Asking the right critical thinking questions is one of the best ways to access the deeper learning processes in students. However, it is often difficult to know what the right questions to ask are. More traditional educational theories model the teacher/student relationship as one wherein the students ask questions and the teachers answer. However, most contemporary theories agree that a teacher is meant to guide the discovery of a student, and this involves asking the right questions. Instead of thinking of education as a process of filling a bucket, it is more helpful to think of it as building a tower. Instead of providing something that was previously absent, teachers are responsible for furnishing the tools that a student will use to build his or her own knowledge. This is known as the constructive theory of education and it relies on teachers asking proper critical thinking questions.

Thinking About Thinking

To continue with the analogy of learning as building, critical thinking is one of the best tools that a student has. This specific type of thinking actively engages students with what they are studying by asking them to examine not only the content itself, but how they themselves are thinking about the content. In this way, critical thinking strategies are centered on concepts of metacognition, or thinking about thinking. The only way that a student can become a better thinker is through the assessment of the processes in which they are already engaged. Students must examine how they solved a problem in order to discover whether or not there is a better or more efficient way of doing so.

The metacognitive aspects of critical thinking demand a certain level of questioning. In this way, thinking about thinking can equally be thought of as questioning our thinking. It is the process of understanding how or why we have reached a certain conclusion with an eye towards improvement. Critical thinking is aimed at thinking better, but the only way this can be achieved is through questioning current thought processes.

Thinking as Questioning

Therefore, teachers can initiate the process of critical thinking by asking students questions that require self-reflection. The purpose here is to “prime the well,” so to speak. Once students have started down the road of reflective analysis, the hope is that they will continue to self-reflect of their own accord. Thus students will begin to develop the cognitive skills that not only allow them to succeed in one particular discipline, but that can carry over to all aspects of their lives. It is this kind of critical thinking that Socrates referred to when speaking of the “examined life.” By examining one’s own thinking it is possible to find any faults and correct them.

As such, here are some critical thinking questions that will encourage students to self-reflect:

  • What makes this the best strategy for accomplishing this goal?
  • What steps did you use to solve this problem?
  • Why do you think the author was making that point?
  • Is there a way to solve this equation using fewer steps?
  • What does this text make you think of?
  • Have you ever had any experiences similar to the protagonist? Antagonist?
  • How did you reach this conclusion?
  • What assumptions do you have about the content of this text?
  • How did you develop your hypothesis?
  • What has the author left out?
  • What is this author’s implicit bias?
  • How does our culture affect our understanding of ancient cultures? Foreign cultures?

When developing critical thinking questions, it is important to ask questions that provoke thinking by moving beyond right and wrong answers. Students must learn to provide evaluative responses and their evidence or reasoning that supports or justifies their responses.