How to develop Critical Thinking Questions

How to Develop Critical Thinking Questions for expanding your research abilities

Thinking as Asking
Critical thinking in reading is like critical thinking elsewhere. Its purpose is to get us involved in a dialogue with the ideas we hear in class so that we can summarize, analyze, hypothesize, and evaluate the ideas we encounter. The practice of critical thinking is probably not new to you, but you might be unsure of how to apply it to academic work in a strategic way, the most important thing to know about critical thinking is that it is, like reading is, a skill that can be developed and mastered with time and practice.

If you have used the strategy of discovering what organizational format your reading has used you are in a good place to start. If you have been practicing asking questions about the material you are reading, especially questions that analyze, hypothesize, or evaluate, then you are also in a very good position to think critically. And, if you have discovered some of the central ideas in the readings you have done, you can begin thinking critically. The key here is to remember that you are already doing some critical reading and that perhaps the most powerful thing you can do in furthering your abilities in this area is to become conscious in your application of a variety of questions to whatever you read. Even if you cannot always readily answer the questions you develop, you are beginning to think in a way which gets beyond there being just right and wrong answers, which gets beyond you memorizing answers to the questions somebody else makes up. In fact, you are engaging in the practice, which is often one of the primary goals of a university education: you are practicing thinking.

But What Are the Questions?

So, if one of the best things you can do to develop your ability to think critically is to become conscious of applying a series of questions to whatever you read, then what are some of these questions? The expert answer is that the questions that are important to ask will become evident from the structure of the material you are reading. This, of course, prompts us to ask, "How do the materials provide the questions?" Well, we've already seen a basic form of this where we translate headings into questions to establish our purpose for reading. Earlier, too, we talked about how the reading we do can be described as belonging to one or more organizational forms such as description of a process, compare and contrast, and so on. If you have been able to tune into the way a reading is organized (and, therefore, into what is likely the author's purpose), then developing questions is really not all that hard. It helps to have a list of possible questions that are applicable in a wide variety of circumstances to get you started. And, soon, you will develop specific questions for yourself either as a result of how you are interpreting the material or as a result of other questions you have asked.

While there are a limitless number of possible questions to ask, it is possible to categorize the questions you come up with into categories that represent the level of thinking the questions make you do.

For example, the question "What is SQ3R?" asks for a definition for a specific term. The thinking you do to answer that question is summarizing or defining.
  By contrast, the question "What are the steps involved in the SQ3R reading strategy?" asks you to analyze a concept and discuss its component parts. The thinking involved in answering this question is analysis.
  If we were in class together, our professor might say "What would happen if you applied SQ3R to your own course readings?" The professor is asking us to think about things hypothetically, based on our present level of understanding. This kind of question is called a hypothesis question. The kind of thinking involved with answering it has to do with extending our existing knowledge in an attempt to figure out what might happen in a certain situation, real or fictitious.
  Finally, we could (and might very well) ask, "How helpful is this strategy, anyway?" This last question demands that we answer with an opinion or a judgment. It asks that we be critical (either supportive or not). To answer the question we may require more information than we presently have at hand, but the question requires that we perform evaluation.
The four levels of questions, then, summary/definition, analysis, hypothesis, and evaluation, roughly capture the variety of questions that we can ask. The purpose of developing these categories is to give us a rough guide so that we can choose what questions to ask for the level of thinking that we want to do. Below are listed some example question frames in each of the question type categories. Question frames are questions with the concepts taken out of them. In place of the concepts are gaps for us to fill with the concepts we are immediately concerned with. In this way, questions frames become general and very portable, allowing you to apply them in a variety of contexts. For example, our evaluation question above ("How helpful is this strategy, anyway?") looks like this in its general form: "How helpful is ... anyway?" Get the idea?

Summary and Definition Questions

What is (are)...?
  How much...?
  How many...?
  What is an example of...?

Analysis Questions

  What are the reasons for...?
  What the types of...?
  What are the functions of...?
  What is the process of...?
  What other examples of...?
  What are the causes/ results of...?
  What is the relationship between ...and.?
  What is the similarity or difference between... and.?
  How does ...apply to...?
  What is (are) the problems or conflicts or issues...?
  What are possible solutions/ resolutions to these problems or conflicts or issues...?
  What is the main argument or thesis of...?
  How is this argument developed...?
  What evidence or proof or support is offered...?
  What are other theories arguments from other authors...?

Hypothesis Questions

If...occurs, then what happens...?
  If ...had happened, then what would be different...?
  What does theory x predict will happen...?

Evaluation Questions

Is. Good or bad...?
  ...Correct or incorrect...?
  ...Effective or ineffective...?
  ...Relevant or irrelevant...?
  ...Clear or unclear...?
  ...Logical or illogical...?
  ...Applicable or not applicable...?
  ...Proven or not proven...?
  ...Ethical or unethical...?
  What are the advantages or disadvantages of...?
  What are the pros or cons of...?
  What is the best solution to the problem / conflict / issue...?
  What should or should not happen...?
  •Do I agree or disagree...?
  What is my opinion...?
  What is my support for my opinion...?

It is important to stress that these questions should not simply be memorized. Instead, they should be learned gradually through application to your course work. Remember, too, that all these questions are not necessarily applicable in all situations calling for certain levels of thinking. These questions are provided as a guide to thinking critically. It is perhaps best to view these lists in the same way a carpenter views a tool box: all the necessary tools are in there, but I have to know which tool to use for which job.

Example Application of Question Frames

As an example, return to our (rather difficult) passage from J.S. Mill's On Liberty or if you like, choose a reading you are doing for a course right now. As you read through the passage, see if you can apply a few of the questions from each list. You needn't be able to answer the question right now; just get a feel for how the question frames can be applied. Given that you are called upon to think critically --which really means to think at all these levels -- about those things you read and ideas you hear in lectures, it will be worth your while to learn how to ask questions at different levels of thinking. (And for situations where you know you've read the material but still don't get it, these questions can help you to articulate your difficulties in the form of in-class questions for discussion.)

On Liberty John Stuart Mill, 1859

...The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties or the moral coercion of public opinion. The principle is, that the sole end for which mankind is warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will is to prevent harm to others. His own well, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. There are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he does otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part, which merely concerns him, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Some example questions:

Summary/ Definition:

What is J.S. Mill basically saying here?
  What is meant by "harm to others"?
  What does "remonstrating" mean?

Analysis Questions:

Why does Mill say what he says?
  How do Mill's ideas relate to the time period he's in?
  What evidence or reasons does Mill use to support his ideas?
  How do Mill's views relate to those of his contemporaries?
  How does On Liberty fit into the course at this point?

Hypothesis Questions:

How might Mill's ideas be different if he were writing today?
  What if we applied this to a discussion of suicide?

Evaluation Questions:

Do I agree with J.S. Mill?
  Is Mill persuasive in his discussion of Liberty? Why?
  What would be the advantages of adopting Mill's views?

Applying a list of question frames to your work is really only the beginning of critical thinking. As you progress through your major area(s) of study and become a more critical thinker, it will become easier to ask questions that are directly applicable to your work. This is partly the development of awareness about the kinds of question your professors will be asking and partly the development of awareness about your discipline and how students (and professors) in that discipline are trained to think