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Students lack an important component of critical thinking: how to ask the "right questions" in your context.
When you do work in your discipline, you automatically hone in on the key issues, knowing what questions to ask, assumptions to test, etc. But students have to learn what these questions are before they can make it a habit to ask them. For example, in design or engineering, you might want your students to ask themselves: Who are my users? What are the real vs. perceived constraints that are imposed? What are related, extant “solutions” and how will I evaluate the novelty of my design? In other fields, the key questions may be different but still fit into a repeated set, e.g., What assumptions am I making? How does this relate to what I already know? How can I evaluate the quality/soundness of the work? When students learn the “right” questions and routinely ask them, then they begin to think like a member of your discipline.
Experts often don't recognize patterns in their own work practice. So, even if you don't notice it explicitly, there is likely a set of questions that you consistently ask when reading a text or responding to a piece of work in your field (e.g., What perspective does the author/creator represent? How does this relate to previous work in the field? What assumptions are being made, and do they always hold?). In contrast, students tend to take in information at face value without questioning it. They need guidance in formulating and posing questions. Reflect on your own process to identify the common questions that you ask, and be sure to ask those questions regularly in class discussion or assignments. This will familiarize students with the common set of questions in your field and make it more likely that they will pick up the habit. One faculty member assigned students "reading reflections" in which students had to address the same set of questions for each reading (and bring their responses to class): What’s the author's/creator's perspective? What evidence is brought to bear? What are the implications of this perspective? Another professor gave her students a list of questions to consider whenever they viewed documentary films for class: What is the purpose/motive/agenda of the filmmaker? What assumptions has the filmmaker made about the audience? What perspective(s) are not included? In both cases, the questions serve as prompts to put students in the right frame of mind – to critically read a text or watch a film – and thus to generate a richer discussion afterward. For more advanced students, you could simply share with students the set of questions you commonly ask (as a resource) or enlist students' help in creating a list of questions that will become part of your class' standard practice.
When you ask a question in class that exemplifies the kind of questions you want students to be asking themselves, take advantage of this opportunity to explain how you formulated the question and what makes it important or useful in your field. For example, the professor in a developmental psychology course pointed out to students that whenever she encounters a child enacting a new behavior she asks herself: At what age does it happen? Why does it happen? Why should we care?
Whether you want students to build a habit of asking the "right" questions in class or on homework assignments, the key to helping them is giving lots of practice! Only when students have exercised this skill regularly will it become automatic. For example, you can make question-asking a regular part of your students' routine by requiring them to write down three questions for each assigned reading and then beginning each class by discussing students' questions and drawing attention to particularly good ones. In the case of homework assignments, you can try to include a question-asking component as often as possible. For example, for each project (or larger assignment) in your course, the first milestone can always involve students generating a set of appropriate questions, e.g., the questions that their project will be designed to address or the questions they will be asking themselves as they go through later stages of the project. Then, you can give students feedback on their questions to help them hone their question-asking skills and to steer them toward a productive path for the project. You can also create shorter assignments that require students to generate disciplinarily appropriate questions for situations they will likely encounter, such as reading an article from a particular author or time period, or creating a design using particular tools or media. The general idea is to make sure that your students have enough opportunities to practice asking questions, not just answering them.
Be sure to include assessment activities that allow you to monitor students’ ability to ask the right questions. This could be informal, such as during class discussion, where your assessment occurs via a participation rubric that lays out different levels of performance in question posing. Alternatively, for larger assignment, you can assign a targeted "question-asking" component and then be sure to assess that component specifically, e.g., What are the questions you would have to ask a CEO in order to answer this? What questions would you need to ask a client to contextualize the design you were going to do for him/her? What are the shortcomings in your work? What questions are still unanswered? This strategy can be varied depending on the level of your students: with beginning students, structured assignments and prompts like those above are especially helpful, whereas with more advanced students (or later in a given course), you could assign an open-ended task without prompting them to ask the right questions and then check whether and how well they do. In any case, it is important that you prepare students with opportunities to practice their question-asking skills before assessing these skills formally. Assessing students' ability to generate meaningful questions will not only give you (and students) feedback on their progress, it will emphasize to students that you value this skill and hence give them an incentive for improving.
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