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Writing Program at New College

Elements of Inquiry: Exercises

  1. Critical Thinking: An Engine for Inquiry
  2. Choose a Focus
  3. Formulating a Research Question


Critical Thinking: An Engine for Inquiry

1. Critical thinking requires reflection about our own thought processes; in other words, it requires thinking about how we think. This may feel awkward, and maybe you’ve never explicitly reflected on your own thought process. As a way to begin, either writing on your own or talking with classmates or others, take the time to respond to these questions. These are mostly yes-or-no questions, but you may respond "sometimes" or "it depends." However you respond, include an example from your life for each. 

  • Are you interested in thinking about and/or discussing complicated issues and problems, or do you tend to shy away from such issues?
  • When issues and ideas are discussed, do you tend to ask questions, or do you assume you already know enough to formulate an opinion?
  • When you are presented with “the facts” in any given situation, do you find a way to check whether or not they really are facts? 
  • How do you judge whether or not information is credible?
  • When you have a problem to solve, do you consider many possible ways of solving the problem, or do you try the first approach that comes to mind?
  • Do you tend to consider the perspectives of others when differences of opinion or arguments arise?
  • Do you tend to dismiss attitudes, perspectives, and ideas with which you disagree?
  • Do you question statements made by experts and authority figures, or do you tend to trust such statements without question?
  • What beliefs, convictions, principles, views, theories, philosophies guide your thinking? Do they limit the ideas you are willing to consider?

When you have responded to all these questions, free write in response to the following question: What has this exercise taught you about your own thinking habits? 

2. During a conversation about a complicated or controversial issue, have you ever heard someone say, “Let me break it down for you”? Critical thinkers tend to understand the multiple components of issues and situations. Immigration is a hot-button issue, for example, but if we break it down, so to speak, we begin to see that "the immigration debate" has component parts: economic considerations; humanitarian concerns; legal dynamics; environmental elements; cultural and linguistic aspects, etc. Immigration can be better understood as the intersection of many issues. What we call an “issue” is usually a combination of more than one factor, has more than one cause, can be traced to more than one beginning. 

In a group, make a list of topics, they can be controversial issues like our example above, but they need not be. Now work together to "break down" the issue. List the component parts of the issue you have chosen. Try to understand how the issue can be better understood as an intersection of issues. 

If you feel particularly ambitious, break down some of the issues on this list into its component parts. Show how one of the intersecting issues is actually itself an intersection. 

3. Insofar as critical thinking requires us to consider questions from multiple perspectives, interdisciplinary methods of research and analysis are inherently critical practices. Select a new issue, or use the one you examined in #1 above. Now make a list of the academic disciplines for which that issue is a focus of research, and briefly explain what aspect of the issue of most interest to that discipline. Let's return to the example of immigration. Sociologists study the social structures of immigrants in their home countries, in the countries to which they immigrate, or they may take a transnational, comparative view. Criminologists might study the evolution of border enforcement strategies. Psychologists study the impact of immigration on families and the attitudes and disposition of a range of people involves in immigration. Historians study the way immigration patterns have changed over centuries, and they compare differences and similarities between immigration patters from one international border to another. Political scientists study the way immigration enters into political discourse, the way it is "politicized." 

NOTE: You may do some research to undertake this exercise--for instance, by putting some key words into Academic Search Premier and tracking the disciplinary orientation of the sources that you find--or for now, you may simply speculate about disciplinary interest.


Choose a Focus

No doubt, for some students, finding a meaningful place to begin is difficult. Often, people are not in the habit of thinking methodically about issues, even when they have an interest in them. We ask you, then, to consider the following questions as a way to generate ideas for inquiry. Jot down answers as they occur to you. 

  1. The point of these exercises is to generate ideas for inquiry. Don't worry if some of the writing is repetitive or seems to go off on a tangent. At this point in the inquiry process, tangents might lead us to important places! Also, don’t worry if you some of the questions don’t help you focus, if they leave you uninspired. Hopefully, at least one or two will spark some ideas.
    • What issues do you discuss most with friends and family?
    • In what issues do you feel most emotionally involved? What issues, when you discuss them, inspire strong feelings?
    • Is there an issue in your community (where you live, however you define that place) that is currently having a major impact?
    • What issues have you recently read about in newspapers and magazines that have captured your interests?
    • Are there specific issues that impact your workplace or the professional world of your career or intended career?
    • If you have an intended career, what are the major issues about which members of that field are concerned?
    • Are there issues of social justice and human rights about which you are passionate?
    • Do specific issues facing metropolitan Phoenix interest you?
    • Are there regional issues impacting Arizona or the Southwest that interest you?
    • What national issues concern you?
    • What international issues seem most important to you?
  2. In groups, review the notes you have taken, and together consider the following questions: Has the note-taking and review process led you to an issue you would like to pursue this semester? Do other members in your group have experience with the topic or issue you have identified?  How are their perspectives similar and/or different than your point of view?  How did your conversations help you think more carefully about why particular issues are important or at least why they are important to you?
  3. Choose two or three of the most promising ideas that came up in your note-taking above. Take five or ten minutes to free write about each of these ideas. To guide your freewriting, for each of the possible topics you’ve generated, respond to these questions:
    • What do I think about this topic? What thoughts and feelings does it inspire?
    • What else would like to know about this topic?
    • What do other people think about this topic, those who may have a perspective different from mine?
  4. Share all the writing you have done so far with your classmates, instructor, friends, family, or anyone you would like to pull into the process. It’s time to make a decision. What path of inquiry will you take?
  5. When you are confident in your decision, describe your chosen issue in no more than two or three sentences.  

Once you have chosen topic for inquiry, the time has come to pursue the twin paths of inquiry we mentioned earlier. You may begin by reflecting on your own experience of that issue, or, you may begin to formulate a research question. Your instructor may ask you to select one or both of these options.


Formulating a Research Question

  1. Let’s make our first attempt at formulating a research question. You can always rethink and potentially revise the question you develop here. To do this, take the topic or issue you have identified, and ask the following of each of those issues. Your goal at this time should be to find a starting point for inquiry that comes from your interests and concerns.
    • Why is this issue important to you?
    • What experiences led you to care about this issue?
    • What makes this an issue that deserves careful attention from many people?
    • Who is impacted by your topic?
    • Where do you see this issue operating or existing?
    • Who would be interested in learning more about this issue?
    • How long has this issue been in existence?
    • How is your life or the life of others impacted by this issue?
    • What are the possible outcomes of this issue? That is, how will it have impact in the future?
    • After working through these questions and perhaps using the sample research questions above as a guide, write research questions for each of the issues you are considering. Which of those questions most appeals to you?  Why?  Discuss your responses with members of your class.
  2. After discussing your questions with your group and/or your instructor, and others, revise the question you believe at this point you will commit to for the semester. Make sure the question truly reflects your interests and concerns, and make sure the question is clearly stated.

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