More Critical Thinking Questions

Before you read this, you might want to read:  Step One:  Challenge Your Thinking.

This post comes right from UC Davis  — another useful critical thinking resource: 

Stumped for intelligent questions to provoke your writing glands? Feast your word processor on these, and generate some text, customizing them to your subject matter and topic as you go along. Then print out your responses, mix and match, and repeat. You’ll be amazed at how fast you can generate better-quality raw materials this way.

  1. What is the purpose, goal, or point?
  2. What is the problem or issue being solved or described?
  3. On what data or evidence is the decision / definition / problem based?
  4. What inferences are being made from what kind of data, and are these inferences legitimate?
  5. What is the solution, outcome, or resolution of the problem or issue?
  6. What are the short-term and long-term implications of the solution / consequences of the outcome?
  7. What are the biases or assumptions behind the inferences, selection or collection of data, or framing of the problem / experiment?
  8. What are the basic concepts or terms being used? How do these definitions affect the framing / understanding of the problem?
  9. What point of view is being expressed? What political / ideological / paradigmatic considerations inform or govern or limit point of view?
  10. How would someone from a related but different discipline look at the problem / solution / issue, and could an interdisciplinary approach improve the analysis / discussion / evaluation?

* * *

Once you reword these questions to fit the particular situation you are examining, they will encourage you to:

  • brainstorm more effectively
  • see beneath the surface
  • understand alternative viewpoints
  • avoid being unduly influenced by what others say
  • decide what you think and why
  • defend and adapt your positions intelligently.


Before You Teach Students to Write…

1. Teach them how to think

  • Ask each student to find a difficult-to-understand article from mainstream media and bring it into class:  Usually, such articles are poorly written. Reassure them that if they read something–in or out of school–that they don’t understand it may well be that the piece doesn’t make sense.
  • Ask “What’s your point?    Encourage students to listen for the main point when people speak and to look for the main point in written works. Ask them to assess whether and how well that point is supported. 
  • Encourage them to challenge you (politely) if they do not understand the point you are trying to make.  Then on occasion, be intentionally unclear when you give directions or explain a concept.  If no one challenges you, tell them poor listening and no questions is likely to affect their class participation grade. 
  • Offer them extra credit if they bring in two examples of an illogical argument or unsupported point on Cable TV news or in Op Ed columns.
  • Encourage logic over speed of response. Encourage them to practice saying, “Let me think about that for a minute,” and then mentally draft a short, logical argument in response to a tough question. Better this approach than to blurt out a thoughtless answer which may more easily be contradicted.

 2.  Ask Better Questions: 

 Better questions lead to better writing.  If you ask a student merely to summarize a passage, they will simply paraphrase what they have read without thinking much about what the passage means.  Instead, think of better questions to get them to start thinking. 

 1.  Encourage students to develop their own questions:  When they read literature, history, science, even Math, encourage them to develop “higher order” thinking questions.  (Why, What if, How…)  And, as, suggests, have them share views and ask:  Is there a different question we should be asking ourselves?  What other questions do we need to answer before we can answer this one? In other words, get students to think about the quality of questions they ask and are being asked.

 2.  Encourage in-class debates:  Divide students into groups and have them choose an issue (from a list that you provide) of topics they do not all agree about.   Have the opposing side present their arguments and then have the class evaluate them:

  •  What is the main point?
  • What is the evidence that backs up the main point?
  • How well can the speaker refute the arguments of his opponent?
  • On the basis of these questions, who won?

This is a wonderful exercise with which to introduce persuasive essays.   After the in-class debate, have the members of each group write on the topic of another group.

 3.  When reading books or stories, focus on purpose

  • Why did the author write this story?
  • What was he trying to accomplish?
  • Did he succeed?
  • What is the main point of the story?
  • Why does main character have the traits he has?
  • Is there anything that seems unrealistic or exaggerated in the story?  Why do you think the author exaggerated that way?
  • Is the story’s lesson obsolete now?  What have we learned as humans since it was written?
  • Does the author have a view of the world that is different from yours?  How so?  Is your view better? Why? Is her view better? Why?  Are you both justified in thinking about the world the way you do?  Why?

 4.  Explore the “what if”

  • What if Atticus Finch had been an angry, loud mouthed and opinionated man?  How would that have changed the story and affected the story’s message?
  • What if America never used nuclear weapons in WWII?  Would we be a different and safer world today?

 5.  Foster unobvious connections

  • How is The Paradise of the Blind like The Great Gatsby?

 3.  Pique their Interest Research shows that students write more easily when they can write about topics that interest them. A great way to get classroom writing started on a positive note is to begin the year with an “introductions” survey.   Ask your students to tell you their favorite subject, their hobbies and interests, what books they have read lately, what their favorite movies and TV shows are – you get the idea.  You will get much better answers if the survey is anonymous. Then, develop a list of thoughtful questions based on the survey results.   For instance, if a few students tell you that they play xbox every day, you might ask:  Are video games a help or a hindrance to teenage social life?”

 Your first assignment will be to have them select a topic from the list and write about it.  Don’t grade this one – hold onto it!

 At the end of the year, when their writing is oh so improved, let them write a second draft of that essay as their final writing project.

Step One: Challenge Your Own Thinking

If we want our students to be better writers, we need to challenge them to be better thinkers.  But how do we do that?  To begin with, we have to clarify our own thinking.  The following strategies are adapted from a great online resource:**


1. Clarify Your Thinking
Be on the look-out for fuzzy thinking. Try to figure out the real meaning of what people are saying.  When people explain things to you, summarize in your own words what you think they said. When you cannot do this to their satisfaction, you don’t really understand what they said. When they cannot summarize what you have said to your satisfaction, they don’t really understand what you said. Try it. See what happens.Strategies for Clarifying Your Thinking

  • State one point at a time  
  • Elaborate on what you mean  
  • Give examples that connect your thoughts to life experiences  
  • Use analogies and metaphors to help people connect your ideas to a variety of things they already understand (for example, critical thinking is like an onion. There are many layers to it. Just when you think you have it basically figured out, you realize there is another layer, and then another, and another and another and on and on)

Here is One Format You Can Use

  • I think . . . (state your main point)  
  • In other words . . . (elaborate your main point)  
  • For example . . . (give an example of your main point)  
  • To give you an analogy . . . (give an illustration of your main point)

To Clarify Other People’s Thinking,
Consider Asking the Following

  • Can you restate your point in other words? I didn’t understand you. 
  • Can you give an example? 
  • Let me tell you what I understand you to be saying. Did I understand you correctly?

2. Stick to the Point

Be on the look out for fragmented thinking, thinking that leaps about with no logical connections.
Ask These Questions to Make Sure
Thinking is Focused on What is Relevant

  • Am I focused on the main point? 
  • How is this connected? How is that?  
  • Does my information directly relate to the main point? 
  • How can I make it relate to the main point?  

3. Question Questions

Be on the look out for questions. The ones we ask. The ones we fail to ask. Listen to how people question, when they question, when they fail to question

Strategies for Formulating More Powerful Questions

  • Whenever you don’t understand something, ask a question of clarification. 
  • Whenever you are dealing with a complex problem, formulate the question you are trying to answer in several different ways (being as precise as you can) until you hit upon the way that best addresses the problem at hand. 
  • Whenever you plan to discuss an important issue or problem, write out in advance the most significant questions you think need to be addressed in the discussion. Be ready to change the main question, but once made clear, help those in the discussion stick to the question, making sure the dialogue builds toward an answer that makes sense.

Questions You Can Ask to Discipline Your Thinking

  • What precise question are we trying to answer? 
  • Is that the best question to ask in this situation? 
  • Is there a more important question we should be addressing? 
  • Is there a question we should answer before we attempt to answer this question? 
  • What information do we need to answer the question? 
  • What conclusions seem justified in light of the facts? 
  • What is our point of view? Do we need to consider another? 
  • Is there another way to look at the question? 
  • What are some related questions we need to consider? 

4. Be Reasonable:  Good thinkers want to change their thinking when they discover better thinking.

** And specifically, from:  Elder, L. and Paul, R. (2004). Adapted from The Thinker’s Guide to the Art of Strategic Thinking: 25 Weeks to Better Thinking and Better Living.