How do you go more deeply when you are writing a paper? It’s one of those catch 22’s, isn’t it. Don’t you think you WOULD engage in more critical thinking if only you knew HOW?!

Today I was working with a college sophomore who had just finished writing a draft of an essay for her Italian Culture class. She felt pretty confident that she was addressing the prompt. However, when I asked her if she had any way of assessing whether she was pushing herself to think deeply about the issue in question, she looked a bit confused.

‘Aha!’, I thought, ‘What a great opportunity for one of my 5-minute “mini-lectures.”‘  I whipped out a sheet of paper, and began to draw the image you see above, of 3 levels of questions.

The Three Levels of Questions

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Example: What were Cinderella’s slippers made out of? How did Cinderella get to the ball? (Source: USD497)

Level 2 — Analysis. “Why, How, So What?!” Level 2 thinking analyzes data, looking for patterns, reasons, motives, etc. This is the beginning of critical thinking in action.

Example: Why does Cinderella’s stepmother care whether or not she goes to the ball? Why did everything turn back the way it was except the glass slipper? Why don’t the step sisters like Cinderella? (Source: USD497)

Level 3Connections. “Now What?!” This type of thinking goes beyond the text, assessing the value of the idea in a broader context. Level 3 thinking can make connections between the idea and other, seemingly irrelevant concepts; furthermore, the writer can make personal connections between the idea and his/her life. These types of questions are the “home run” of critical thinking; they knock your writing out of the park.

Example: Does a woman’s salvation always lie with a man? What does it mean to live happily ever after? Does good always overcome evil? (Source: USD497)

Applying the 3 Levels to Essay Writing

After I introduced these Levels to Elizabeth, she was easily able to see that her roughdraft — comparing feminism during the Renaissance and the 1960s — was largely a Level 1 essay. She had read the book and was re-presenting the information that she had gleaned. However, she hadn’t thought to look for patterns in feminist thought between the two eras (Level 2) or the impact of the history of feminism on her life today (Level 3).

When you sit down to write an essay, take a moment to jot down several questions that you hope to explore in your writing. Make sure that you have questions from each Level, as all of them are important. By asking — and answering — questions at each level, you can unlock your own hidden brilliance, and take your essay writing to a new level.

However, the three levels of questions are not just for writing. Here are some other school-related environments in which you can use these ideas:

  • analyze the type of questions your teacher asks, so that you know what kind of thinking they are *really* looking for.
  • participate in class discussion by asking yourself, classmates, and teachers questions at higher levels
  • annotate your readings, challenging yourself to write a Level 1, 2 and 3 question and/or comment on every page

What other places would these three levels of thinking come in handy? Please tell me, below!
Many thanks to the web pages at USD497Mr. Kash, and Noelle Combs for helping me hone my understanding of the 3 Levels of questions.

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