Critical Thinking: Teaching Students How to Study and Learn (Part IV)

By Elder, Linda; Paul, Richard | Journal of Developmental Education, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Critical Thinking: Teaching Students How to Study and Learn (Part IV)


Elder, Linda, Paul, Richard, Journal of Developmental Education


In the previous three columns we have focused on ideas for helping students improve their studying and learning habits. All of the recommendations come from our Miniature Guide for Students on How to Study and Learn. This guide is designed to help students think deeply through content and begin to take their learning seriously. In this column, the final in its series, we focus on the importance of questioning in learning, providing suggestions to help students become active questioners. We also introduce students to the idea that some disciplines deal largely, if not exclusively, with definitive questions, whereas others deal largely with debatable questions. As with the previous three columns, each of the following sections is written in the form of directions for students. Thus, you should read what follows as if you were a student considering how you can improve your learning. Of course, we assume that students will probably need help from their teachers in understanding how to take ownership of each of the essential ideas. Only a rare student will be able to immediately implement the recommendations without some guidance and facilitation.

How to Understand the Role of Questions in Thinking and Learning

Thinking is not driven by answers but by questions. Had no questions been asked by those who laid the foundation for a field-for example, physics or biology-the field would never have been developed in the first place. Furthermore, every field stays alive only to the degree that fresh questions are generated and taken seriously as the driving force in thinking. To think through or rethink anything, one must ask questions that stimulate thought. Questions define tasks, express problems, and delineate issues. Answers, on the other hand, often signal a full stop in thought. Only when an answer generates a further question does thought continue its life. This is why you are thinking and learning only when you have questions.

So, instead of trying to store a lot of disconnected information in your mind, start asking questions about the content. Deep questions drive thought beneath the surface of things, forcing you to deal with complexities. Questions of purpose force you to define tasks. Questions of information force you to look at your sources of information as well as assess the quality of information. Questions of interpretation force you to examine how you are organizing or giving meaning to information. Questions of assumption force you to examine what you are taking for granted. Questions of implication force you to follow out where your thinking is going. Questions of point of view force you to examine your perspective and to consider other relevant viewpoints.

Essential Idea: If you want to learn, you must ask questions that lead to further questions that lead to further questions. To learn well is to question well.

How to Raise Important Questions Within a Subject

Every discipline is best known by the questions it generates and the way it goes about settling those questions. To think well within a discipline, you must be able to raise and answer important questions within it. At the beginning of a semester of study, try generating at least 25 questions that each discipline you are studying seeks to answer. To do this you might read an introductory chapter from the textbook or an encyclopedia entry on the topic. Then explain the significance of the questions to another person.

Next add new questions to the list (as your courses proceed) underlining questions when you are confident you can explain how to answer them. Regularly translate chapter and section titles from your textbooks into questions. For example, a section on photosynthesis answers the question: What is photosynthesis?

In addition, look for key questions in classroom lectures. Relate basic questions to the theory the discipline uses to solve problems. Master fundamental questions well. Do not move on until you understand them. …

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