Skip to main content

Helping Our Students Move From Periods to Question Marks

Like most instructors, I want my students to think critically and to make ethically rational decisions. So imagine my puzzlement should one of my colleagues disavow the importance of teaching critical thinking and ethical reasoning. As an increasingly skeptical public and employer sentiment grows about students' ability to apply critical thought, it seems even more imperative to me that we as instructors commit our efforts to integrate both critical processes and ethical reasoning into our pedagogy.

To me the biggest transformation we can make in our classrooms is to think long and hard about the implications of two things:

  • George Bernard Shaw's claim that "the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that communication has taken place."
  • 20th Century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's portrayal of communication as "language games".

Let's look at Shaw's warning and apply it to the classroom. I think many instructors in the classroom would agree that there can be a disconnect between our lectures and the minds and comprehension of our students. Our intent when we teach is golden, but the results are often misunderstood or not fully understood.

Wittgenstein's method is similar to Shaw's but is more visual in interpretation. Professors say words; specific visual images represent those words as they head in the direction of our students. But when the words arrive at the brains of our students, a different set of visual images predominates as the students' background attempts to establish meaning in what the professor said.

So what can instructors do to bridge this disconnect?

Questioning is the Key to Opening Cognitive Student Potential

How can our talking to the students generate a stronger educational collaboration? First, students must feel comfortable and eager to ask questions (Marquardt, 2014). For many reasons they are generally hesitant to ask questions of anyone, but especially to a knowledge authority like a professor in a classroom. They often see asking questions as mean or interruptive; believing that asking questions will label them inept in the eyes of peers. They lack training and understanding that question-asking is the key to learning.

So how do we overcome students' resistance and turn them into natural question-askers? Permit me to make a few suggestions:

  1. Prime the Pump – When I am able, I often entice former students to spend the first 3-4 weeks with my classes to serve as a model of a curious learner who has rediscovered the joy of being a question mark, a person whose essence is asking productive questions.
  2. Reward Good Behavior - Reinforce question-asking behavior with every bit of lavish praise you are comfortable dispensing. Much of a student's training suggests that the avenue to success in school is to play the role of the period----a representation of conclusions or finishing points. From such a perspective it is difficult to understand what the wonderful parents of the brilliant physicist Richard Feynman were doing when every day after school they would say "Richie, what questions do you have about what you learned at school today?"
  3. Ask Tough, Complicated Questions - Ask exam questions and make paper assignments that require the posing and analysis of revealing questions, rather than the construction of conclusions or correct answers.
  4. Get Excited - Demonstrate excitement about the questions you are persistently asking about your own thinking. Model your own drive to have a more complete understanding as evidenced by the questions you ask.
  5. Remind Students that Questions are the Point - Particularly with respect to critical thinking, remind your students that questions about the quality of a belief or conclusion are the expressway to more thoughtful answers. Friends should not prevent friends from having better conclusions by failing to ask them critical questions (Browne, 2002)

Encourage Critical Thinking and Ethical Reasoning with Particular Kinds of Questions

Another stimulus for question-asking behavior is demonstrating to students the efficacy of particular kinds of questions for particular mental processes. In other words, certain questions are especially potent for critical thinking and ethical reasoning. Indeed when these specific questions are not asked, the critical thinking and ethical reasoning are stunted representations of what the learner could be doing (Kubasek, Browne, et. al., 2019).

So what questions seem especially effective in encouraging critical thinking and ethical reasoning?

Sample Critical Thinking Questions:

  1. What unsubstantiated assumptions are underlying a particular argument?
  2. Is there significant ambiguity in the argument that needs to be clarified before I agree with the argument?
  3. Are there any logical fallacies present?
  4. Is the evidence offered on behalf of the argument reliable and relevant?
  5. Is any of the statistical support for the argument flawed?
  6. What crucial information is missing from the argument?
  7. Does the reasoning support more than one possible conclusion?
  8. Does the reasoning reflect any of the numerous cognitive biases?

Sample Ethical Reasoning Questions:

  1. Who are the relevant parties affected by the tentative decision?
  2. What is the proper weight we should attach to future generations?
  3. What value preferences would cause the decision to go in a particular direction?
  4. Would the world be a better place if everyone behaved the way you are thinking about behaving?
  5. Are you about to do to others the same thing you would hope they would do to you?
  6. How would you feel if your family read about what you are planning to do in tomorrow's newspaper or on social media?

The point in the two lists above is certainly not to create a comprehensive list of high-powered questions, but rather a starting point for instructors looking to expand critical thinking and ethical reasoning coverage in their own class


Browne, M.N. (2002) Reframing argument as an act of friendship. Korean Journal of Thinking and Problem Solving. 7, 24-36.

Kubasek, N.K. (2019) Dynamic business law: the essentials. New York, NY. McGraw-Hill.

Marquardt, M.J. (2014) Leading with questions: how leaders find right solutions by knowing what to ask. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

About the Author

Dr. Browne has taught Critical Thinking, Ethical Reasoning, Business Law, and Economics at Bowling Green State University for the past 50 years. He is the author of 32 books, including the McGraw-Hill Education texts Dynamic Business Law, 4e and Dynamic Business Law: The Essentials, 4e, and 180 professional law, economics, and higher education articles. He and his wife, Nancy, travel, run, stretch and dance with abandon.

Profile Photo of Neil Browne