Inquiry: Keeping track of who’s curious about what

I thought that skills-based grading generated a lot of data — so much that I couldn’t have done it without a subscription to a specially-designed software product.  I thought that cam-scanning their work to enable instant feedback generated a lot of data, and it did — I filled an 8GB memory stick this semester.  But that only kept track of which parts of my discipline’s “canon” my students knew or didn’t know.

This semester, I also needed to keep track of what they thought instead.  Also, what they were curious about.  What they had researched, what they had succeeded in adding to the model, and what they wanted to know about next.  The better I did at keeping track of this for each student, the better I was able to give feedback and ask questions that related to what they thought about, hadn’t noticed yet, or cared about.  When I finally wrestled the data into submission (about 3 weeks before the end of the term), it was in a spreadsheet and looked like this.

Click through for a bigger version

The far left column contains the questions.  I keep track of who asked them, when, and why they seemed significant.  If that question gets answered, I’ll fill in who proposed the answer, the date it was accepted, and the exact wording as accepted by the class.  See all the little Xs on the right?  I try to notice which themes are popular, and tag a question with an X for as many categories as it seems to belong to.  In the far right column, I can mark the question as active or inactive (if it has been answered, or the class has done some housecleaning and deemed it no longer relevant).

I like this approach because it requires much less work to set up than even a simple database, and works fine if I only need to make very simple queries.  For example, I can sort on the “Asked by” column to find all the questions asked by a particular student, by the date to get a chronology, by a particular topic (such as “batteries”), or by which questions are still in play.  If I want to get fancy, I can sort by “Active” and “Asked on” to find the question that’s been outstanding the longest (I think it’s “can atoms touch.”  That one nearly started a fist fight).

I try to keep the wording as faithful as possible to the way the student asked it (I can tack some notes into the blank columns at the far right if I think I will need to remind myself what they mean.  My most significant mistake at first was not keeping track of the context in which the question arose.  Significance is on the back burner of my students’ minds, but very much on the front burner of mine.


  1. Mylene,
    I really like this idea. Did you make this document public to your students? If so, was it read only, or could they edit and comment? It seems to me that a slightly prettier/more interactive version of this that could easily allow for links to evidence and connections between questions could be a really tool for almost any class.

    • Hm — you’ve got me thinking. Yes, it was public. It started as a way for me to stop interrupting their conversation — I busied myself writing down everything they said. Then I realized that being a secretary for the class was a pretty useful role. At the beginning of each week I handed out updated copies of our “model” so far, with the list of questions at the end. Students didn’t have access to the electronic copy, but told me what to add to it. Eventually I realized they needed to be keeping their own records, and stopped handing it out, but kept updating it.

      Collective editing… a single wiki page could do that, I would think (and keep archives in case something got accidentally deleted). Links to evidence — excellent idea. Since all of our evidence is either submitted as an electronic document or cam-scanned, electronic copies exist of everything.

      Right now it is infeasible to use this in class. There is only one computer in most classrooms, and it takes over 5 min. to boot and log in. Wi-fi coverage is spotty and times out every few minutes, requiring you to log in all over again. I certainly wouldn’t object to students adding to it outside of class… though that seems less useful. Even Sharepoint (normally the bane of my existence) might be able to handle it.

      I am so ready for 1:1 computers. Tablets, actually — I want every one of my students to have one of these. (As soon as our wi-fi coverage actually works, of course).

  2. […] A classroom structure in which student thinking and their ideas become part of the substance of the course, such that students are authors (not just consumers) of content. We might think of classrooms similar to the ones depicted by David Hammer in “Discovery Learning and Discovery Teaching“,  those being pursued by Leslie Atkins through Student-Generated Scientific Inquiry, or over by Mylene at Shifting Phases. […]

  3. Note: the spreadsheet of student questions and ideas has turned into a mind-map. It’s faster to navigate and easier to see connections, plus we use it in class to point to evidence that supports/contradicts new ideas.

    A public version (with students’ names removed) is available, or check out this post for an example of how we use it in class.

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