We have established that classroom interaction is important. But most of us are faced with the same problem — what makes a question a good question? Any question is great because it clarifies something, but it’s even better when it’s a question that moves the discussion forward. Sometimes the pressure of asking a good question backfires and we find ourselves ruminating on what a “good enough” question would be, rather than actually ever asking one! I’m pretty sure all of us have gone through this at some point. The problem with constantly thinking about how to ask a “good enough” question is it takes away from the present moment in class. That is, instead of your cognitive resources being used to actively listen to the professor, you’re focused on using what the professor is saying to ask an “interesting enough” question. And with this at the back of your head, you’re likely to miss the point.
In my experience, and I’m sure most of you would agree — the most valuable questions are a result of careful listening. Instead of thinking about what to ask and how to frame it, start by being completely present in the moment.
The most basic questions are usually the most resourceful and insightful ones. They also show that you’ve been engaged with what the professor has been saying — as opposed to trying to prove a point to the class. Moreover, if you are truly paying attention during lecture, most of the times, the questions will come to you. And by that I mean as soon as you don’t quite get something, or want to know more about something you’ll have an almost reflexive “but..why?” or “what?” in your head. As soon as you become aware of this, your job is to articulate that moment of confusion or curiosity. If you do that, your question is a reflection of real and active cognitive engagement with the material. Not only does this clarify your doubt, but it does so for other students and moreover, helps the professor understand how his or her students are engaging with the material. This way, the professor gets cues from you and other students as to what method of teaching is working and what isn’t. This of course will only improve how the professor engages you and other students with the material, which will enhance your classroom experience.
So to sum things up —
- Make sure you’re attentive and carefully listening to what the professor is saying. Doing your readings will aid this experience because it provides a framework within which you can encode the material.
- Identify your moment of confusion. This can be as simple as a “wait..what?” in your head.
- Articulate it. If I can’t find the words immediately I just scribble down the concept I didn’t get and articulate the question in the break or after class.
- Ask away! By doing so you’re helping yourself, your peers and the professor.
Moreover, it doesn’t even have to be question! Sometimes we just have a comment to make. Sometimes it’s a personal experience. If you’re too shy to ask a question in class, try sending an email. It’s relevant and important because it helps you and in many cases everyone else to understand how the material is applied. Questions and comments are extremely powerful tools we need to use to uniquely engage ourselves with the material. You’d be surprised at how a simple “This theory actually reminded me of…” can go. It’s pretty amazing the amount of interesting connections one simple comment or question can lead to — give it a shot.