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What's the Right Answer?


One of my goals here in the higher ed community is to help faculty with their efforts to make our students better critical thinkers. Along these lines, I’ve been reading about the “Paul-Elder” framework from the Foundation for Critical Thinking.


Many blog posts in the community are written around current events and we ask our writers to include class (or online) discussion questions and activities that instructors could use to generate a productive class discussion around the topic. However, as I’m sure you know, good questions that help students think critically about an issue are hard to write. That’s one reason why I found I found the questions listed in the “Universal Intellectual Standards” area on the Foundation's site to be especially interesting and perhaps helpful to us here in our work to create great discussion questions.


Of course, my reading on critical thinking has lead me to re-examine some of my older posts to see if the questions I ask in them would indeed lead to class discussions that would build critical thinking skills.  In this blog post I wrote last year I summarized a study on the possible link between exercise and dementia.  I suggested that faculty ask students to "discuss alternative explanations for the results" of the study and then I offered my own alternative results. I now worry about this:


  • this "discussion question" is simply too vague and as a result,
  • even in groups, students won’t be able to come up with alternative explanations for the results, and
  • a faculty person who reads my post will simply take my suggested answers as the "right answers" and then try to do what we teachers so often do: present the information in class in such a way that students can tell that the teacher has a “correct answer” in their minds and they just have to guess what that right answer is. Not much critical thinking  going on with this approach.

As a result, I deleted my suggested answers from the post and re-wrote my questions along the lines of the format recommended by the CT institute.  The new questions accompanying the post are now:




  • What makes this issue of a connection between exercise and dementia a difficult one to study?


  1. How could we check to see if their conclusions are right? Or:
  2. How would YOU set up another study to test the link between exercise and dementia?

Activity: students discuss question #2 in groups of 2-3 and then present their ideas to class. Other students in class give their opinion on whether or not the ideas presented by each group would lead to strong conclusions or weak ones on this idea of exercise and dementia. Students can ask each other:


  • Can you give an example of your idea?, or
  • Could you be more specific?



I’m thinking that this approach to discussion questions helps the faculty and the students have a more constructive class discussion/activity, rather than just suggest that faculty  “discuss the article in class” and imply (and then provide) “right answers” in the post.


One thing I know for sure: I'm guilty of having a "right answer" to my questions in my head when I begin a class discussion, and when I do I'm probably going to guide the discussion toward those right answers rather than the more important goal: facilitating a constructive class discussion that helps build critical thinking skills - whether we arrive at my answers or not.


Perhaps the best value we can provide to faculty in the community is guidance on structuring discussions rather than providing what we think of as right answers.


I'd love to hear your thoughts on this as well as the Universal Intellectual Standards and the Paul-Elder framework for critical thinking.