Inquiry-Based Tutoring: The Art of Asking Questions

By Robin Marks, Founder of Discovery Street Science

The idea of inquiry is to draw in students by having them do investigations, solve problems, and share their solutions and findings with others. Central to that idea is also the notion that we educators don’t spout facts; we prompt questions and encourage learners to devise ways to seek answers.

Many science students I see are rather frustrated by inquiry. They want a teacher to just tell them the answer, which, of course, isn’t the best pedagogy. But a student who’s too frustrated by not getting the answer is likely to eventually say, “I don’t get science at all. I hate it.”  

That’s not a mindset we want students to stay in. Most of the time their issue isn’t that they can’t figure out the answers; it’s that they lack the skills to ask the questions that will lead them there—or the confidence to believe they can ask.

Asking questions is an art, and like any art, it’s a rather personal pursuit. Everyone asks similar questions in a different way, and takes different routes to the same answer. As tutors, we have the opportunity to get inside our student’s thought processes, to see how each one, in his or her unique way, devises his or her own queries. And we can employ that understanding as we model the art of asking questions for them.

For example, bio students are always perplexed by meiosis (the rather confusing process by which sperm and eggs are formed). That perplexed state can be a great opening for a tutor, because the student is asking, “What the @!*#$ is going on?” They’re already asking a question! To help them quell their frustration, I might use a diagram to ask a student what they notice or what labels they would put on it. Or I might tell them to back up and ask why sex cells would have to go through a different kind of cell division than ordinary cells. I might ask them to tell me what they DO understand about it, or what seems most confusing.

Each of these things I could ask represents a different approach to answering the question “What the @!*#$ is going on?” And each student will find some of them more useful than others. Part of my job as an educator is understanding what types of questions work best for each student, and helping them develop the habit of using those questions to tackle problems.

That habit will pay off for them long after they’ve forgotten everything they learned about meiosis. My goal is not only to help a students through a high school science course, but also to help them understand how they learn and how they find answers, so that they can take apart in the bigger problems and questions that life throws at them.

Robin Marks is the founder of Discovery Street Science, an education and communications venture. She gets her geek on by writing science curricula, creating multimedia, tutoring high school students, leading walking tours, and being Science Trivia Mistress. Learn more about her tutoring and other endeavors at