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How Good Are These Questions?

How Good Are These Questions?


Classes which focus on inquiry frequently require students to identify a question they want to answer and then go about answering it. However, not all questions are created equal. Often, students need guidance and practice identifying the kinds of questions that are worthy of formal inquiry.

The activity

In this exercise, students are given some sample questions and asked to evaluate them according to given criteria. Using small groups for this exercise can make the process more collaborative and enjoyable.

Provide students with some sample questions of varying quality relevant to your course theme. For example, "Why do some children apparently become violent after watching violent cartoons while others seem to be unaffected?"

Then ask students to rate the question on a 1 - 10 scale for each of the following criteria:

  • INTERESTING: the question is both relevant to the course theme and personally significant and compelling to the asker
  • ANALYTICAL: the question leads to answers that cannot be descriptive but require balanced consideration of evidence and opinions. (Often we asked students to ask "Why" questions)
  • PROBLEMATIC: the question is based in a contradiction, puzzle or dilemma
  • COMPLEX: the question has more than one realistic possible answer
  • IMPORTANT: the question is either publicly argued (controversial) or its answer would have some real effect on the world
  • GENUINE: the question is something that the asker really wants to answer but presently cannot, as opposed to a question which the asker assumes the answer to and wants to prove
  • RESEARCHABLE: there is evidence that pertains to it (as opposed to, for example, "Why does God not answer prayers?")

In follow-up discussion, explore differences in ratings that students gave to each question, and how the question might be improved to become a question more

From Justice, C., Rice, J., Warry, W., Inglis, S. Miller, S. and Shannon, S. (2007), Inquiry in higher education: Reflections and directions on course design and teaching methods. Innovative Higher Education, 31(4). 201-214.

Framing this activity for success

We all want students to carry our teachings into their lives. Often, however, we must make our intentions very plain for students to understand that an assignment will equip them with skills and empower them, and is not an arbitrary hoop through which they must jump.

For this reason, frame each activity using these four steps:

  1. Introduce the activity by making clear the specific critical thinking skill the assignment will give them practice using. They may not understand the precise definition of the term, so provide it in writing on the board or overhead. (As a reminder, definitions are here.)
  2. Share examples of how this skill can serve them in their daily lives (e.g., guiding them to buy better products, improving their performance in other classes, advancing their career, communicating better with people they care about, better understanding their own experiences, etc.).
  3. Conduct the activity as described above, making it as active and interactive as possible. When students can talk about their thinking, that thinking moves forward. Teaching for critical thinking is teaching for active learning.
  4. Conclude the activity by reflecting back to students examples that you saw of them using the critical thinking skill effectively, and reminding them to consider the relevance of that skill in other aspects of their. Repeating the examples given in Step 2 may be appropriate, as students will have a different understanding of the skill once they have experienced the assignment.

Important: Wait Five Seconds!

Among the most useful things we as teachers can do during class discussion is shut our mouths. In an oft-cited meta-analysis of wait-time research, Tobin (1987) described findings of greater engagement and achievement when teachers waited at least three to five seconds after asking a discussion question before speaking again. Above this threshold, higher level thinking was observed and student academic performance improved. However, teachers behaving "normally" only tend to wait about one second. Students need a few moments to digest what they have recently heard, formulate their responses, and work up the courage to speak. Slow down, and more of your students will keep up with you.

Reference: Tobin, K. (1987). The role of wait time in higher cognitive level learning. Review of Educational Research, 57, 1: 69-95.