Learning to Ask Good Questions

I absolutely love when students ask questions in class.

Questions outside of class are great too, whether they come by email or through one-on-one conversation over a cup of coffee. I’ve often come to clarity about some of my own ideas in trying to answer a student’s out-of-class question about some complex issue.

But questions in class have a special importance. I learned as an undergraduate student that once you start asking questions in class something important happens.

Two things, actually.

First, the quality of your own learning goes way up.

You become more engaged with the material being taught and you develop a better grasp of it. I think the way human psychology works is that when you say something out loud you become more personally invested in the topic. And when you articulate your inchoate thoughts (even in the form of a question) it helps you gain a degree of clarity you hadn’t yet achieved.

But something also happens to the class as a whole.

The learning of the other students goes up. The interactive aspect of a class (the back-and-forth between student and teacher) helps other students pay more attention. And it stimulates their thinking. Just one person asking good questions can get others talking, and then the effect snowballs.

The Value of Questions for Shy People

But it’s certainly hard to get started, especially if you’re a shy person.

I was shy from childhood right through my late twenties. So I know that it requires a certain amount of effort to start speaking up in class. As an undergraduate student, I used to have to spend time thinking about the assigned readings in advance of class and I would jot down comments—and especially questions—to bring to class.

The good thing about questions for a shy person is that you don’t have to worry about being right or wrong. You aren’t trying to show off your knowledge by giving answers. You’re trying to expand your knowledge by seeking answers.

I didn’t begin asking questions in class until my junior undergraduate year—yes, I really was that shy! Although I didn’t always get the answers I sought, my professors graciously hosted my questions. And the process of raising questions (and having them welcomed in class) turned me into a much more active learner.

After a while I started thinking of questions even while the professor was speaking, and I would raise my hand, and off we’d go.

I remember one episode in graduate school when my back-and-forth with a philosophy professor lasted for a full ten minutes (I kept asking about the basis of a particular idea—see below—and then about the basis of that one, and so on. The back-and-forth only ended when the professor lapsed into silence for what seemed like an eternity (but was perhaps only a few seconds). Finally, he admitted: “I have no idea. I really don’t know.”

But that wasn’t a problem, either for him or for me. It was simply an honest moment. And I even gained the professor’s respect for probing so deeply.

Three Kinds of Questions to Stimulate Learning

Looking back at my intellectual development, I’ve found there are three main kinds of questions that I’ve learned to ask, which have contributed most to my learning. These sorts of questions are the basis of developing critical habits of thought.

They set me in good stead for interacting not just with the classes I took, but also with any points of view I’ve encountered in my interactions with others, whether orally or in writing. So I ask these questions also of the books and articles I read.

But since I learnt the importance of these questions when I was a student, I’ll phrase them in terms of a classroom context.

Where Does That Come From? 

First, there are questions about the basis of an idea.

You’re in class, listening to the professor say something and a nagging question comes to mind:

  • “Why would we think that?”
  • “How do we know that is true?”
  • “Is there some ground for that idea?”

So, put up your hand and ask the question. (This was the sort of question that reduced my philosophy professor to silence.)

How Does That Relate?

Then there are questions about the relationship of different ideas.

You wonder about something the professor says in class that doesn’t seem to jibe with something you read in the assigned text or with something you thought the professor said in a previous class (or simply with something you know—or think you know—is true).

So you ask (respectfully):

  • “How would you reconcile what you said last week about this topic (or some other topic) with what you’re saying in class today?”
  • “If what you say is true, how does that fit with what today’s reading says on the same subject?”
  • “I’ve always thought thus-and-so, but now I’m wondering if it’s compatible with what you just said. Do you think there is any tension there?”

The point isn’t to try and trip up your teacher (though you might well do that). Rather, you learn the meaning of one idea by having its relation to other ideas clarified.

So What?

Finally, there are questions about the implications of an idea.

No matter how interesting an idea sounds, the rubber hits the road when you address the consequences of what is being taught. These consequences might have to do with how you think about something, but they might be relevant to practical action in the world. So you verbalize your question:

  • “What follows from this idea?”
  • “If that is true, what are the implications for X?”
  • “What would this mean for how we think about topic Y?”
  • “Does this mean we need to change our behavior?”

These kinds of questions engage your higher critical functioning, and after a while they become second nature to you.

Of course, not all questions have definitive answers. But in learning to ask good questions, your learning in all your courses goes up. And you get more out of conversations with others. And your reading comprehension improves drastically.

Have you had any positive or negative experiences asking questions in class?

Are there other questions that you’ve found helpful to ask?