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Tompkins Cortland Community College

Classroom Application - Pizza Analysis Activity <-- Back to Classroom Applications Page

20 Questions Activity

(Developed for English 101 Academic Writing)



Students share their research topics and generate questions designed to help each other develop a focus for the research paper. After completing this activity, students have made significant progress along the research path and have a renewed interest in their topics, bolstered by their classmates' interest and enthusiasm. Students keep the 20 Questions papers generated by this activity in their research logs (click here to read about the research log). In some cases, students discover that the 20 Questions paper, with revision, is a rough draft of a paper outline! In other cases, students discover that one fascinating question on the paper, generated by a classmate, may end up as a focused, primary research question (and later a thesis) for their papers.

While working on this activity, students will

-- identify meaningful, engaging research questions
-- narrow and/or develop topic ideas
-- identify patterns of inquiry that may help organize the paper
-- understand writing as a discovery process
-- develop an understanding of the importance of audience for the writer
-- appreciate the power of collaborative work
-- develop an interest in their classmates' research projects
-- become part of a learning community

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paper, pencils, pens
topics (students should have a rough idea of a general topic they are interested in researching)

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Give your students the following directions, one step at at time:
1. Write your research topic at the top of a piece of paper. (At this point, students have only a rough idea of the topic they will be researching.)
2. Pass your paper to the student sitting to your right.
3. Read the paper you've just received (from the person on your left) and write down a question about your classmate's topic on you classmate's paper.
4. Pass your classmate's paper on to the student sitting on your right.
5. Repeat this process until the papers have made their way around the room, and you have your own paper back in your hands.


* Remind students that they should read all of the questions generated by their "neighbors" before adding their own questions to a paper. This helps them avoid duplication but also, more importantly, helps them come up with their own meaningful questions.
* Remind students to avoid questions that have "yes/no" answers.
* Join the fun! Become part of the "chain" by adding your own questions to the student papers. This gives you the opportunity to model appropriate questions and to open up lines of inquiry that may steer students toward an engaging research project.
* Keep the atmosphere in the room relaxed. This is a fun activity! Students might need to take stretch breaks during the activity. (Depending on the number of students in the class, this activity may take from thirty minutes to an hour to complete.) In addition, they should be free to move around the room, helping out their classmates if papers begin to pile up in one area of the room. Appropriate music will help create a relaxed atmosphere.
* Make sure everyone ends up with a solid group of questions. If there are any weak papers, facilitate a class brainstorming session to generate more questions.
* Now that students are interested in their classmates' projects (and they will be!), suggest that they help each other by sharing resources and forming study groups.

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When students have their own papers back, give them a few minutes to read through the questions. Then begin a group discussion of the process and results.

Ask how many students ended up with at least one great question about their topic. Then find out how many students ended up with two great questions, with three, and so on. Then ask for volunteers to discuss their questions and how the questions have expanded their thinking about their topics.


For homework, each student answers the following questions (adapted from Stephen Brookfield’s “Classroom Critical Incident Questionnaire” – Adult Learning: An Overview, by Stephen Brookfield)
1. At what moment during this project did you feel most engaged with what was happening?
2. At what moment did you feel most distanced?
3. What about this activity surprised you the most?

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Lisa designed the 20 Questions Activity guided by the three components of our theoretical model:

  • the unique learner
  • the learning-centered environment
  • the construction of meaning.
-- the unique learner -

This activity gets students talking to each other about their projects. The activity was designed with the unique learners' MI (multiple intelligences) strengths/challenges in mind. The process is especially rewarding for students with interpersonal, intrapersonal, and verbal/linguistic strengths. In addition, movement and music are built into the activity. I've noticed students who stay in one spot during the entire activity, content to sit and go through the process methodically, writing down question after question, not interacting with anyone unless it's absolutely necessary. Other students bounce around the room, talking, checking out the progress of the "paper chain" passing papers to students who need them, and, at the same time, developing and writing excellent questions for their classmates' papers. Allowing students to work "their own way" gives them the opportunity to use their individual strengths.

-- the environment-

This activity creates a serious, yet light-hearted and non-threatening atmosphere in the classroom. It's fun! The music and movement help students relax. Also, students often write a few humorous questions on the papers, resulting in chuckles as the paper passes through each student's hands and building anticipation as each student waits his or her turn to read that particular paper. This creates a wonderful opportunity for the instructor to point out how humor can help create an environment that encourages creativity.
This activity is usually done early in the semester, when students may be anxious about interacting with their peers and about their research projects. The process of playing this "20 questions" game helps them get to know their classmates. They are delighted to find that their classmates are such interesting people! Often, when students leave this class session, they are still talking about topics, offering to help each other with resources. This sets the tone for the entire semester; students know this will be a challenging yet collaborative, supportive atmosphere.

-- the construction of individual meaning -
The research paper is an artificial, meaningless requirement of the English Department; that is, unless we can help students construct individual meaning as they develop their projects!
This activity helps move them from thinking about a general topic area (one they're usually not really very interested in even though they have chosen their own topics) to thinking about that same topic (or a new one) with the help of twenty or more other viewpoints/personalities/frames of reference. They begin to realize that their paper will have an audience (their fellow students and the academic community). They realize that their classmates do want answers to the questions they've written on the 20 Questions papers; this research paper they must write will answer questions of interest to their peers! In addition, the dialogue started by the 20 questions activity continues outside of the English classroom, helping students make connections to their own prior knowledge, to other students' research projects, to their other courses, and to the world outside of the college classroom. Furthermore, the reflection activities are designed to help students construct meaning both from the process of the activity and from the results. The reflection activities encourage metacognition.

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