Critical thinking: Who’s asking the questions?

During the last few months I have been reading a considerable amount of literature on critical thinking. Although I’ve reviewed theoretical perspectives and research on the topic to gain a deeper and broader understanding, I have focused my attention mostly on pedagogical strategies that teachers can initiate in their classrooms to promote the critical thinking skills of their students. In the article Critical thinking: Why is it so hard to teach? Willingham (2007) argues that due to lack of scientific rigor, there is not strong support for many of the critical thinking programs that have been developed to help students to be better critical thinkers. However, from my review of the literature I believe that there is good research based on sound theoretical principles of learning that support effective pedagogical strategies that focus on various ways to use questions to promote deeper critical thinking skills among students. These questioning strategies have been shown to help students become more thoughtful, reflective, motivated, and self-regulated learners. It is this last point that I want to particularly emphasize in this article, i.e., how to get students to be motivated and self-regulated learners by constructing their own questions rather than responding to teacher-generated questions. But first, a little background on the use of questioning to promote the critical thinking skills and learning of student.

Perhaps the most well known questioning strategy is the Socratic Method. I remember reading many years ago Plato’s Meno (380 B.C.E) describing how Socrates used questions to “draw out” knowledge and understanding of the world (specifically the concept of “virtue”) from his students (see More recently, and for many years, Richard Paul of The Critical Thinking Community has been encouraging teachers to use the Socratic Method during class discussions (for example, see However, the major focus of the Socratic Method is that it is the teacher who primarily constructs and asks multiple questions to students to guide their learning during a class to help them become critical thinkers.

While Paul was writing about critical thinking and the Socratic Method, J. T. Dillon (1982, 1984, 1991) at the University of California was doing extensive research and writing on the use of questions by teachers in relationship to effective and ineffective classroom discussions. Dillon’s research (and other research cited by Dillon) suggests that in many cases the use of questions by teachers to promote effective discussion is in fact questionable and often ineffective. Dillon (1984) states: “A single, well-formatted question is sufficient for an hour’s discussion. The rule of thumb during discussion is not to ask questions but to use various alternative techniques … alternatives will foster discussion processes, whereas questions will foil discussion by turning it into a recitation (see Dillon, 1978, 1981, 1984)” (p. 55). Some of the “alternative techniques” that Dillon suggests include the instructor just responding to students with statements instead of more questions and just being silent (often referred to as “wait time” – see:

The idea of not having teachers ask questions to promote critical thinking skills of students, but instead having teachers instruct students how to create, modify, and investigate their own questions, is discussed in detail by Rothstein and Santana (2012) in their book Make just one change: Teach students to ask their own questions. They discuss a questioning strategy they refer to as the Question Formulation Technique (QFT). The focus of this strategy is to help students develop their divergent, convergent and metacognitive thinking abilities.

As the name suggests, the method is very structured in its approach in teaching students how to formulate, modify, improve, and use questions to deepen their learning. There are seven basic steps of QFT where both the teacher and students work collaboratively in the process. The teacher is involved in facilitating the process by setting a “focus” for the questions, discussing with students a set of “rules” for the process of creating questions, monitoring students so that they follow the rules, and providing direction for using the questions to learn specific course content. However, it is ONLY the students who actually create questions about the content “focus,” with the teacher specifically avoiding ever posing any questions. Once a topic “focus” is provided by the teacher (usually a short phrase, such as “racial inequality” in a sociology class, or “being a self-reflective learner” in an educational psychology class), students generate as many questions as they can about the topic without editing, discussing, or responding to the questions. During this divergent thinking phase, students only generate questions and record them. In the next phase students categorize and label the questions as either closed-ended or open-ended questions, discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each and change closed-ended questions to open-ended questions and open-ended questions to closed-ended ones. This helps students to develop a metacognitive awareness of types and advantages of different types of questions. The next phase has students prioritize their questions and choose the three that they believe are the most important as related to the initial “focus” and state why they think these are the most important questions to ask. Through this process, students engage in convergent thinking to be able to effectively address the “focus” of the topic in terms of learning course content. Finally, the teacher asks students to reflect on the process of generating their questions, what they found of value through the process, and how it might be used and transferred in future studies, further helping students to be metacognitive about their thinking process.

In this manner, students not only become more metacognitive and self-regulated in their learning, they learn academic content more deeply, and have higher levels of engagement and motivation to learn. The major point is that these changes come about not because teachers are asking questions that students have little investment, but because students are the ones asking their questions that they generated through a thoughtful and critical analysis – they have become critical thinkers engaged in critical thinking.

As discussed briefly in a previous blog (posted on February 7, 2014), another model of helping students learn to generate and ask their own questions to obtain a deeper understanding of a subject is one developed by King (1990, 2002) known as Reciprocal Questioning. King’s model teaches students to use a set of question stems that they can use to generate questions from lectures and then use their questions to reciprocally ask one another to develop a deeper and broader understanding of the content of the lecture (or to use during out-of-class study). Some of the question stems that King suggests for students to use are:

“What is the main idea of . . . ?”

“How does . . . affect . . . ?”

“What is the meaning of . . . ?”

“Why is . . . important?”

“What is a new example of …?”

“What do you think would happen if . . . ?

“What conclusions can I draw about . . . ?”

“What is the difference between . . . and . . . ?”

“How are . . . and . . . similar?”

“How would I use . . . to . . . ?”

“What are the strengths and weaknesses of . . . ?”

“What is the best . . . and why?”

These question stems help students develop a set of higher-order questions that allow them to investigate the content of the lesson in greater depth. By reciprocally asking and answering their questions with a small group of their classmates they also obtain a broader understanding of the content through discussion of different perspectives that each individual brings to the discussion.

I have used a modified version of this strategy with my classes where I provide and review the use of the question stems during the first class session and then have students develop a set of 3 or 4 questions that they generate from the class readings for use at the next class meeting (Allen, 2010, 2012). They then bring these sets of questions to class and in small groups (usually 4 students) reciprocally ask and answer each other’s questions before I lecture on the class readings. As students discuss the readings via their self-generated questions, I monitor each group and provide clarification when asked by the students. I have found students to be much more engaged in the discussion of the readings and much more motivated to digest the readings before they come to class. Once students have worked together for a few weeks they start to rely less on the question stems and develop higher-ordered questions on their own, often ones that relate to how they might apply and transfer the knowledge they are learning to situations in their professional and personal lives. In short, they learn to become more critical thinkers about what they read, personalize their learning, as well as become more self-regulated learners as they learn course content.

Reciprocal Questioning and the Question Formulation Technique are but two ways to help students take more control of their learning and develop critical thinking skills. They help us remember that critical thinking is a cognitively engaging “process” that is best facilitated when one generates their own understanding such as learning to know how to ask their own questions.


Allen, J. (2010). The sharing of Individual and Cultural Perspectives through Reciprocal Questioning. Paper presented at the XIV World Congress of Comparative Educational Societies, Istanbul, Turkey.

Allen, J. (2012). Improving students’ learning and motivation through reciprocal questioning. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Vancouver, Canada.

Dillon, J. T. (1978). Using questions to depress student thought. School Review, 87, 50-63.

Dillon, J. T. (1982). The multidisciplinary study of questioning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 74(2), 147-165.

Dillon, J. T. (1984). Research on questioning and discussion. Educational Leadership, 42, 50-56.

Dillon, J. T. (1991). Questioning the use of questions. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83(1), 163-164.

King, A. (1990). Enhancing peer interaction and learning in the classroom through reciprocal questioning. American Educational Research Journal, 27(4), 664-687.

King, A. (2002). Structuring peer interaction to promote high-level cognitive processing. Theory into Practice, 41(1), 33-39.

Rothstein, D. & Santana, L. (2012). Make just one change: Teach students to ask their own questions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press  (see

Willingham. D. T. (2007). Critical thinking: Why is it so hard to teach? American Educator, Summer, 8-19.


One Response

  1. […] Allen, focused on the idea of asking questions as key to critical thinking.  One of the texts he wrote about and presented on was Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana’s book, Make Just One Change:  Teach […]

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