Questions That Nurture STEM Thinking

Why are productive questions an important part of STEM Experiences?

Research tells us that children learn most when consistently given feedback on performance (Pianta, et al, 2005). Effective feedback focuses on the process of learning NOT simply on getting the right answer. When educators provide specific information about their work, children can reach a deeper understanding of concepts than if they work without feedback. Feedback can also provide the motivation to stay engaged in an experience. Children want to know that their teacher values their work and by providing specific feedback that message becomes clear.

When children give correct answers, teachers have an opportunity to create a learning moment by asking follow-up questions such as “How did you know that?” or “How did you figure that out?”. When children are struggling with a concept or having difficulty formulating an answer, the teacher can provide hints rather than just giving the correct answer or moving onto another student.

Teachers should avoid simply saying “nice job” or “good work”. Children need specific information about why they are correct or incorrect. This not only provides the student with more information, but may help others who were not sure of the correct answer.

Some of the best feedback occurs when teachers ask a series of follow up questions to elicit a deeper understanding from students. After a student responds, ask another question of that student or of the whole class. Keep this conversational “feedback loop” going until you are sure students really understand.

Always be on the lookout for opportunities to provide feedback to students. Walk around the classroom when students are working independently. Take the time to listen and respond in a thoughtful way to what students have to say during group lessons.

When teachers observe children carefully, assess the child and the environment in order to improve learning, ask respectfully, and value the child’s agenda there is an opportunity to promote deeper learning and grow the habits of mind needed in children’s future learning opportunities.

Questions That Nurture STEM Thinking can be downloaded here.


Productive Question

Effects of Question

Examples of Question Stems

Attention Focusing

  • Helps children focus on variables they are overlooking
  • Helps to focus children’s attention on significant details about objects and/or phenomena
  • What do you notice?
  • What is your friend doing with her …?
  • Which one is your friend using?
  • What is happening when …?
  • Did you see what happened when …?
  • Have you seen …?

Measuring and Counting

(Early Mathematics)

  • Assists children in putting variables in relationship to each other
  • Helps children become more precise about their observations
  • How many did you …?
  • How far did …?
  • How fast did …?


(Early Mathematics)

  • Assists children in noticing what is the same and what is different
  • Helps children analyze and classify
  • What is different when you …?
  • What is the same when you …?
  • How is this different from that?


  • Assists a child who seems stumped by giving the answer disguised as a question. Performing the action may help the child to focus on the relevant variables, but without taking away the child’s agency.
  • What happens when you …?


(Never have one right answer)

  • Challenges children to find a way to change a variable
  • Helps children plan and implement solutions to problems
  • Can you find a way to …?
  • Can you find something that …?
  • Can you figure out how to …?
  • How can you …?


(Making predictions and generalizations)

  • Asks children to predict (deductive), which can include guessing or nonverbally choosing one of two possible outcomes


  •  Asks children to generalize from their experiences (inductive), which can be nonverbal as well as verbal

Predict (deductive)

  • What do you think will happen if you …?
  • What will …?
  • What would happen if …?

Generalize (inductive)

  • What have you learned about …?
  • Show me how you …
  • What can you tell me about …?
  • What do you now know about …?
  • What do you now know about what happens when …?


(Causal, only for those children who have demonstrated that they can reason causally)

  • Helps children think about experiences and construct ideas that make sense to them
  • I wonder why …?
  • Do you think …?
  • What is your reason for …?
  • What makes …?





VanMeeteren, B. D. (2022) Investigating light and shadow with young children. Teachers College Press