Writing questions that promote critical thinking

Critical thinking and critical decision making

Effective learning is a bit like exercise: you get out what you put in. 

Writing easy questions is, well, easy. But writing questions that really challenge people’s knowledge and choices requires a bit more effort.

Luckily, we’ve done a lot of thinking about this and have some frameworks to help you get there with less effort.

Yarno quizzes are typically used in two general ways:

  • To reinforce knowledge we want our people to have
  • To reinforce choices we want our people to make

There are different strategies for writing effective questions, depending on which of these we want to reinforce.


Quizzing critical thinking

Challenging your brain to actively recall information – let’s call that information knowledge – and reason through it will result in much deeper understanding and longer retention.

So imagine yourself as a learning personal trainer. Your job is to design learning exercises that truly challenge your learners to engage their brains. 

But how is that done?

Here’s a simple guide to writing questions that require learners to think critically to summon previously learned knowledge: 

  • Quiz the why - Why is it important for your people to know or do something?
  • Quiz the process - How specifically is something done? Or what are the details of the idea?
  • Quiz the consequence - What are the ramifications of doing or not doing something, or knowing or not knowing something?

Ideally, for important information, you would quiz a topic with all three of these approaches.

So, the best way to explain what this means may be to share an example of how to turn an easy question into a challenging question.


The typical knowledge-based multiple choice question

This question was written for hospitality workers and is pretty typical to the type of multiple choice we’ve encountered in life.

How often should you wash your hands?

  1. At the end of the day
  2. After handling food and after toilet breaks or wiping your nose
  3. After you handle food
  4. After toilet breaks

Is this question valuable? 

NO!

Why not?

The correct answer is obvious.

What is the answer?

2.

Why is the correct answer obvious?

It’s common sense.

For most people, maybe. For everyone, no. Why else is the answer obvious?

Because answers 2,3 & 4 are not mutually exclusive. 

This means that there’s an overlap between the answers. And because they’re not mutually exclusive there can’t be one empirically correct answer, and therefore the correct answer must 2.

In other words – this question will not reinforce knowledge or mould behaviour.

But it is possible to write such questions!


Reframing an idea for critical thinking

The intent and idea behind this example question are important – getting employees to know when to wash their hands.

So let’s reframe it around our critical thinking strategy – quiz the why, quiz the process, quiz the consequence.

With this strategy in mind we hold the idea we want to reinforce in our mind and ask: 

  • “Why is it important for hospitality workers to know how and when to wash their hands?”
  • ”What can happen if they don’t wash their hands at the right times?”
  • ”What are the specifics of the hand washing procedure?"

When I’m working on a problem, I’ll actually write it down and bullet point out the answers to these questions. Sometimes this will prompt me to do a bit of research. 

And then you can come up with a question like this:

Which of these is the most prevalent cause of illness transmission in the hospitality industry?

  1. Undercooked food
  2. Improperly washed hands
  3. Uncovered coughs and sneezes
  4. Rodent infestation

This question tackles the why and the consequence of hand washing: improperly washed hands spread disease and get people sick.

The answer is not so easy to come by for someone who’s not already familiar with the knowledge behind the question. It would require them to sift through what they’ve been taught to surface the answer. This is reinforcement in action.

And because the answer choices are mutually exclusive (no overlap) it removes the ability to eliminate answers based on the answers themselves (a process of elimination).

So how about quizzing the process?

What’s the most important factor to ensure hand washing is effective?
  1. Thick soap lather
  2. Temperature of the water
  3. Duration of wash
  4. Use of sanitiser

This question moves beyond the surface level knowledge of how to wash hands, into a deeper level of information that only someone who’s been exposed to organised thinking on the topic would be likely to know.

This kind of question can raise deliberation in the learner’s mind. Deliberation requires critical thinking and critical thinking is learning.

(Correct answer: 3. Duration of wash)


Moving beyond knowledge to influence critical decision making with scenario-based questions

The original question – How often should you wash your hands? – was ostensibly about getting after the timings that people should know regarding washing hands.  But what it was truly motivated by is a choice that hospitality workers need to make –  choosing the correct times to wash their hands.

A great way to quiz this is to write the questions in a way that will ask the learner to actually make the choice we want to guide them toward.

The lunch rush is over. It’s time to tidy the café. Your manager pulls you off the line and asks you to get the tables bussed. What’s your first step?
  1. Sanitise a wash rag
  2. Clear plates first
  3. Wash your hands
  4. Restock your station

This is what we call a scenario-based question. 

Scenario questions approximate the choices our leaners are called on to make in the course of doing their jobs.

They represent a two-fold opportunity in that they can guide learners to make correct choices while tempting them with common mistakes.

In life almost all learning is achieved through learning from mistakes we (or others) have made, and making different choices next time to achieve a better result.

A scenario-based question attempts to create a simulation of that real-life choice in a context that is free from the real-life consequences.

The power of this type of question really becomes focused when it’s accompanied by an explanation that validates why the correct choice is right and the consequences of the incorrect choices.

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