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Research to Practice

Don't Take No for an Answer: Questioning as a Self-Advocacy Tool for Transition Students

The NCTN Research to Practice Briefs are designed to disseminate emerging college transition research from a variety of sources in a user-friendly format.

Submitted by
Andy Nash and Cynthia Zafft
World Education, Inc.


While there is a considerable amount of research on what colleges can do to help new students persist (U.S. Department of Education, National Postsecondary Education Cooperative, 2006), it is difficult to take the primary responsibility for navigating the college environment off the shoulders of the students themselves, especially in the first few days. It is important that students come to college with strategies to advocate for themselves in what will be a new and perplexing environment.

This brief discusses two educational strategies developed by the Right Question Project and adapts them for use with students who are preparing for college. It is designed to help students develop effective questioning techniques so they can advocate for their needs, particularly in situations where others are in control.

Here are two common examples of situations college students may face on their first day of class:

  • Renette is a mother of two who has spent a fair amount of time and energy arranging childcare so that she can take an early-morning English class at her community college before going on to work. On the first day of class, she finds a note on the classroom door that says her class is cancelled. When Renette goes to the Registrar’s Office, she is told that not enough students signed up for the section so they had to cancel it. She leaves the campus, unsure what to do.
  • Felix has received a financial aid package that includes money for his books. The funds will not be released until the end of the add-drop period, which occurs after the third day of class. Felix is already behind in reading assignments and will have the first quiz of the semester before he is able to purchase his books. His professor suggests that classmates might share their books, but most students are reluctant since they need their books to study, too.

What We Know from Research

Most research on student questioning strategies focuses on training students to ask “good questions” in the classroom (e.g., procedural prompts or evaluation checklists for a reading in an English class) (Ciardiello, 1998). The Right Question Project (RQP) is different in that it focuses on helping adults develop and practice questioning skills for use outside the classroom, including the ability to ask questions that are designed to improve decision-making.

About The Right Question Project

The RQP began in the 1990s with work on a dropout prevention program in Lawrence, MA, funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Parents in the program were not participating in their children’s education because they “didn’t even know what to ask.” The RQP found that in order to ask the “right question” about a given decision or policy, it was necessary to understand three things:

  • The reasons for the decision
  • The process for making the decision
  • The role one can play in the decision-making process

The RQP techniques have been studied in at least two other areas besides parental involvement in schools: health care and civic engagement. Connecting these methods to adult education settings would appear to be a natural fit.
(See for more on outcomes in this area.)

The strategies of the RQP have been adapted for use in health care settings to “teach clients how to identify important issues, formulate questions, and devise plans to communicate and act in effective ways to address factors impacting their care” (Alegria, Polo, Normand, Gao, Train & Rothstein, 2006). In a study of mental health services, two clinics that serve primarily Latino patients were used as study sites, with one clinic’s patients (105 participants) making up the “intervention group” while the other clinic’s patients (85 participants) served as the “control” or “comparison group.” Findings indicated that the RQP intervention taught skills that enabled clients to better elicit information from their providers about their condition, their treatment options, medication side effects, duration of treatment and management of their condition. Client “activation and engagement” was found to be two to three times higher among individuals receiving the training as compared to the control group. Other scholars in this area conducted a randomized study that found that practice and role play increased the effect of the questioning strategies.

The effectiveness of the RQP Voter Engagement Strategy for Election Day and Beyond was studied using data from an RQP pilot project with adult education students in Arizona and New Hampshire in 2004. Results from that study, conducted as part of graduate student’s coursework at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, found that 93% of the students felt better prepared to vote, and 87% said they were much more likely to vote. Similar results were found in Maine (Maine Citizenship Education Task Force, 2007). Further studies in this area have been funded for the 2008 election cycle.

The Right Question Tools

The RQP educational strategy has two major components: The Question Formulation Technique and a Framework for Accountable Decision-Making. By learning to use these tools, participants begin to expect accountable decision-making.

The Question Formulation Technique stresses “formulating” rather than “asking” questions because formulating questions requires people to think carefully about what they need or want to know and why they want to know it. The process begins by having learners select an issue that is of concern to them, after which they follow the following steps:

  1. Brainstorming: In this first step, participants think of as many questions as they can about the issue. By brainstorming questions rather than ideas, they start to come up with questions without stopping to analyze, explain or answer them. This step allows participants to get more comfortable with the formulation of questions, to get beyond the initial set of emotionally loaded questions, and to hear different perspectives without entering into a discussion. All the questions are recorded exactly as formulated, validating the learner’s input and instilling a new confidence in their ability to participate. Once brainstorming is completed, participants learn how to distinguish between closed and open-ended questions, discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each, and consider which to use depending on the kind of information they are seeking.
  2. Prioritizing: Participants prioritize their questions and, by analyzing them, select the top three questions that they want to pursue further. They then choose one of those top three to focus on. This step provides an opportunity for discussion and assessment of the different issues that have surfaced.
  3. Branching-off: Once participants choose the question they want to focus on, they are asked to “branch off” that question and brainstorm more questions about it. This helps them discover how to ask questions that will get the answers they need and to discover new questions they want answered.
  4. Prioritize again: Finally, participants prioritize again from their list of branched-off questions and then choose the three they want to get answered first. Now they are ready to work together to design an action plan for getting their questions answered.

Going through the steps sequentially engages people in a critical thinking process that deepens their ability to think independently and enables them to discover new understanding of the issues that they are concerned about.
The Framework for Accountable Decision-Making helps learners use their question formulation skills to probe a particular decision and decide on what actions they need to take by focusing on the following factors:

  • The basis for the decision (Are the reasons legitimate? Are they based on law or official policies?)
  • The process for making the decision (Are the who, what, when, where, and how transparent to all?)
  • The role one can play in the decision-making process (What are the opportunities for participation?)

Moving through this questioning process builds self-advocacy, decision-making, and other skills that support accountability and democracy.

Introducing the Right Question Process to Educators or Students

The Right Question process is a simple educational method that helps build self-advocacy and decision-making skills. Originally developed to help parents advocate for the children, it has been effectively applied to many other contexts in which people want to understand and participate in the decisions that affect them. In preparing for college, transitioning students can use this process to help them navigate the plethora of new systems and procedures they are likely to encounter, as well as advocate for themselves to get their needs met. The following activity introduces the practice to educators who work with transitioning students:

Part I
1. In small groups, brainstorm the people or institutions that make decisions that affect the transitions of your students.
2. Select one decision-maker that feels important to all of you and then list some of the decisions they make.
3. Pick one decision that is important to everyone in your group.
4. Brainstorm questions you would ask the decision-maker about that decision if he or she were present.
5. As a group, identify the three most important questions, and be prepared to say why you chose them.
6. Pair up with another table and share the decision-maker you identified and the prioritized questions you would ask him or her, explaining which questions were picked and why.

Part II
1. Invite a few volunteers to share their thoughts about the activity in Part I or about the decisions and questions chosen.
2. Describe the step of narrowing down the questions to the three most important.
3. Discuss what makes a ”good” question (some possible answers: is usually open-ended; is answerable; is followed up; focuses on the decision-making process, not just the result, etc.).
4. Discuss when it might be most effective to ask an open-ended question as opposed to a closed (yes/no) question.
5. Discuss why it is important to focus on questions as opposed to making statements or demands.
6. Talk about how this process can be useful for adult students (for college transitions and other purposes)?

Lessons from the Field

Let’s return to one of our original scenarios – Renette and her cancelled English class. When transition students were asked to brainstorm questions that they would ask the decision-maker (the Registrar, not just the assistant at the Registrar’s window), here is what they came up with:

  • “Why didn’t you tell Renette before the first day of school?”
  • “How can you expect students to change their babysitting plans at the last moment?”
  • “Aren’t there other students who are working who need to take early classes?”
  • “If you cancel early morning classes, how will you ever get enough students to fill them?”
  • “If students have to go to work during the day, how can they stay at the school to make changes at the last minute?”
  • “How come the academic advisor didn’t tell Renette the class might be cancelled?”
  • “Do all the early morning classes usually get cancelled?”
  • “Don’t you care about students?”
  • “Do you always cancel a class if there aren’t enough students on the first day?”

Since Renette had to go on to work and didn’t have time to ask the questions right away, in person, the students then thought about how to get answers by phone or email. They decided that important questions—questions that would influence decision-makers—would probably need to be asked face-to-face. They also decided to stay away from questions that would make the Registrar defensive—for example, the question “Don’t you care about students?” Instead, they focused their branching-off activity on Renette’s needs (“How can you expect students to change their babysitting plans at the last moment?”) and the college’s reputation for serving nontraditional students. Their final three questions were:

  1. “How can I get into a class that meets my needs this semester?”
  2. “Since I have limited time on campus, how can I be most successful at getting help for any last-minute changes?”
  3. “How can you insure that students who work with advisors will have a plan they can rely on?”

In the end, Renette did talk with the Registrar and found out that she needed to take up the issue with the dean for the English department. After hearing the details, the dean decided to re-open the section, call the original students to see if they were still interested in the section, and send an email to faculty with waiting lists. If there weren’t sufficient students by the end of the Add/Drop period, Renette would move to a hybrid online/face-to-face English class with flexible meeting times.

Some Tips for Student Self-Advocacy in Postsecondary Education

  • Come prepared with your questions, whenever possible.
  • Plan ahead, but plan to think on your feet, too.
  • Get a personalized answer to your question, one that responds to your situation.
  • Restate the response/answer you heard to check for accuracy.
  • Get the name of the person you talk with.
  • Get the name of the point person for your question. Deans can sometimes work around rules that others can’t.
  • Take answers to your question(s) “under advisement” and take some time to decide whether you have a true solution to your question or problem.
  • If the decision-making process feels too rushed…it is. Try to buy some time.
  • Always develop a great Plan B (and Plan C), in case, for example, childcare doesn’t materialize for the hours you need, transportation is a problem, etc.
  • Enlist college personnel to help you weigh choices and resources at your institution. Ask, “What are the pluses and minuses of doing it the way you suggest?”
  • Find out about additional resources that might be able to help you. Ask, “Are there other departments, offices, or people that could help me with this issue?”


Findings in adult education studies demonstrate that many students depart their programs during the first three weeks of class (Quigley, 2007). Similar results are found in postsecondary education, particularly among those schools that open their doors widest to nontraditional learners: public community colleges (U.S Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2003). Yet, some of the surveys developed to help community college leaders understand new students’ experiences, such as the Survey of Entering Student Engagement (SENSE), do not begin to collect data until the fourth or fifth week of class (Center for Community College Student Engagement, 2007). This means that the voices of students who leave or withdraw in those very first weeks are not likely to be heard.

Students need to be able to effectively advocate for themselves in the college environment, especially in those critical first few days, and this often means asking questions that draw out the information needed for effective decision-making. The RQP techniques provide an opportunity to learn and practice those skills.


Alegria, M., Polo, A., Normand, S., Gao, S., Train, S., & Rothstein, D. (2006, November). Evaluation results of a patient activation and empowerment intervention in mental health care. Paper presented at the 134th Annual Meeting of the American Public Health Association, Boston.

Center for Community College Student Engagement. (2007). Starting right: A first look at engaging entering students, 2007 finding [PowerPoint Presentation]. Retrieved January 28, 2009 from here.

Ciardiello, A.V. (1998). Did you ask a good question today? Alternative cognitive and metacognitive strategies. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 42(3), 210-219.

Maine Citizenship Education Task Force. (2007). Better Questions, Better Decisions Voter Education Initiative. Retrieved January 28, 2009 from here.

Quigley, B.A. (1998). The first three weeks: A critical time for motivation. Focus on Basics, 2(A). Retrieved January 28, 2009 from here.

U.S. Department of Education, National Postsecondary Education Cooperative (NPEC). (2006). NPEC National Symposium on Postsecondary Student Success: Commissioned papers. Available on January 28, 2009 at here.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2003). Community college students: Goals, academic preparation, and outcomes (NCES 2003-164). Retrieved January 28, 2009 from here.

Harvard Family Research Project. (2000). The Right Question Project: Capacity building to achieve large-scale sustainable impact.Retrieved January 28, 2009 from here.


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