Inquiry Story - Tim Stokes

Tim StokesTim Stokes, Earth Sciences

Using Metaquestions

There are various ways to use meta-questions for courses.  For example, in a geology course on Climate Change a meta-question was developed to provide a way of encapsulating all of the course and be somewhat provocative.  It was included in the course design, and discussed during the first day of class.  The students were asked to provide initial feedback and their thoughts to the question. A simple and quick survey was done and the results recorded.  The question was:


“Are we as a collective society able to solve the climate change problem, 

or is it potentially the end of humanity?’


The question was re-examined during discussions and activities at various stages in the course, and was used to drive a major project in the course that was to examine and research solutions to climate change.  At the end of the course the question was discussed on the last day of class and an effort was made to refine the meta-question, in such a way that it satisfied the students overall views and outcomes of the course.  The question was refined to  


“Is the climate change problem the end of humanity, or is it an opportunity for us, as a collective society, to provide sound and sustainable solutions to this problem, making the world a better place and environment for us all to live in?”


As can be seen from the final question, the students took a somewhat provocative question and turned it into a more rationale and comprehensive question that emphasized what they had learnt during the course.


As another example, meta-questions were developed for each of the five units on a course in Environmental Geology.  These were introduced near the end of the course and students were given the opportunity to evaluate and refine them based on their learning.  The intent again was not to provide specific answers, but rather utilize the questions as a way of encapsulating the key findings or outcomes for each of the units.  Some of the unit questions are listed as follows:

  • Unit #1 - Are we able to solve, most if not, all problems in environmental geology?
  • Unit #2 – How would you evaluate risks associated with unstable slopes in our region?
  • Unit #3 – What factors might influence the shaking intensity of an earthquake in our city?
  • Unit #4 – Are there any potential contaminants of concern to our water resources?
  • Unit #5 – Are management strategies for domestic waste in our region sustainable?


These questions were a useful way to reflect on the course content covered and students well allowed to modify and expand on them to better reflect more what they had learned.   


In conclusion, it was found that introducing meta-question early on in course was much more effective than presenting them later in the course.  However, both provide good ways for student to reflect on what they had learnt and experienced.

Backward Design

Backward design is based on the premise that the first focus of developing a course starts with the identification of the final product or output, rather than choosing the methods of teaching or assessment.  In this case, the meta-question was used as part of backward design for GEOL 412 a Climate Change course.  On the first day of class, along with the meta-question, the students were introduced to their final research project involving an investigation into the solutions of the climate change problem. Students worked in three research-themed teams covering: climate change solutions for carbon capture and storage, alternative energies and geo-engineering. Within each team, students identified their own aspect of research. Students were also asked to include an experiential component to their research such as: a survey, a site visit or a simple experiment.  During the term students were required to complete various milestones for the project and check-ins were used to assess their progress.  Typically, a research project like this would have been introduced later in the term, after students had gathered some knowledge of the course content.  It was intended that by using this inversion, students would be continually collecting ideas and incorporating their understanding of course content into their research; thereby creating a more focused and coherent final product.  Overall, this backward design approach appeared to be a success in terms of the final product produced – a well delivered team presentation and insightful individual research papers.  Having students prepare and submit a draft for marking two weeks prior to the end of term, and then allowing them to refine the marked draft, also added to the success of this work.  

A backward design approach was also used for GEOL 312 an Environmental Geology, but done a little differently and with less fore-thought.  The end goal of a class research project/activity was initially identified - how to develop an educational board game on natural hazards.  The specific of how to achieve this product were not given, other than some details as to what it might include.  This project then gradually evolved into two deliverables, a scientific poster and the board game, to be presented at VIU’s Create Event – an end of term student centered research event.  Students we asked to develop these products in tandem - utilizing concepts that they had gathered and learned about during the term.   Students were required to utilize various concepts, synthesize them and finally apply them to teach others.  The incorporation of the board game into the project added another dimension rather than just creating a research poster.  In this case, the backward design evolved from the project rather than been apparent at the start.  Nevertheless, this project was a significant success with the students winning 2nd prize in the competition.


Tim Stokes is a professor and the chair of the Earth Science department.

He experimented with the Meta-questions and Backwards Design.

He applied these concepts primarily to one course in the Fall 2016 "GEOL 412: Climate Change: Past Present and Future", and in a slightly different format to a course in the Spring 2017 – GEOL 312: Environmental Geology.

Two aspects of ‘Structured Inquiry’ were incorporated into his Earth Science course on climate change: a “meta-question” and elements of “backward design.”

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