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Challenge Questions
A Central Tool for Student Learning

Sample Challenge Question
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Challenge Questions and Assessment
As students move through the year of study, they build knowledge about the changing seasons and how these changes affect the entire web of life. Student responses to Challenge Questions help you assess their thinking, gains, and gaps, and their ability to draw from past knowledge as they build new understandings.

Cathie Plaehn, a 5th grade teacher in Wisconsin and member of Journey North's Teacher-Advisory Board, shares these tips for using Challenge Questions as a tool for assessment.

Journey North provides a series of Challenge Questions throughout all of the migrations and seasonal events that are tracked. These questions are posed as part of Journey North News updates. Students are invited to respond online and share their thoughts with the entire Journey North community. In subsequent updates, they learn how peers and scientists answered the questions.

Challenge Questions are based on authentic observations and data, and are posed at key points throughout each season. Because of this, the questions are very relevant to the students' work and learning. Challenge Questions ask students to:

  • dig into and try to make sense of data
  • puzzle out math, science, or mapping challenges
  • reflect on Journey North experiences
  • think creatively or make personal connections to material

The questions, which are often open-ended, model good inquiry-based science because they spark the kind of thinking and reasoning that scientists use in their work. They offer students examples of the types of questions they should be asking themselves.

Challenge Questions and Science Journals
There are many ways to address Journey North Challenge Questions, and journaling is an excellent way for students to begin the process. Many teachers use journals as a tool for ongoing assessment of student progress. (See Science Inquiry Journals in our Assessment section.)
Journals also provide an excellent opportunity for teachers to function as facilitators of student learning. Here are some tips:
  • Allow students time to explore the question in their science journals before before discussing their answers with one another. Encourage them to write about or be prepared to explain the thinking behind their responses or answers.
  • Use journals as a way to communicate with students as they try to "think through" challenge questions and related concepts. You might, for instance, routinely collect journals and write questions and comments directly on pages, or share these during a discussion with each student.

Teachers as Facilitators of Student Learning
Challenge Questions provide an excellent opportunity for teachers to function as coaches or facilitators of student learning. Holly Cerrulo, a 7th Grade teacher in Massachusetts explains:

"A single Challenge Question will get your students thinking in ways they rarely do during the entire school year. If you did just one Challenge Question — and nothing else — you'd experience what I mean.

Our entire class enjoyed the question about why owls nest in February, when it's so cold outside. As a class, we all shared our ideas for possible reasons. Now remember, I didn't know the answer even though I'm 'the teacher.' But this is what I love, this is where Journey North comes through. The discussion of the question comes the next week, so you don't have to know the answer — you learn right along with the students. And what's so great is that we could see that each of us had part of the answer in our thinking. As a class, we'd put our minds together and come up with ideas none of us — including the teacher — could have alone. Throughout the year, the students' understanding of nature grows, so you can as the thinking they exhibit in answering questions builds, they're making connections."

Learning From Mistakes
It is important to allow students the freedom to make mistakes. Some of the greatest scientific discoveries were the result of experiments that "failed." Encourage students to critically review their investigations and conclusions. Suggest activities or investigations that challenge them to further explore their ideas and test hypotheses.

Dealing With "Wrong" Answers
How do you address student answers, theories, explanations, or conclusions that are "incorrect"? How do you deal with student misconceptions? Think about the strategies you use when you encounter these situations. You might want to discuss this challenge with other teachers and share your successful techniques. Try to find alternatives to simply correcting students; instead, use
strategies that encourage critical thinking:
  • Reword or clarify a question.
  • Ask a student to explain the process he/she used to find the answer.
  • Have the student provide data that supports the answer.
  • Give students a chance to revisit data and check what they think against what they see.
  • Facilitate a group discussion in which classmates explore, challenge, and build on one another's ideas.
  • Invite students to conduct hands-on research to explore and test their theories and explanations.

Please Share Your Thoughts!
We hope you'll find ways to incorporate Journey North Challenge Questions into your own teaching this spring. As always, if you have ideas or suggestions you'd like to share please contact us: Feedback Form