Build Storylines Using Student Questions

Students Looking at a Microscope with the Text "How to use student questions to build better storylines"If you are implementing NGSS, you are more than likely working towards building better storylines. The best way to do this is to build your storylines around students’ questions. In the beginning, I know that I struggled with this. It was hard for me to relinquish control when it came to questions I wanted to cover throughout the unit. However, when I began using student questions to build storylines, I noticed a shift in student engagement and overall effectiveness of my science lessons.

Even on  it describes storylines by saying, “A storyline is a coherent sequence of lessons, in which each step is driven by students’ questions that arise from their interactions with phenomena.” If you are like I was when first read that, you are probably wondering, “How am I going to do that?” It is hard to think about scenarios where students ask questions one day, and then you provide them with a way to find answers to their questions the next day. The good news is, that there are ways to make the process of building storylines around students’ questions simpler and less intimidating.

#1 Have Really Great Phenomena

It is crucial to have great phenomena when building storylines. They cause students to naturally ask great questions, which you can then use to build storylines around. The most important thing to keep in mind when developing phenomena is to make it relatable to your students. Sometimes, we think something is really interesting as science teachers, but students may not.

A great way to test if a phenomena is relatable is to present it to a close friend or family member first. Then, you can see if it is something other people (non-science teachers) would be interested in, and hear their questions. Not only does this help to see if a phenomena will be relatable, but it also gives you some initial questions to work with. This is especially helpful, because the questions we generate on our own may be more in depth than questions generated by people who have less background knowledge in science. Our students, like our friends and family, more than likely fall into the latter category.

#2 Build Storylines Using Questions

After hearing questions that others may have about the phenomena, you can already start building a general storyline. This just gives you a way to prepare lessons that will help students find answers to questions they will likely have. Then, when you actually present the phenomena to your students, you can record all of your students’ questions as they share them.

A lot of teachers create “driving questions boards” in their classroom as a way to keep track of students’ questions. This can be a bulletin board, a poster board, a digital thing, or even just a page in students’ notebooks. As the unit progresses, students can prioritize and organize which questions to investigate, check off questions that were answered, or record the answers that they have found to those questions (as well as how it relates to the bigger phenomenon under investigation!).

In schools where you are required to have an essential question written on the board each day, this can be really helpful. You may start a unit with questions your family member had, but then be able to change it out for a question your students had. Students love seeing their questions displayed on the board and getting credit for them. It builds student confidence, and lets them know that they had valuable input to the science class.

#3 Leave Spaces in Your Storyline

As mentioned before, many of the questions that students have will be the same as questions presented by a friend or family member (or that you generated yourself). You already have ideas about how to incorporate them into the storyline, and you have been able to prepare for those questions. However, there will likely be questions you didn’t anticipate as well. This is why it is important to leave some spaces in your storyline — so that you can include your students’ questions, without having to completely rewrite your plans. (I like to think of this as preparing storyline pathways, and you can see an example in the first Anchor Experience for the Spark Subscription. Grab your copy, it’s free!)

Another option is to include those questions you didn’t plan for as investigation or extension activities. Many times, we have early finishers who would love to use their class time to delve into their classmates questions. They can come up with, and present to you different proposals for how they can find answers to the questions you haven’t yet planned for. We, of course, don’t want this to be a Google and find the answer type of activity. Instead, students who are more familiar with NGSS can use the practices to discover the answer. Overall, creating pathways as you plan out your storyline creates an openness to dig into students’ questions, while still meeting your objectives.


Building storylines around student questions can seem like a daunting task. By having great phenomenon, having a general storyline already prepared, and by leaving spaces in your storyline with storyline pathways, you can make it much simpler. Essentially, you will see where students’ questions already line up with the storyline that you had anticipated, and you make adjustments as needed to remain responsive to your learner’s needs. Taking these steps will help you to create better storylines that answer your students’ questions, without having to completely rewrite what you have already prepared for your classroom.


Find Out More

Listen to this full podcast episode below, or by going to Apple Podcasts.