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One of the basic skills in my introductory United States History course that students often struggle with is asking scholarly questions. They usually understand that things like “who,” “what,” “where,” and “when” aren’t sufficiently scholarly or higher-level questions to ask, but they often assume that beginning a question with “why” or “how” means it will automatically rise to the level required in our course.

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My first order of business, then, is to help them understand that the key to good scholarship is a good question—a scholarly question. We sometimes discuss how fictive detectives such as Sherlock Holmes and Benoit Blanc use a simple foundational query to form more complex lines of questioning based on types of logic. Other times, great research questions come to scholars as they’re reading or thinking of an entirely unrelated topic. Even these seemingly “aha!” moments are the result of training the mind to think like a scholar—to ask scholarly questions.

One of the ways I teach this is by assigning podcasts from historians who model this kind of questioning in their discussions. Another is by asking them to perform the task themselves using JSTOR Daily syllabi and roundups. The remainder of this article includes the specifics of this assignment—the instructions, rubric, and an example. Instructors are encouraged to modify the assignment to fit the needs of their course and student needs.

Scholarly Questions Assignment


Every day, scholars ask questions to help guide their work. But how do we know the difference between a normal question and a “scholarly” one? Often, when we think about asking questions in school and for research, we start with the basics:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • Why?
  • How?

These questions can be a great place to start when it comes to finding basic information. But when we want to dive deeper into the kinds of questions that scholars ask, we need to broaden our approach a little bit. Here are some characteristics of scholarly questions.

Scholarly questions:

  • Make connections across time, place, or circumstances.
  • Attempt to challenge or confirm previously held assumptions.
  • Ask us to look at the way we view concepts already accepted as “fact.”

Here are some examples:

Instead of…. Try…
“Why is the United States so obsessed with boats starting wars?” “What weight does the attack on US naval vessels carry in comparison to other factors in determining declarations of war over time?”
“How many people in the United States believe climate change is a problem? “Do people who reject climate change science reject all science-based logic, or do they compartmentalize specific beliefs over others?”
“Why is there so much violence in some parts of the country and not others?” “If crime is measured in different ways by different agencies across the nation, how can we gain a clear understanding of ideas like ‘violent crime’?”


1. Read at least three articles from one of the syllabi below:

2. In separate bullet points, identify three specific things that you learned, found interesting, or that contradicted your previously held knowledge/beliefs. These should be explained (specifically) in no less than three sentences each. This is not simply an account of what the article says—don’t plagiarize the article (or ask AI to summarize it!).

3. Write two scholarly questions that you want to ask as a result of reading the articles or that you wish you could ask the authors. The questions can refer to something from one article specifically, or they can make connections across multiple articles.

4.  Identify which syllabus you used in the title of your assignment. For any specific quotes or paraphrases, cite the article title in parentheses.

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