eCoaching Tip 67 Developing Rigor in Our Questioning: Eight Intellectual Standards

June 3, 2009

eCoaching Tip 67 Developing Rigor in Our Questioning: Eight Intellectual Standards

Are you stumped for ways to ensure that you are asking stimulating and relevant questions? Would you like to have more confidence that your questions help your students internalize the core concepts of your course?  Here is a way to tap into the power of Socratic questioning.

This tip describes a set of eight intellectual standards. These standards can help you   raise the level of intellectual thought, clarity and purpose in your course. Using these intellectual standards also increases the probability that students will develop a useful and accurate set of course concepts.

As you know from previous tips, concept formation is not a one-time event.   Rather, concept formation takes time, thought and a series of exposures and uses of the concept. Systematic questioning can serve as a framework for revealing the accuracy, breadth and depth of how learners are doing in their process of acquiring concepts.

If a concept is really core to a discipline, learners must “come at” that concept from a number of directions.  They must experience that concept in virtual, simulated, or even hands-on contexts if possible.

Concepts as Knowledge Clusters

Recall that concepts are more than words, that concept are “organized and intricate clusters of knowledge bits.” This means that while we must often teach in a linear fashion, building up concept information step-by-step, learners need to experience concepts within the contexts of complex problems and case studies.  Effectively learning concepts — as we know from novice and expert studies — requires a focus on patterns and relationships, not merely learning discrete facts or vocabulary.

So what are some examples of core concepts?   How might we use questioning to help learners shape and grow concepts?

The next part of the tip provides three core concepts and then lists eight characteristics (standards) of intellectual rigor with sample questions. (Note: I am not a biologist, so corrections and suggestions on the biology examples are welcome.)

Core Concept Examples

Here are examples of three core concepts, one from a course on learning, one from leadership and one from biology.

  • Here is a core concept in the discipline of learning: Learning is growth that occurs with the acquisition of new knowledge and experiences associated with that knowledge. Growth can be observed by new behaviors.
  • Here is a core concept in leadership: Leadership is rooted in a shared, well-articulated, and worthy vision.
  • Here is a core concept in biology: Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is a nucleic acid that contains the genetic instructions for the development and functioning of living organisms.

Now let’s move on to the eight intellectual standards that you might use to help learners to acquire these concepts.

Rigor in Questioning:  Eight Intellectual Standards

Developing concepts requires thought and reasoning work by the learner, similar to the processes used in solving problems, puzzles and in detective work. Here are eight intellectual standards for guiding thinking and reasoning that can be used as a framework for developing questions to help ensure your learners are developing the core concepts of your course. Each standard is followed by a generic sample question and then an example of a question applied to a core concept.

These standards provide an explicit system to help achieve the power of Socratic questioning.

  1. The first standard is that of Clarity.
  • A sample generic question for clarity might be: Can you give an example or an illustration of your idea?
  • A sample of the clarity standard for the core concept for leadership might be:   Can you give an example of a leader who articulated a vision well?
  1. The second standard is that of Precision.
  • A sample generic question for precision might be: Can you be more specific about your concerns?
  • A sample of the precision standard for the core concept of learning might be: How can we best see evidence of growth in learning? What are the some of the possible ways to evaluate learning that has resulted in a change in behavior?
  1. The third standard is that of Accuracy.
  • A sample generic question for accuracy might be: What evidence do you have that supports your statements? Is this evidence verifiable and from a reliable source?
  • A sample of the accuracy standard for the core concept of leadership might be: Can you verify the sources, the time, place, and occurrence of the clearly stated vision and that the vision came from this leader?
  1. The fourth standard is Relevance.
  • A sample generic question for relevance might be: Can you explain how your example, statement or story is connected to the current issue? How is it relevant? What is its relationship to the issue at hand?
  • A sample of the relevance standard for the core concept of biology might be: How is the genetic material that resides in our DNA of particular relevance today? What are the possible future impacts of DNA processes shared by living organisms?
  1. The fifth standard is Depth.
  • A sample generic question for depth might be: What makes this concept so complex? What are the components of the concept that must come together?
  • A sample of the depth standard for the core concept of learning might be: Why is learning so complex?  What does learning interact with that is internal to each individual?  What is shared? What is unique?
  1. The sixth standard is Breadth.
  • A sample generic question for breadth might be: What other points of view should we consider?
  • A sample of the breadth standard for the core concept of leadership might be: What are other perspectives or consideration for the vision of this leader? Are there ethical, economic, justice issues?
  1. The seventh standard is Logic.
  • A sample generic question for logic might be: Does the solution make sense? What is the line of reasoning that brought you to this point?
  • A sample of thelogic standard for the core concept of biology might be: What line of research substantiates the workings of the genetic material and how it manifests itself in different living organisms?
  1. The eighth standard is Fairness.
  • A sample generic question for fairness might be: Who has vested interest in these issues?What assumptions is an author making?
  • A sample of the fairness standard for the core concept of learning might be: Is merit pay based on test scores an appropriate measure for K-12 teachers?Why or why not?  What does this approach assume?

Background of the Set of Eight Intellectual Standards

The set of eight intellectual standards used in this tip is just one of many resources available at the website Foundation for Critical Thinking. This site is sponsored by a cross-disciplinary group promoting excellence in thinking. The many small guides available from this group are rich resources for ideas on developing critical thinking. These same resources can be useful in developing rubrics for discussions, assignments and general course dialogue.

The two primary authors of these materials are Richard Paul and Linda Elder. Richard Paul is an internationally recognized authority on critical thinking and founder of the Center for Critical Thinking at Sonoma State University.  Linda Elder is President of the Foundation for Critical Thinking and Executive Director of the Center for Critical Thinking.  Other resources include guides on Asking Essential Questions and a Guide to Scientific Thinking.One resource — Thinking With Concepts — loops us back directly to the question of how concepts are related to critical thinking.  In the words of Paul and Elder (2002),

To become a proficient critical thinker, they (students) must become the master of their own conceptualizations.  They must develop the ability to mentally “remove” this or that concept from the things named by the concept and try out alternative ideas, and alternative names. (Paragraph 4)

This quote is a bit complex to process while hearing, as it is a cluster of concepts itself.  It reminds us that concepts are the building blocks of our thinking, and that people successful at thinking critically need to be able to reshape their concepts as new information becomes available. This can mean  “removing” and “recalibrating our thoughts.” For example, we do depend on language and memory as tools for building concepts; but in addition, culture is a significant influence on our concepts.  Our concepts are “steeped” in our culture and the society of our life experiences. Consider the controversy about the “wise woman” statement of Sonia Sotomayor during her nomination processes for the U.S.Supreme Court. Critical thinkers learn to examine their concepts and identify the experiences that resulted in those concepts and adjust accordingly.

Course assignments might coach students in analyzing one or more of their course readings and related media and ferreting out the underlying implicit concepts and assumptions. Where else might you use this system of intellectual rigor for course questions?  Here are some learning activities that you might use to test out the use of these intellectual standards.

  • Use a breadth (perspective) question in one or more initial discussion postings to help ensure a broad look at the issues
  • Use precision or clarity questions when probing with follow-up questions on discussion conversations, case study examinations to ensure using accurate data for concept development
  • Design a learning activity that requires students to use these eight standards in an analysis of an assumption

The practice of explicitly designing excellence in thinking into our courses can result in a course design that supports learners in developing explicit and implicit knowledge of the standards and means for critical thinking.  So in summary, these eight standards — clarity, precision, accuracy, relevance, depth, breadth, logic and fairness — are tools for faculty and learner inquiry.  Using these standards is a means to higher-level thinking and effective critical analysis.

References and Resources

Asking Good Questions in Class. McGraw Center. Princeton University.  This tip is one in a series of teaching tips for instructors that address perennial teaching concerns. Retrieved July 6 2010 from The main index for all the tips is at  The tip on Building In Time To Think and Reflect During Classhas good hints for online courses as well as campus-based courses.

Paul, R. and Elder, L. (2002).  Thinking with concepts. Foundation for Critical Thinking. Retrieved July 6 2010from

Paul, R., and Elder, L. (2008).  The analysis and assessment of thinking.Retrieved July 6 2010from

Paul, R. and Elder, L. (2008) The Miniature guide to critical thinking: Concepts and tools. Foundation for Critical Thinking. Pp.24.

Paul, R. and Elder, L. (2008) The Thinker’s Guide to Intellectual Standards. Dillon Beach, CA.  Foundation for Critical Thinking

Note: These eCoaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized, expanded and updated  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips (2016) coauthored with Rita- Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached at judith followed by

Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 2006 – 2020