Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Become an OU student

Download this course

Share this free course

Extending and developing your thinking skills
Extending and developing your thinking skills

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

6 Questions

Thinking itself is nothing but the process of asking and answering questions.

(Anthony Robbins)

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mystery of eternity, of life, of the marvellous structure of reality. It is enough if one merely tries to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.

(Albert Einstein)

University students are encouraged to be curious and ask questions. Asking and answering questions is at the heart of high-quality thinking. Questions naturally arise from the desire to know and learn about things. Questions may be the starting point for whole areas of study. For example, 'Why does an apple fall to the ground?' or 'Why did the Roman Empire fall?' are important questions leading to areas of study in science and history. Formulating questions can be a valuable way of structuring thinking and finding a way through learning resources. Questions provide ways to clarify issues, focus attention and explore assumptions.

You can use questions to develop your skills at the different levels of thinking described in Section 3. Table 1 contains examples of questions for each level.

Table 1: Questions to develop skills at different levels of thinking
Level of thinkingExamples of questions
Knowledge and understandingWhat? Who? When?
What is an example of x?
What is meant by …..?
What is another way of explaining..?
Is this an example of …?
Can I describe x in my own words?
ApplicationHow is it used?
What does it relate to?
In what situations …?
AnalysisWhy? How?
What is the reason for ….. ?
What evidence is there to support the conclusion?
What are the causes of …?
How do … fit together?
SynthesisIf x happens, then what next?
What does the theory predict will happen?
What are my own conclusions on the basis of the information available?
How does x relate to y?
EvaluationIs this good or not and why?
Is this reasonable or not and why?

So, for example, if you were considering the Second World War, you might ask the following questions.

  • Knowledge - What was the Second World War? When was it? Where was it? Who started it?

  • Analysis - Why did it happen?

  • Synthesis - How did the different decisions and events combine to produce this historical event?

  • Evaluation - How reasonable was the original decision to declare war? Was the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki an appropriate strategy for ending conflict?

Activity 11

Select questions from Table 1 above to stimulate thinking on a topic of your choice.


Six serving men (Kipling) is a popular rhyme for reminding us of some useful questions.

  • I once did meet six serving men

  • They served me well and true.

  • Their names were what and why and when

  • And how and where and who!

One of the most useful of these questions is 'Why?'. Repeatedly asking why can be helpful in probing an issue and getting to the root of a problem. As an example, let us consider the issue of changes in weather patterns that have been occurring in recent years.

  • Why are we experiencing changes in weather patterns? Because of global warming (the average Earth temperature is rising).

  • Why is global warming happening? Because the amount of carbon dioxide (the main 'greenhouse gas') in the Earth's atmosphere is increasing and increasing the 'greenhouse effect' (i.e. heat is trapped by the atmosphere in the same way that heat in a greenhouse is trapped by the glass).

  • Why is the amount of carbon dioxide increasing? Because of human activity such as burning fossil fuels, and also the destruction of rainforest areas.

  • Why is this human activity increasing? Because of social, political and population factors. There is a huge demand for energy from fossil fuels; deforestation is driven by the demand for hardwoods, mined ores, and beef (for beefburgers) in developed economies, along with slash-and-burn clearance activities by local farmers who have little other economic choice.

And so on …

Activity 12

Think of a problem relevant to your life. Ask the question Why? repeatedly to explore the issue you have chosen.


We hope you can see how this process moves the response from superficial assumptions and explanations to a deeper level of response. It does, however, only apply within the limits of the subject area. In some cases we do not have the tools to find answers to all the questions.

Questions can be particularly useful as a tool to tackle writing tasks like essays. You can set up a series of questions then address them in your writing.

Activity 13

Suggest questions you could raise in response to this essay title.

Discuss the problems caused by the development of out-of-town shopping centres and the advantages of regenerating city centre shopping areas as an alternative.


Here are our ideas.

  • What are out-of-town shopping centres?

  • Why, when and how have they developed?

  • What are the problems caused by their development?

  • What are city centre shopping areas?

  • Why do they need regenerating?

  • What would be the advantages of regenerating them?