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Jen Hoyer
May 10, 2018

Brooklyn Connections is the education outreach program in the Brooklyn Collection. It focuses on cultivating 21st Century learning skills in students and supporting teachers on the incorporation of archives materials into curricula. This blog post is part of a series from the Brooklyn Connections team, sharing skills and ideas for using archives primary source material in the classroom.

Our big question is: How can we ask questions to help us with our research?

Get Ready

Asking good research questions is an important part of the research process. We love to explore how primary sources can act as a prompt for creating good research questions.

Before you start this activity, think about where it would fit best into your students’ research on a topic:

  • Do you plan to teach a lesson about asking research questions near the start of your study of a topic? In that case, this lesson can be tailored to help students gain a basic understanding of the topic; you may want to include both a primary source as well as a secondary source reading in the initial materials students look at.
  • Will this lesson be scheduled after students have already had a good introduction to the subject? In that case, they can use this time to ask questions that will help them focus on more specific details or sub-topics related to the broader research topic.

Get Started

Ask your students to think about and offer suggestions on one or both of the following prompts:

  • How can asking questions help us with our research?
  • How can our questions guide our research project?

Discuss with students how asking questions allows us to understand what we don’t yet know, and how our questions can help us focus on areas of our research topic that are especially interesting to us.

Dig In

It’s time to pull out the primary sources!

If your students have already spent time investigating primary sources about their topic – maybe with an Observations and Inferences activity, and a lesson on using maps – this is a great moment to pull those back out, refresh our memories on what we’ve looked at, and start asking questions about what we’d like to know.

For students who haven’t yet had an opportunity to dive into the topic, or students at a lower level , introducing one primary source – maybe a photograph – can be a more feasible way to start off with this activity. You might want to search for historic photographs from the Brooklyn Collection on our website.

Introduce two types of questions for doing research: Guiding Questions and Essential Questions

  • A Guiding Question helps us identify key facts that we want to know; it leads us closer to the real heart of our research. These questions are often closed (they have a yes/no answer), and they are usually easy to answer – we can probably find an answer in one source. Guiding questions often start with words such as WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, HOW MANY, and WHY IS.
  • An Essential Question is a question that makes you think and search for information; it will take time to find an answer. An essential question should be open ended, and it might have multiple possible answers depending on the perspective or argument that is being made.


Ask the students to look at their primary sources and write out a series of Guiding Questions. I like to provide a worksheet with several sentence stems for them to complete, like in this example:

Now let’s turn these into Essential Questions. Referring back to our primary source (or, sources), and thinking about the Guiding Questions we created, how could we turn our questions into Essential Questions?

I like to provide students with a set of words for making questions more complex. Our favorite words for increasing the complexity of a question are:

  • Cause
  • Effect
  • Compare
  • Impact
  • Change
  • Influence

We can ask students to adjust three or four of their Guiding Questions with these words to make Essential Questions:


This may be a good point to wrap the activity up with your students. Or, for higher level students, you could continue the conversation to ask: what makes a good research question? What is a research question?

A research question is the Big Question that guides all of our work; it is clear, focused, and arguable.

After discussing what it means for a question to be clear, focused, and arguable, encourage students to choose one of their Essential Questions and look at it to evaluate whether it meets this criteria. Students could swap with a neighbor and provide suggestions to their peers on how to improve their questions.


  • This activity could be done with a set of primary sources that are familiar or unfamiliar to the students, depending on their comfort level with new material.
  • This activity could substitute a secondary source reading instead of a primary source, as a way to provide more facts up front.
  • For more advanced groups, students could be required to refine and reflect on their questions more, and could also be required to incorporate prior base knowledge into the questions they create.
  • Similarly, when conducting this activity after students have already begun the research process for their topic, a more focused questioning activity can be designed to incorporate more prior research.

Outcomes and Assessment

Generally, the focus of this activity is to ask questions, not to achieve “correctness”. For younger students, work should be evaluated on whether they have correctly formulated questions – including placement of question marks at the end. For more advanced students, work can be evaluated based on students’ ability to reflect on their initial questions and refine them.

This post is the fifth in an ongoing series. Read the other posts in the series: What's a Primary Source?, Observations and InferencesMaps and AtlasesUsing the Internet to Find Primary Sources Online, Citing Sources, Notetaking Skills, and How can we do research with political cartoons?

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