the opportunity to try thinking up their own Big Questions. The chance to be creative and reflect on what truly fascinates them has the appeal factor! Again, you might want to give students the chance to explore the Oxplore site first, to gain some inspiration. Additionally, you could provide word clouds and suggested question formats for those who might need the extra support:
To encourage students to think carefully and evaluate the scope of their Big Question, you could present them with a checklist like the one below: 


Extension activities could include: 

  • Students pitching their Big Question to small groups or the class (Why does it interest them? What subjects could it include? etc);
  • This could feed into a class competition for the most thought-provoking Big Question;
  • Students could conduct a mini research project into their Big Question, which they then compile as a homework report or present to the class at a later stage.

Take it further: join a Big Question debate  

Each term the Oxplore team leads an Oxplore LIVE event. Teachers can tune in with their classes to watch a panel of Oxford academics debating one of the Big Questions. During the event, students have opportunities to send in their own questions for the panel to discuss, plus there are competitions, interactive activities and polls. Engaging with Oxplore LIVE gives students the chance to observe the kinds of thinking, knowledge and questions that academics draw upon when approaching complex topics, and they get to feel part of something beyond the classroom. 

The next Oxplore LIVE event is on Thursday 13 February at 2.00-2:45pm and will focus on our latest Big Question: Is knowledge dangerous? If you and your students would like to take part, simply register here. You can also join the Oxplore mailing list to receive updates on new Big Questions and upcoming events. 

Any questions? Contact the Oxplore team.

Tags:  aspirations  CEIAG  enrichment  independent learning  questioning  research 

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