Sunday, June 19, 2011

Developing Question Asking Skills

A top goal, in all my General Education / Introductory Philosophy courses, and many of my Faculty Development / Professional Development workshops (those that include "Introduction to Philosophy" components), is helping students / workshop participants further develop their open ended question asking skills. Here are the main tools, and the basic techniques, that I use to achieve that goal...


A couple years ago, I compiled this: a collection called "Socrates Questions":

Last year I compiled a second collection, called "Critical Thinking Questions":

Anyone / everyone is welcome to these handouts, to use as they see fit.


Students / participants are prompted to use these during in-class / in-session small group discussions and activities.

Each small group is prompted to appoint a Scribe (the note taker), and a Socrates (the question asker). While all group members are encouraged to use the questions during each small group discussion, "Socrates" is specifically responsible for interjecting the questions when others' use tapers off, and also for explaining to the rest of us, later on, during group "reports" (when each group reports the results of their activity to the whole class), which questions were most helpful, and why.

  • I tell them that the first couple times they use these in their group discussions, it will feel awkward, and they should just go with that. They'll quickly become used to it. And they do. They quickly start using them on me! All in good fun.

  • I also encourage them to use these in discussions with friends and family, and report back the results. That's always interesting. And rewarding! Many of my students report using these with great effect on their teenagers.

Your thoughts? How do you help students develop question asking in your courses? Do you also take this to be a priority in your Gen Ed courses? Why or why not? Do you use similar techniques? If not, can you imagine doing so? Why or why not? What advice, suggestions, questions, do you have about the technique and tools as they are illustrated above?

P.S. A handful of more or less related posts on this blog, which I found by searching "Question Asking" (forgive me if there are others, that's the only search I performed):


  1. Karla,

    Thanks for these great resources. You're certainly right that asking questions (and knowing how, when, to ask, what to ask) is a key critical thinking/philosophy skill. And I have to say I've never really thought about how to develop questioning as a skill. The documents you've prepared give students something of a script to work from. Really good stuff!

    I like nearly all the questions -- there's one category I'm slightly nervous about. You called them Origin/Source questions:
    • Where did you get that idea?
    • Did you originate that idea or get it from someone else?
    • Have you been influenced to believe that?
    • Have you always thought that?
    • What caused you to think this way?

    My main reservation here is that I want to counteract my students' tendency to think that biography is philosophy — or that serious intellectual questions can be answered by describing how you reached the answers (classic explanation vs. justification worries). I think there's a role for personal experience in philosophical learning, but the role is merely one of discovery, not justification. So I'd be interested to know if these questions get used a lot in your classes and how fruitful they are.

  2. Michael,

    Great question, thanks for your response. The list is compiled from the resources listed at the bottom (or top, depending) of each document.

    The title of that section comes from that source; in other words it's not a name I came up with. That aside, the questions do not worry me in the way you wonder about.

    I could see that happening if one simply gave them the questions, then said "have at it", and did not use the questions to question the questions. :)

    I guess what I'm saying is you could turn that worry into a useful conversation about the difference between philosophy as biography, and philosophy as investigation. Using the questions to get at the distinctions.

    All in all, these question lists have been incredibly useful. They are probably the first thing students mention when I run into them after the semester is over (which happens all the time to me). They either mention the questions, or spring one on me. :)

    I pass these out at faculty development workshops too, and when relevant, include them in a "How to develop / apply Socratic questioning in your classes" module. Faculty also love these.

    I hope some folks reading this will give these a try. I would love to know how it worked out.

    :) Karla


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