Raising Critical Questions and Saving Face

ZHOU Ziqian, Jan
Centre for English Language Communication (CELC)

Jan discusses the challenges tutors face in getting students to engage in critical questioning and offers suggestions on formulating the feedback questions to mitigate these challenges as well as encourage participation in such learning activities.

Image by rawpixel.com on Freepik

Image by rawpixel.com on Freepik

Zhou, Z. (2023, October 29). Raising critical questions and saving face. Teaching Connections. https://blog.nus.edu.sg/teachingconnections/2023/10/29/raising-critical-questions-and-saving-face/


It is a pedagogical platitude that the feedback implicit in the critical questions raised by tutors to their students is important in furthering learning objectives (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001) and more specifically, developing students’ critical thinking skills (Golding, 2011; Heft & Scharff, 2017). The offering of constructive feedback in general and critical questions, in particular, by tutors and indeed, amongst students themselves help them appreciate the existence of differing perspectives (Lorencová et al., 2019), which in turn encourage greater self-reflection and awareness (Broadbear, 2012). Yet, if shyness or social phobia characterise the responses of some students that we tutors have observed here in an Asian university (Paulhus et al., 2002), then the following tension arises: the educational benefits of critical questioning can scarcely be reaped if students shun the activity of critical questioning or perceive some such questioning as attacks on their intelligence or self-worth. We know, for instance, from the work of renowned psychologist Carol Dweck that the emotions of shame and humiliation are highly detrimental to learning, regardless of ethnicity (Dweck & Sorich, 1999). So, how is it then, that tutors can continue to engage in critical questioning without some students recoiling as a result of their social acculturation? How, in other words, can tutors ensure that learning takes place while still maintaining culturally sensitivity? I offer some pointers in this blog post.

We begin with what I believe to be schematic examples of questions that are not terribly helpful: the cattle-prod (‘Would you like to look at material/evidence/data X?’); the one-size-fits-all (‘Are you sure that you want to say that?’); the deflection (‘What do you think?’). These questions may not be helpful for several reasons. First, the questions, in having a focus on the student and not so much what was expressed by the student, may cause a knee-jerk reaction especially amongst those who are socially anxious. Second, some of these questions, to put things crudely, express an artless attempt by the teacher at passing the buck, of not taking what the student has said as seriously as tutors should.

A diagnosis of the examples of questions that are not helpful suggests two remedies. First, ‘depersonalise’ the critical questions by having such questions express a focus instead on the task or topic of the conversation, and not much the student whose task or topic it is. Second, ‘isolate and contain’ any negative student emotions that may arise as a result of the activity of critical questioning. I explain these in turn.


Depersonalise a Critical Question

A way to ‘depersonalise’ a question is this: the tutor recasts the student response with the aim of ascribing it to a non-identifiable plural entity, e.g. “Okay, Jan, you say X. Many people do, I suspect, take the same position as you do. Now, what explains why there might be widespread attraction towards X? What assumptions does X rest on?”


‘Isolate and Contain’ Potential Onset of Negative Emotions

The second strategy is to ‘isolate and contain’ any negative student emotions that may arise as a result of engaging in critical questioning. Here, I am inspired by a remark that a professional FBI hostage negotiator, Chris Voss, once said, “What good negotiators do when labeling is address those underlying emotions. Labeling negatives diffuses them (or defuses them, in extreme cases)…” (Voss & Raz, 2016, pp. 46-47).1 In my own work as a tutor teaching classes on ethics, it is not uncommon for me to cast doubt on controversial opinions expressed by students. However, before I raise a critical question it is important that I get a sense of how comfortable a student is about being placed on the hot seat, so to speak. One way to prepare the ground is, taking a leaf from Voss, to ‘label’ the underlying emotion. Here’s what I sometimes say: “Okay, let me now try to put pressure on what you have said”, or “If you are feeling slightly unsure or doubtful about that point, this shows that you are thinking hard about the topic.” The labelling of any potentially negative emotions or states (suggested by the terms ‘pressure’ or ‘unsure’ which gestures towards possible student anxiety) helps isolate these emotions or states and as a result, cast them as mere epiphenomenal episodes that are distinct from the student. In other words, the strategies of depersonalising questions and that of isolating and containing negative emotions are alike in spirit—they facilitate the raising of critical questions while allowing tutors to tread (gingerly) in classrooms of students unfamiliar to the thrust and parry of noisy aggressive debates.



  1. My thanks to Cheng Yuan Wen for drawing my attention to this book.



Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. (Eds.). (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. Longman.

Broadbear, J. T. (2012). Essential elements of lessons designed to promote critical thinking. Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 3(3), 1–8. https://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/josotl/article/view/1603

Dweck, C. S., & Sorich, L. A. (1999). Mastery-oriented thinking. In C. R. Synder (Ed.), Coping: The Psychology of What Works (pp. 232–51). Oxford University Press.

Golding, C. (2011). Educating for critical thinking: Thought‐encouraging questions in a community of inquiry. Higher Education Research & Development, 30(3), 357–70. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2010.499144

Heft, I. E., & Scharff, L. F. V. (2017). Aligning best practices to develop targeted critical thinking skills and habits. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 17(3), 48–67. https://doi.org/10.14434/v17i3.22600

Lorencová, H., Jarošová, E. Avgitidou, S., & Dimitriadou, C. (2019). Critical thinking practices in teacher education programmes: A systematic review. Studies in Higher Education, 44(5), 844–59. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2019.1586331

Paulhus, D. L., Duncan, J. H., & Yik, M. S. (2002). Patterns of shyness in East-Asian and European-heritage students. Journal of Research in Personality, 36(5), 442-62. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0092-6566(02)00005-3

Voss, C., & Raz, T. (2016). Never split the difference: Negotiating as if your life depended on it. Random House.



ZHOU Ziqian, Jan is a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for English Language Communication (CELC). A philosopher by training, Jan publishes mainly in the domain of metaphysics. His teaching interest, however, is in the fields of ethics and philosophical aspects of the law (especially the criminal law). He considers teaching to be the most satisfying work he does and feels that his students, perhaps unbeknownst to them, have taught him more than he has them.

Jan can be reached at elczz@nus.edu.sg.


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