Questioning approaches: why ask questions?

Part of Big Questions Little Questions (BQLQ), critical thinking skills for sixth form students from the University of Oxford


A huge part of critical thinking is about learning when to ask the right questions, at the right time, about the right thing. This is a difficult skill to master but the more you practice it and learn good habits the easier it gets. This can help you more than in just coming to well-formed, academically sound judgments: it can help you in your daily life too!

Think about it. You ask yourself hundreds of small questions everyday: and don’t even realise it!

For example, say you left out a glass of water and you come across it later. Unconsciously, you’d ask yourself,  ‘how long has it been there for?’ , ‘is it warm now?’ and ‘will it taste weird when I drink it?’ This is essentially the premise of critical thinking: taking this innate skill we have and channelling it in a critical, productive way to form sound judgments.

In trying to apply this skill to your studies, let’s take Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as an example. Say you’re thinking about what the green light in the book means, you might ask yourself ‘what does the colour ‘green’ suggest?’, ‘why is the light so far away?’ and/or ‘how often does it reoccur in the book?’.

These smaller questions are the basis of how you answer your bigger question, and are the key to getting there. Behind all big discoveries are little questions and these questions can be about things in everyday life, just as much as they can be about academic matters. By asking these sorts of questions, we can expand our horizons, and sometimes it’s the answers to the little questions that take us down unexpected lines of enquiry, and ultimately lead us a different angle or answer than we might have initially expected. This helps you to really develop your own arguments and opinions: another great skill to develop, and a part of critical thinking!

These questions are at the route of developing our knowledge on certain topics. This is something that is very important to develop in the academic world, as just presenting facts isn’t what’s encouraged at university level and beyond, but forming ideas, opinions, and arguments routed in knowledge is. Besides, facts are just the most commonly agreed upon consensus, too, so being able to differentiate when you’re presenting fact versus knowledge is really important!

To recap, it’s important to ask questions in academic and everyday life. It can help to expand our horizons and sometimes leads us to answer big questions in unexpected ways but learning to recognise that we already ask ourselves questions and harnessing this skill in your studies is key to building critical thinking skills. It can also help you to start building up your knowledge, opinions and arguments.



Now take a look at the worksheet below. Pick one of the big questions below and come up with as many little questions as you can.

You can print it off and fill it in, or write your own notes in a notepad or wherever you’d like. The point is to start breaking down an unwieldy topic into manageable ones.