Repeatedly Answering Questions That Elicit Inquiry-Based Thinking Improves Writing

By Radhakrishnan, Phanikiran; Schimmack, Ulrich et al. | Journal of Instructional Psychology, September-December 2011 | Go to article overview
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Repeatedly Answering Questions That Elicit Inquiry-Based Thinking Improves Writing


Radhakrishnan, Phanikiran, Schimmack, Ulrich, Lam, Dianne, Journal of Instructional Psychology


Participants engaged in inquiry by practicing how to answer questions about a journal article. Inquiry improves writing by helping one learn more about the topic at hand. Practice improves performance only if learners know how to perform a task accurately (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 1993) and answering questions trains them on the best way to engage in inquiry. We implemented an inquiry-based writing intervention to show that students who repeatedly answered questions wrote better after the intervention than before and when compared to those who did not participate in the intervention.

"Writing today is not a frill for the few, but an essential skill for the many" (The National Commission on Writing, 2003). How should teachers help students significantly develop this skill? Our paper identifies key features that writing activities should have with a field study that was part of an initiative sponsored by a psychology department to improve student writing.

Teaching students how to learn improves how they write (see Graham & Perin, 2007; Hillocks, 1986 for meta-analyses). Learning, or inquiring, about phenomena involves describing, defining, hypothesizing (i.e., argumentation) and deriving generalizations (i.e., analysis; Hillocks, 1982). Such strategies enable understanding phenomena leading to writing improvements (Hillocks, 1986). We designed inquiry-based writing activities and tested whether they improved writing (Hypothesis 1).

We also examined if the way students engaged in inquiry-based writing activities could have an impact. Students answered questions that help them engage in each inquiry-based strategy or followed instructions. For example, a question used to engage argumentation was "What results support Hypothesis X?" whereas an instruction was "Present at least one piece of evidence for Hypothesis X". Further, because these ways (or designs) vary in how much they clarify the demands of each inquiry-based strategy, they should vary in their impact on writing quality. Questions should be more effective than instructions because questions focus students' attention on the relevant features of each strategy, increasing students' understanding of what is required from them in each strategy (Hypothesis 2). Research shows that multiple-choice items framed as questions were less difficult than those framed as non-questions, which were harder to understand (Dudycha & Carpenter, 1973), more confusing and ambiguous (Violato & Marini, 1989). Similarly, Lawson, Bodle, Houlette, and Haubner (2006) show that students learn best when they write answers to questions while viewing educational videos because questions mandate students to think deeply about them.

We also hypothesized that practice should improve writing (Hypothesis 3). Practice improves writing (Johnstone, Ashbaugh, & Warfield, 2002) because it helpsacquire skills needed to do the task and procedures required to execute them (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 1993). Thus, we combined the practice conditions with the different designs of writing activities. Students who answered questions while engaging in each type of inquiry got repeated opportunities to practice whereas those who received instructions got only one opportunity to practice each type of inquiry and those in the control group did not receive any.

We also explored the efficacy of providing students with both instructions and questions. This group, compared to the group that received only questions enabled us to test, in part, the separate effects of instructions and questions. We predicted that repeated opportunities for practice will only improve writing if we provided students with an effective strategy on how to do the writing task well. Giving students questions or providing them with both questions and instructions would teach them the best method to do the task, leading to similar improvements in writing when compared to the group that only received instructions (Hypothesis 4).

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