Level 2 And 3 Question Starters For Critical Thinking

28 Critical Thinking Question Stems For Any Content Area

by TeachThought Staff

Critical thinking isn’t a skill, nor is it content knowledge or even evidence of understanding. While it involves and requires these ideas, critical thinking is also very much a state of mind — a willingness and tendency to sit with an idea and ‘struggle wonderfully’ with it.

In critical thinking, there is no conclusion; it is constant interaction with changing circumstances and new knowledge that allows for broader vision which allows for new evidence which starts the process over again. Critical thinking has at its core raw emotion and tone. Intent.

The purpose of these stems is to help students practice this slippery ‘skill.’ By having dozens of questions written generally enough to be widely applicable, but with an inherent rigor that challenges students to think, the ability to practice thinking critically is always available.

Critical Thinking Cards

In adddition to the text and cards, we’ve included a graphic below. You also can purchase them in card-format to be printed and used right away in your classroom, a sample of which you can see below.

By making them cards, they are not only easier to ‘keep around’–on your desk, on a shelf in a workstation area, or even copied and given to students– but more importantly, meaningful thinking can become a part of your daily routines. Writing prompts, reading circles, Socratic discussions and more all benefit from critical thinking, and providing students with stems is a way of supporting them as their confidence grows and their habits as thinkers develop.

28 Critical Thinking Question Stems For Any Content Area

1. What evidence can you present for/against…?

2. How does … contrast with …?

3. How could you outline or concept map…? Explain your response with examples.

4. Why is … significant? Explain your reasoning.

5. What are the advantages and disadvantages of …?

6. What is the point or ‘big idea’ of …?

7. How could you judge the accuracy of …?

8. What are the differences between … and …?

9. How is … related to …?

10. What ideas could you add to … and how would these ideas change it?

11. Describe … from the perspective of ….

12. What do you think about …? Explain your reasoning.

13. When might … be most useful and why?

14. How could you create or design a new…? Explain your thinking.

15. What solutions could you suggest the problem of …? Which might be most effective and why?

16. What might happen if you combined … and …?

17. Do you agree that …? Why or why not?

18. What information would you need to make a decision about …?

19. How could you prioritize …?

20. How is … an example of …?

21. What are the most important parts or features of …?

22. Which details of … are most important and why?

23. What patterns do you notice in …?

24. How could you classify … into a more/less general category?

25. What makes … important?

26. What criteria could you use to assess …?

27. How could … and … function together? How do they work separately and together and different ways?

28. Where is … most/least …? Explain your reasoning.

28 Critical Thinking Question Stems For Any Content Area

It is sometimes helpful to talk about 'Levels' of Questions. This concept is not new, and different workshops or different subject areas define the levels a little differently. That doesn't matter - what matters is clarifying them in a way you can live with in order to give your students a tool for asking better and more diverse questions. These aren't things I'd quiz my kids on per se - at least not in the sense of having them put stuff in categories and count them right or wrong. They're tools, not scientific classifications. 

Level 1 Questions 

Deal with factual information you can find printed in the story / document / whatever.  They usually have ONE correct answer. 

Level 1 Questions often…

  • clarify vocabulary or basic facts
  • check for Understanding 
  • ask for more information

It is often difficult to ask or answer Level 2 Questions without plenty of Level 1 information!  

Examples:  Who led Confederate forces at the Battle of Gettysburg? When did Abraham Lincoln die? How many people died of disease or other non-combat causes during the Civil War? Where is Antietam?

Level 2 Questions

Deal with factual information but can have more than one defensible answer. Although there can be more than one ‘good’ answer, your answers should be defended or opposed with material FROM the story or related materials. 

Level 2 Questions might… 

  • require “Processing” of Information—analyze, synthesize, evaluate, articulate
  • require making inferences from the text
  • seek understanding from someone who knows more or has larger perspective
  • challenge the author (why did you include this but not that, or why was this phrased a certain way?)

Level 2 Questions are often the Meat & Potatoes of Social Studies, and require Level 1 information as support. They seek informed opinions. They are often the stuff we most wish our students could ask, ponder, or answer intelligently. Come to think of it, they’re the stuff we wish other adults could ask, ponder, or answer intelligently.

Examples:  Why did the North win the Civil War? Was Lincoln justified in suspending some rights during the war? To what extent was slavery the true cause of the war? How did the North’s war aims change over the course of the war and why?  

Level 3 Questions

Deal with ideas beyond the text but which might be prompted by the story / document / whatever.  The assigned material is a ‘launching pad’ for these sorts of questions, but responding to them requires going well beyond the original material.

Level 3 Questions are useful as…

  • “Big Picture” Questions, to make connections 
  • interest-builders, discussion-starters, and thought-provokers
  • ways to get your teacher off topic so you don’t have as much work to do

English Teachers love Level 3 Questions, but in the Social Studies we use them more carefully. Sometimes they’re more appropriate for discussions with your parents, pastors, or best friends. Other times they're the most important questions there are.

Examples:  Is war ever justified? Did Robert E. Lee go to Heaven? What would you be willing to kill somebody for? Is it true Lincoln’s ghost is still haunting the White House? How would the U.S. be different today if the South had won the Civil War?

Sometimes what 'Level' a question best fits depends on how much information you have available or to which you have access. Don't get too hung up on correct categories so much as stretching the sorts of questions students ask.

I'd never grade my kids specifically on putting questions into the 'right' categories. What I do hope to help them think about, however, is the importance of understanding WHAT sort of question is being asked - whether we're trying to dig around in history or address modern-day dilemmas. So often we think we're arguing when we're not even confronting the same sorts of questions. 

For example - global warming. To discuss global warming and what, if anything, to do about it, we first need to determine what facts are available. We may argue about the facts, but at least we'll be wrestling through the same issue. That's Level One information, and it matters in this discussion.

We also need to figure out the best way to interpret those facts, once agreed upon. What do they mean, why are they what they are, etc.? Again, we may not agree, but at least we'll be on the same subject. That's a Level Two conversation.

Finally, what should we do about the facts and our conclusions? Is the issue important? What's likely to happen if we purseu Course A vs. Course B vs. Course C vs. just ignoring it? That's a whole other type of conversation to have - a Level Three issue.

Too often, we never get past one person arguing about what changes we need to make while the other hasn't yet accepted the basic facts being used as support. Or we think we're debating what the facts mean when in reality we're debating the nature of reality or the ethics of hoping the supernatural will intervene at some point. 

Getting on the same level of discussion in no way guarantees consensus, but it's an essential element of any meaningful progress towards deeper understanding or potential agreement. 

On a smaller, 'let's just pass high school first then worry about that other stuff' scale, Practicing Inquiry helps foster interest. It increases recognition and retention of essential information. It's foundational to critical thinking. Finally, it's a critical element of effective reading - Cornell Notes, Dialectic Journals, Annotation, Think-Alouds, etc., all build on the idea that reading is an interaction with the text, and that questions are an essential part of that interaction. But that's for another page. 

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