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You’ve probably heard someone — most likely a teacher —say there’s no such thing as a stupid question. While this rule makes sense in principle, it’s often messy in reality. A better inquiry might be, “How can I ask good questions?”
This skill will help you well after you graduate. Knowing how and when to ask the right questions can help you excel in all walks of life.
Are you ready to take a long, hard look at your practices and see where you can improve? Here’s your student’s guide to how to ask good questions.
General Rules for Asking Questions
There’s a time and place for everything, including asking good questions. Although you might burn to know the answer, the approach you take determines whether you get it — or unwittingly offend someone:
- Evaluate the appropriateness: How personal is the question, and how well do you know the person you are asking? For example, asking a potential romantic partner how they feel about children when you’re three dates in and evaluating whether you have a future together is one thing. Pressing a new colleague about their choice to remain child-free is not okay.
- Read the audience: Your meeting already ran 20 minutes longer than expected. You want clarification on a fine detail of a new work process, but some of your colleagues have gathered their belongings, hoping to catch the bus. Would it be better to hold everyone up when most will be too distracted to listen or ask in a team email or the group Slack where everyone can refer to the answer if they forget?
- Time it right: You need help on an assignment, but your professor has an appointment after class. If your question requires more than a simple yes or no answer, you might want to set a time to discuss your inquiry when neither party is in a rush.
If you struggle with impulse control, get in the habit of taking a mindful pause before shooting your hand up like a raised white flag the instant you feel unsure about your understanding. Your teacher may address your “what if” scenario before you have a chance to form your question. Furthermore, you should give thought to the time, place and appropriateness of your inquiry before blurting out the first question that rises to your lips.
1. Determine Your Purpose
Sometimes, you want a quick yes or no answer. Others you want to dig deep into a subject, learning everything you can.
Here’s where academia can get tricky — the nature of your studies is to learn as much as possible. However, the concept of opportunity cost extends beyond Economics 101. The time you devote to your research consists of irreplaceable hours and minutes. Sometimes, you have to wrap things up for the sake of brevity.
Knowing the purpose behind your question helps you pinpoint the correct answer more quickly. For example, suppose you wanted to know how much salt is safe to consume daily. You’ll get two different answers, depending on whether you struggle with high blood pressure or not.
2. Choose the Right Question Format
Knowing how to phrase your question is also key to getting your desired answer. Suppose you’re touring colleges. If you ask the recruiter, “How’s the food on campus,” you might get a general overview of the dining hall and meal plan options. However, you may have specific dietary restrictions or unusual eating habits, like a penchant for midnight dinners that require more pointed, straightforward answers. For example:
- Do dorm rooms come with mini-fridges and microwaves, or must students supply them?
- What hours is the dining hall open, and what, if any, provisions do they provide between meals?
- Are gluten-free items prepared separately from those containing wheat?
In general, sticking to yes or no questions is best when time is of the essence. Conversely, asking open-ended questions provides deeper, more comprehensive answers.
When to Use Open-Ended Questions
Asking the right questions matters outside of the classroom, too. For example, you can use certain techniques when socializing with others, especially if you’re worried about not making enough friends at your new school.
Asking your new lab partner if they like Chemistry 101 might get you nothing more than a noncommittal grunt in reply. However, asking what major they’ve chosen and why or what they enjoy most about university life can spark the kind of conversations that grow friendships.
You can use open-ended questions in the classroom to dig deeper into the subject matter. For example, you might ask, “What else was happening around the world when the Vietnam war began?” Discovering how other nations viewed the conflict lends multiple perspectives, some of which you might not have considered previously.
A Side Note on Silence
People often listen to respond instead of to understand. How many times have you caught yourself mentally forming a retort while the other person was still talking?
Professional interviewers understand the value of silence — it enables you to get more information than you would by jumping in with your perspective. Often, people will keep talking if given the opportunity for no reason other than feeling awkward with quiet pauses, too, compelled by the same urge to fill the empty airspace. Let them. There’s no telling what you may learn.
3. Know Who to Ask
You might read this subtitle and think, “Duh! I’ll ask my professor when I have a question.” While this approach often works, it isn’t the end-all, be-all for rocking your college career.
For example, what if you want to ask for a reference? Certainly, you know some instructors who are more likely to write you a rave review than others.
What if you’re struggling in one of your courses, and you’ve asked your professor for extra help? However, you still can’t understand their explanation. Sometimes, talking to a classmate brings clarity — they may use different language that makes the troublesome concept crystal clear.
4. Keep an Open Mind
You got into your top-choice school because you have a stellar academic record. You’re plenty smart — but even Albert Einstein didn’t know everything.
Scientists will tell you that the research process is as much about unlearning old assumptions as it is about making discoveries. For instance, think of how the media depicted scaly-looking dinosaurs right up through the first “Jurassic Park” movies. We now know that most species likely had a fine coat of light feathers. T-Rex becomes less terrifying when you picture it as an oversized chicken.
The bottom line: Keep an open mind when asking questions, especially in the classroom. The given answer may contradict what you’ve previously learned. Consider the contradiction an invitation for further inquiry. How did the old beliefs come about, and how can you avoid similar misconceptions in the future?
A Student’s Guide to Asking Good Questions
Knowing how to ask good questions is a crucial skill for a college student. The right inquiries bring depth to your studies, helping you understand the subject matter and how it applies to everyday life.
Use this guide to learn how to ask good questions and accelerate your academic career. This skill helps you well beyond the classroom and into adult life.