2 “Burning Questions”

The Role of Conversation and Student-Led Research Topics in Developing Intellectual Curiosity

Wendy Hardenberg

“The opportunity to engage in real discourse with students, where I as a librarian take their ideas and curiosity seriously, allows them to do the same and either use or rediscover the curiosity that should always animate education.”


At Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU), all first-year students take a seminar in their first semester called INQ 101: Intellectual and Creative Inquiry. The course is relatively unique among First-Year Experience (FYE) offerings in that it combines “get to know the university” programming with real intellectual work, whereas many FYE seminars focus fully on one or the other. The main academic component is a semester-long, start-to-finish research project called the First-Year Research and Artistry Experience (FYRE), which passes through crafting a research question, seeking out existing knowledge, and carrying out a chosen methodology before culminating in a conference-style poster. The theme for each section is chosen by its instructor based on their personal expertise and interest, but the students develop their own research questions.

First-Year Experience Librarian

As the FYE librarian, my ability to do my job well has been enhanced by teaching my own section of INQ 101 every fall since 2013. For my first four years, the structure of the course was looser, and I oriented mine around the concept of “transliteracy,” which encompassed reading and talking about different types of literacy, including traditional literacy, information literacy, media literacy, financial literacy, and “college literacy.” When our FYE program moved to the FYRE curriculum in 2017, I retired my transliteracy course in favor of one themed around curiosity. Since I am a librarian, my expertise is much less about any particular subject area and more about a set of skills and attitudes that enable lifelong learning. I had seen many students, both in my own classes and in the library sessions I taught for other instructors, struggle to find true interest and passion in their studies. So, I decided to start the course with having them read a book about curiosity—Brian Grazer’s A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life (2015)—and then guide them toward both cultivating curiosity and aiming it at what they want rather than what I want.

In practice, this has involved many conversations in various modalities and between varying numbers of people. Grazer’s advice-filled semi-memoir is a perfect starting point for college students in their first semester. It has a breezy, oral style of writing, lots of interesting stories from the life of a famous movie producer, and nuggets of wisdom that can immediately be applied to their own lives. As a class, we discuss things like imagining other people’s points of view and allowing our own points of view to be disrupted, how curiosity relates to human connection, and what to do after you realize that you “can’t Google a new idea” (Grazer, 2015, p. 197). Grazer claims to have essentially built his whole life around the concept of “curiosity conversations,” and I ask my students to try them out on people in their own lives. I meet with each student one-on-one at least twice during the semester, once at the beginning and once during advising time, since I serve as their first-semester academic advisor. I have my students discuss class topics in pairs, small groups, and all together, and I also have them do self-reflective writing, some formal (a 500 word “curiosity memoir,” a final “curiosity reflection” paper) which only I respond to, and some informal (blog posts about their curiosity conversations, events they’ve attended on campus, the things they’ve found themselves curious about each month, etc.) which both I and their classmates respond to. All of this serves to create a climate in which students can take themselves and their thoughts seriously and know that others are doing the same.

First-Year Research and Artistry Experience

The FYRE project forms the academic and intellectual heart of INQ 101. Each of my students develops their own “Burning Question,” which is shorthand for a researchable, non-Googleable question that the student really wants to know the answer to, and chooses their own methodology. However, they do so in the context of a FYRE group whose members share an overarching topic chosen by consensus. At every step they’re encouraged to use their curiosity and care about their work. Some students enjoy the project more than others, of course, but it is remarkable to see what every student can accomplish. Most importantly, they all learn a lot about research and long-term projects, even if it’s what not to do next time. I also have them write a letter of advice to next year’s class at the end—common themes include time management and procrastination, collaboration and communication, making sure to pick an interesting topic, and asking for help. FYRE is truly an experience for these students.

From the perspective of the Hilton C. Buley Library instruction program, the implementation of FYRE across all sections of INQ 101 completely transformed the one-shot library session that I had spent years building into a required piece of the course. I began in 2011 with approximately 75% of the INQ 101 sections visiting the library, each one representing negotiation and relationship-building with the instructor, who may not have previously envisioned any kind of research project in their syllabus. Once FYRE reached full swing, 100% participation was easy to achieve and the negotiations were nearly non-existent, because the connection to library resources was now so transparent. As far as my workload was concerned, I no longer had to customize worksheets for every class since we were all engaged in the same project, and I could also post the worksheet online for students to use rather printing hard copies for everyone. The greatest revolution, though, has been that the “one-shot” session has become part of a continuum of research that stretches the whole semester, a steppingstone instead of an island. I don’t have to worry about trying to do everything anymore—the library session is, rightly, just a small piece.

INQ 101 library sessions begin with a very brief tour of the library building and services, but then allow students to complete the INQ 101 FYRE Library Assignment at their own pace with the assistance of a LibGuide (https://libguides.southernct.edu/fyre), plus the librarian, the professor, and sometimes the peer mentor. I recently had some heartening outside validation of my constructivist approach. Though I schedule all the sessions, meet with all the new faculty members, and teach as many of the sessions as I can, realistically I have to get some help from my colleagues. I walk those volunteers through the lesson plan and let them observe me teaching one or more sessions, but old habits die hard. So, I was teaching a session for an instructor who by luck of the draw had always previously had one of my colleagues teach her session. It turns out that in the past my colleague would spend time going through the worksheet with the whole class, which led to students tuning out before they reached the second page where they’re supposed to record the sources that they find. Indeed, though at first glance it might seem to be more efficient to speak to the whole class at once, efficiency for the librarian does not necessarily translate into students truly grasping the activity they’re being asked to engage in. My version—with students all working at their own pace and asking the same questions over and over and chatting with their neighbors—looked significantly more chaotic, but the instructor told me that the students all advanced much further through the assignment on their own than they did when they were walked through it.

While many INQ 101 instructors have stricter parameters on the topics and research questions their students can work on than I do in my own class, I still do my best to spark intellectual curiosity in each library session. In fact, after another recent session, the instructor—unprompted—noted with approval what he called my “light tone” and habit of kneeling next to students or hopping up on desks to chat about their questions, because he thought it was more engaging for them. It certainly helps that the class is called “Intellectual and Creative Inquiry,” and it’s also helpful that the FYRE project refers to students’ research questions as “Burning Questions,” because it really sets the right mood. Though I am often called over to answer basic procedural questions (“where do I click to find this?”), even those can evolve into a real conversation with the student, during which I honestly want to know their thoughts and the student, in turn, finds their way to articulating them.

Unsurprisingly, I find that my views resonate significantly with those presented in Veronica Arellano Douglas and Joanna Gadsby’s article “The Power of Presence: One-Shots, Relational Teaching, and Instruction Librarianship” (2022). They apply Harriet L. Schwartz’s concept of Connected Teaching to librarianship, not defending one-shot library sessions, but nevertheless identifying them as an opportunity for students and library educators to develop relationships, with all the positive effects that can result from that. As they note, “[w]e can take the time we have to tackle assumptions and uncover needs” (Arellano Douglas & Gadsby, 2022, p. 809), responding directly to what students are asking for in the moment, showing them that they, their thoughts, and their development matter. Arellano Douglas and Gadsby also quote Schwartz on the subject of when students feel that they matter, “describing ‘interactions as important not only when a professor complimented their work but also when they sensed that their ideas or work were important to the professor’” (Arellano Douglas & Gadsby, 2022, p. 811). This can be extended to teaching librarians, especially when students are able to have those one-on-one interactions that wouldn’t be possible in a classroom led entirely from the podium. I recently had a student ask me, after I told him his Burning Question was very interesting, if I really meant it—he’d heard the same thing from his professor and others as well, and it mattered to him whether we were just saying that or not. This is referred to as “intellectual mattering” by Schwartz (Arellano Douglas & Gadsby, 2022, p. 811), and I believe it is a prerequisite to any pedagogy that wishes to foster intellectual curiosity.

Intellectual mattering shows up in the INQ 101 library session classroom in a number of ways. One of the most prominent, of course, is talking students through using their curiosity to improve their Burning Questions. Sometimes they need help finding an angle on the class theme that resonates with them. This tends to come up when a student has no ideas written down at all. I will ask them what they’re interested in, just as a person, which then allows me to make a suggestion that fits their professor’s requirements while taking into account the student’s own preferences. As an example, during one recent INQ 101 library session, I was walking around the room, on the lookout for raised hands and glancing at the students’ computer screens to see how they were doing. They had already had more than half an hour to work on the assignment, and I noticed a student hadn’t typed anything on his worksheet at all. I asked how he was doing and sat down in the chair next to him to chat about where he was with his Burning Question. The answer turned out to be nowhere—he hadn’t been able to think of a single thing to work on thus far. When I asked what he was interested in, after much thought he finally said, “food.” I then asked what it was about food that interested him, and he eventually came up with “food and culture.” Since most of his classmates were asking questions that had to do with SCSU, I suggested that he might look into how SCSU students from different cultural backgrounds feel about the food options on campus. Upon hearing this, he perked up and started typing. We talked a little bit about what his methodology beyond the library research might look like, and the fact that he likely wouldn’t be able to find anything about SCSU specifically among the library resources, but that he might be able to find research about food and culture at other colleges. I also told him that I was excited for him and the interesting things he could find out. I may not ever get to see where that student’s research goes or whether the little spark I saw will properly catch fire, but I was still able to help him shape some rather inchoate ideas into something usable that had the potential to feed his intellectual curiosity.

Sometimes a student has, in fact, come up with a question, but it’s one that they feel like they “have to” use and have no attachment to. Those students are delighted when I talk them through discarding such a question in favor of one they’re actually interested in. In a session a few years ago, I spoke to a young woman whose excitement was palpable when she learned that asking a question about the Marvel Cinematic Universe was entirely legitimate. I believe that validating students’ interests as proper avenues for research is a key component in helping them open up to intellectual curiosity, so they can use the tools we teach them on something that is wholly their own. It also happens that students are at first too ambitious in their question, which can often be the case for students whose interests lie in the hard sciences. These students need to have a conversation about the art of the possible—like a student I spoke to recently who wanted to look at how consuming different macromolecules affects the body. She was disappointed, but she understood when I explained that she wouldn’t have access to a lab during this class to do that kind of work, but that in the future she’d be able to study all the macromolecules she wanted. She was able to redirect her focus toward how college students understand nutrition, while still knowing that her original idea was perfectly valid, just temporarily unmanageable.

Sometimes the student has already identified what it is they want to research, but they’re struggling with the wording of their Burning Question. Those are some of the most rewarding conversations—where the student explains to me what it is they want to know, and I suggest possible formulations that could work as research questions. Many get very excited when I point out that the forbidden “yes/no” question they’re currently asking can be instantly improved just by adding the phrase “to what extent” at the beginning. I spoke to a student who started with something like, “What in the present-day world decides what is ‘cool’ or ‘not cool’?” I asked him about what exactly he meant by “present-day world” and who might be affected by messages regarding “coolness.” We arrived at, “How does social media drive what is ‘cool’ or ‘not cool’ for young adults in the United States?”, which he was very pleased with. Another student started out by asking, “Did you feel forced to get the COVID-19 vaccine?” After a conversation about who “you” might be and what she wanted to do with her research, we came up with, “To what extent did students and employees at SCSU feel coerced into getting vaccinated against COVID-19?” Finally, I talked to a student who had written down, “What should I do as an undergrad in order to get into dental school?” but wasn’t satisfied with it. I talked to her about choosing an aspect of her identity that she could research in relation to dentistry, and after thought and discussion we struck on, “How welcome do Latinas feel in dentistry?” Partnering with students in this way—letting them take the lead on the content of their research and providing assistance only on the finer aspects that take time to develop—gives them ownership over the experience and affirms them as intellectual beings. It also lets them have just enough knowledge to stay curious and pursue their chosen topics.

Beyond the heady conversations that surround Burning Questions are more routine but equally important conversations that advance students’ understanding of how the library functions and how it factors into their work. A conversation that comes up with virtually every student in the classroom is the difference between a topic and a subject area. The worksheet (see Appendices at the end of the chapter) asks students to find the librarian for their major as well as their FYRE project subject area. Nearly all students initially list the subject as either the topic of their question or the theme of their section of INQ 101. They then discover that there isn’t, for example, a “happiness” librarian, so we determine the subject of their question together. Perhaps it’s concerned with what’s going on in people’s heads, so it might be a psychology question. Perhaps it’s focused on college students, so it might be an education question. This (hopefully) gets them thinking about the fact that you can look at any question from different perspectives, and they get to choose how they want to approach it. This can begin to broaden their minds, and it also lets them know that there are librarians for anything they might study in their college career, not just their major.

Another conversation that I probably should have with nearly every student, though not all of them ask, is about primary and secondary sources for their FYRE project subject area. Even students who feel very confident that they know the difference between a primary and a secondary source are often drawing on the history definition that they learned in high school. Since Burning Questions tend to skew very heavily toward the social sciences, the history definition is rarely useful for what they’re doing. So, first I help them navigate to the Different Types of Sources guide. I then quickly point out the generic definition on the homepage before directing them to the appropriate tab at the top where there are examples for almost all the different majors. I read the examples of a primary and secondary source for their FYRE project subject area aloud to them—each consists of a short description above a citation and link to the actual source in question—and then I ask, “What do you think is the difference between those two things?” Occasionally they’ll confidently and correctly tell me right away, but more often there will be a pause… sometimes a very long one. I wait out that pause, and I listen to whatever the student has to say next. If they’re really unsure, I’ll ask more leading questions, such as, “Who writes a research article? Who writes a newspaper article?” Frequently they’ll find their way to articulating the difference in a way that I wouldn’t have used, but which is still substantially correct, and I tell them that’s what they should write on their worksheet to answer the question. Certainly not every student comes out of this conversation with a full understanding of primary and secondary sources, but they have a much better chance, and they also get an opportunity to practice on the sources that they find later on, because in the box for each source it asks, “Primary or secondary source? How do you know?”

One more conversation that comes up for the vast majority of students is about the Search Strategy Builder. A fantastic tool originally developed by the University of Arizona Libraries, the Search Strategy Builder (https://libguides.southernct.edu/c.php?g=700711&p=4971712#s-lg-box-17597342) helps students break their questions into keywords and synonyms, and then puts them together into a proper Boolean search without the students having to know exactly how that works. In the days before FYRE, it was way too much to teach any aspect of search strategy in the INQ 101 one-shot, but during FYRE’s pilot phase, I noticed that students’ questions on the Library Session Reflection had shifted, and they were suddenly concerned about how to search “better” or “correctly.” Some students will brainstorm keywords and synonyms and then notice that they need the Search Strategy Builder, others will ask about the Search Strategy Builder before starting on keywords at all, and still others will ask about SouthernSearch (Buley Library’s branding of the Primo discovery service) and try to skip search strategy entirely. These last ones I will always gently steer back to the Search Strategy Builder along with their classmates, explaining that they need to fill in at least some of the boxes, click the button to create a search string, paste it on their worksheet so they remember what they did, and only then click into SouthernSearch to try it out. I insist on this to make sure that students know they have options that don’t include simply typing their entire natural language question into a search box—that approach may work sometimes, but those times diminish significantly the further they get in their education. It’s always fun to help students look at their Burning Questions to identify keywords and ponder synonyms, but it’s also very important that they get to bang around trying things on their own. First, so they have a better chance of remembering how it works; second, so they can have the experience of getting frustrated in a place where there’s someone ready to swoop in to talk to them about what they’ve done so far and how they might be able to move forward; and third, so they have the freedom to follow their own curiosity.

Naturally, these strategies for nudging students toward curiosity don’t work for everyone—some remain resolutely disengaged, or they accept a modified version of their question without internalizing how it has changed. On the other hand, some of them really latch on and produce amazing and passionate work. I am proud to see the students’ hard work exhibited at the program-wide FYRE Day in December. When I see a “to what extent” question, I know that I’m seeing a student who took what I had to offer and ran with it.


The opportunity to engage in real discourse with students, where I as a librarian take their ideas and curiosity seriously, allows them to do the same and either use or rediscover the curiosity that should always animate education. In her article “Investigating Nontraditional First-Year Students’ Epistemic Curiosity during the Research Process: An Exploratory, Mixed-Methods Study” (2022), Michelle Keba Knecht found that “librarians and professors should create opportunities for students to select research topics to which they have a personal connection to pique the students’ curiosity and encourage them to dig deeper into the research on their topic” (p. 883) and that “[t]he results of this study imply that there is a statistically significant relationship between epistemic curiosity and information literacy self-efficacy” (p. 882). Though SCSU’s first-year class consists almost entirely of students starting college right after high school, they come from very diverse backgrounds, including large populations of first-generation students, students of color, and Pell-eligible students. Students from marginalized backgrounds have even more need of librarians’ and professors’ “guidance and support [to help] alleviate those feelings [of anxiety and frustration]” (Knecht, 2022, p. 882) that may arise as they begin learning how to do college-level research. I feel strongly that the FYRE curriculum, including the library session, provides our students a solid foundation on which to build their intellectual curiosity and the relationships to make it meaningful.


Arellano Douglas, V., & Gadsby, J. (2022). The power of presence: One-shots, relational teaching, and instruction librarianship. College & Research Libraries, 83(5), 807–818. doi: https://doi.org/10.5860/crl.83.5.807

Grazer, B., & Fishman, C. (2015). A curious mind: The secret to a bigger life. Simon & Schuster.

Knecht, M. K. (2022). Investigating nontraditional first-year students’ epistemic curiosity during the research process: An exploratory, mixed-methods study. College & Research Libraries, 83(6), 874–886. doi: https://doi.org/10.5860/crl.83.6.874


Thank you to Nicole Henderson and Brian Johnson, who developed the FYRE curriculum at SCSU, and to Naomi Toftness, whose idea for a source grid based on “permaculture,” shared at the 2017 Connecticut Information Literacy Conference, I adapted for the INQ 101 FYRE Library Assignment.



Appendix 1.

Appendix 2.

About the Author

Wendy Hardenberg holds a dual MLS/MA in Comparative Literature from Indiana University-Bloomington and has been the Instruction Coordinator for Buley Library at Southern Connecticut State University since 2011. She is also the librarian for the First-Year Experience Program, the Honors College, Interdisciplinary Studies, Music, and Philosophy, and she has taught her own section of the first-year seminar course every fall since 2013, in addition to 50+ library sessions for all the other sections. Despite occasional forays into library science, her creative activity typically consists of literary translation from French, with her translations having been published by or forthcoming with AmazonCrossing, Asymptote, Columbia Journal, HarperCollins, One Sentence Poems, Orison Books, Tupelo Quarterly, Twirl Books, and others. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut.

Wendy can be reached at Hardenbergw1@southernct.edu 


Share This Book