How can I refine the CRIT 602 course question into a critical inquiry question that will give me the information I need to be strategic about my academic and professional development at this stage?

Before you develop your own critical inquiry question to guide your research in the upcoming weeks, let’s take a moment to revisit the story of A. Hyatt Mayer. He was the young art historian with an advanced degree and no work experience who was hired for a very responsible position at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When a member of the board of directors challenged his youth and inexperience, Mayer’s response was, “I wasn’t hired for what I know, I was hired for what I can find out.”

Think about this for a minute. You’re in a position of needing good information to be successful in a situation you haven’t experienced before. How do you know what information you will need to successfully address the situation at hand? Where do you start?

You start by reflecting on what you already know and using that knowledge to articulate what you need to find out. In other words, you develop a good critical inquiry question.

We have already developed a general critical inquiry question for the course: How will current trends, concerns, and research related to my academic discipline inform the decisions I make about my academic and professional development or personal interests? This question is actually two questions that have been combined:

  • What are the current trends and conditions outside of higher education impacting my field of study and its associated professions?
  • Of these current trends and conditions impacting my field of study, which are the most relevant to my own academic and professional development or personal goals/interests?

Taken at face value, these questions are pretty straightforward–until you start thinking about the volume of information available about any given field, as well as the time and effort needed to find the information, evaluate its validity, and determine the relevance of the information to either or both of the two questions–not to mention how you and your classmates can actually use the information to develop effective strategies for your own academic and professional development. 

This suggests that another question needs to be articulated to provide focus and personal relevance to the research you will be conducting to answer the two questions listed above. McMaster University’s web page, “What Is a ‘Good’ Critical Inquiry Question?”1 provides criteria for developing a good critical inquiry question. We have excerpted the criteria that apply to this week’s assignment.

The question is open to research.

  • Keep in mind that your critical inquiry question should be exploring trends in your field, so this is not a traditional academic research paper.  Your research will involve exploring professional organizations, social media platforms, and other information resources to determine what is “trending.”
  • Your exploratory research will compile what is being said about key trends. Your exploratory essay will analyze and synthesize these trends and reflect on how these trends impact you at your academic and/or professional stage.
  • An understanding of the question can be obtained within the scope of the course. “Who am I?” may be difficult to find an answer to through research, although you could adapt this question to make it open to research.

The question will have multiple possible answers from multiple sources when initially asked.

  • The question should not be answered by a simple yes/no.
  • The question should not be answered by going to only one source of information. You should be looking for multiple perspectives.

The question is not a matter of locating information.

  • The answer to the question will involve reflection and analysis. “How do I get certified to teach?” and “How do I become a certified mental health counselor?” are not questions of critical inquiry. They are questions of locating information.

A new question can be asked once all your information is gathered.

  • A good inquiry never really completely ends. It should trigger new questions and things you are curious about.

Having the right answer matters to you.

  • This may seem an odd thing to include but it is at the foundation to inquiry.
  • Inquiry is about needing to know the answer to a question, or researching a question where the answer has consequences, so there is some pressure to get it right. Anything short of this can be a game, fun, mentally stimulating, but isn’t genuine inquiry.

An Example of How to Refine a Critical Inquiry Question

For an example of how this process of starting with a general question and refining it to get relevant information might play out in a professional situation, let’s take the case of a private nonprofit human services agency that provides services to homeless veterans in Coos County, New Hampshire. (Note: All of the information in this example is hypothetical.) Over the past year, the agency has seen a significant increase in staff turnover that has resulted in poor staff morale, an increase in sick days taken, an increase in training costs, and a decrease in the number of veterans receiving services while the number of veterans needing services has increased. Obviously, the critical inquiry question is, What can a human services organization do to stop a continual turnover of staff?

The assistant director dashes to the library and finds a 1996 study of a training program implemented at New York City Child Services that reduced their staff turnover rate by 75% the first year after implementation in 1994. Problem solved for our rural nonprofit agency serving homeless veterans? No, the problem isn’t solved because using the general question to drive the search for information resulted in information that wasn’t relevant.  A training program to address staffing conditions at an urban, public human services agency serving the needs of children in New York City in 1994 probably won’t meet the needs of our rural private agency serving veterans in northern New Hampshire in 2018. Moreover, looking at only one study provides a limited perspective. How about we refine the question to read, What methods of addressing staff turnover at rural, private human services agencies serving veterans have proven effective? Note that we’ve limited the question enough to bring us relevant information but not so much that we’ll get only one perspective. Our search could include research studies, best practices articles, field interviews, news stories, and discussions on social media to give us a good range of perspectives.

For the purposes of CRIT 602, let’s say that your field of study is human services and you are interested in working with veterans in your future career because your brother developed PTSD in Afghanistan and your best friend from high school suffered a traumatic brain injury while on active duty. You’ve just started taking human services courses, and your knowledge of services for veterans is from your own experience with your brother and your best friend.  How could you refine the course question, How will current trends, concerns, and research related to my academic discipline inform the decisions I make about my academic and professional development or personal interests?

To find information relevant to preparing for entry into a career providing human services for veterans, you could refine the question to read, What is the current state of human services for veterans in the United States? Note that the question is exploratory, rather than targeted. You’re not looking for directories of veterans’ services. You’re wanting contextual and evaluative information as well, such as trends, future projections, emerging research into causes, and public perception.


Start with your personal narrative! Your personal narrative is a good place to start for questions about your chosen field of study that matter to you. “Will I be a good teacher?” or “What kinds of jobs will I be able to get with a degree in Psychology?” are questions of great personal importance; however, they are not questions of critical inquiry. At the same time, they can serve as a starting point for developing a good critical inquiry question.  For example, a concern about being a good teacher is directly related to the question of teaching standards. How is good teaching defined, by whom, and is there consensus among all the conversations currently taking place about what constitutes good teaching? The question of jobs in a field as broad as psychology is a question of understanding the scope of the field, the fields related to it, and the professions associated with it.

A few other things to keep in mind:

  • Your question should be exploratory, having no single definitive answer, rather than a targeted question with a definitive answer.
  • Developing a good critical inquiry question is a skill that is developed with practice over time. Please don’t hesitate to ask your classmates or your instructor if you need help.
  • Over the normal course of a critical inquiry, the question can evolve or even change altogether as you analyze and reflect on the information you find.


1Roy, D., Kustra, E., & Borin, P. (2003). What Is a “Good” Critical Inquiry Question? Retrieved from http://cll.mcmaster.ca/resources/misc/good_inquiry_question.html


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