Asking Questions

A few weeks ago, I suggested that students try applying to conferences. A question I’ve heard since then is: “But how can I participate in conferences outside of presenting a paper or poster?” “Good question”, I respond, spinning them into a cycle of positive feedback: you should ask questions.

Of course, this isn’t just about conferences; the same thing applies to the classroom. You don’t have to be presenting in a seminar or working on an assignment to engage with the material: you can always comment and ask questions. Granted, I know that’s not always easy, so here are some tips I’ve developed for myself on how to ask questions, wherever you are.

one asian little boy stands in front of the blackboard ,thinking the solution of the math.

1. Forget about the power dynamics. When I first attended local conferences, there seemed to be a bit of a power battle in the Q&As, with each person trying to gain an upper hand and prove their worth by either answering all the questions, or presenting an unanswerable query. Don’t do this. When asking questions, we should set ourselves as equals in the pursuit of knowledge. This might sound lovey-dovey, but there is no need for toxicity or power-struggles when people are trying to get feedback on their work! The same applies for classrooms: no need to try and control the room, we're all here to learn!

2. Keep a pen and paper handy. It’s easy to lose track of what’s being said or what thought’s you’re having. Try jotting down notes, concerns, or questions while others are presenting or doing the Q&A or lecturing.

3. Don’t worry about making a splash. Even pebbles make a splash: your questions don’t have to be supremely insightful to be worth asking. Questions for clarification are perfectly fine: don’t expect that you’re the only person who didn’t understand something. But if you’re seeking clarification, try also to state why that clarification might be important. If you have a question, go ahead and ask. This is particularly important in the classroom, where you are there specifically to learn.

4. Listen to other questions. Sometimes it’s easy to be blown away by the questions people ask: how did they come up with that in so little time? Chances are, they just know the topic better, but it’s a great idea to take note of the questions you think are good (e.g., because they were well-phrased, or because they ask something really important) and try later to see what makes them tick.

Boy with chalk speech bubble on wall

5. Get feedback on your questions. It seems like a weird thing to do, but you can’t ask better questions without knowing where they went wrong. When I try to ask a question in a classroom but it just won’t come out right, I try catching my prof after class to rearticulate myself and ask how I could have better asked my question. It’s also good to ask people at conferences whether your question was a fair question, and if it helped in any way.

6. Be positive. There are many kinds of questions that can be asked. If you’re asking a question about someone’s work, it’s nice to consider prefacing your question with a statement about what you liked in the presentation, or contextualizing your question. Something like “Thank you for sharing your paper. I think X is an important topic, and your theory Y does some important things by A, B, and C. That said, I have a question about how C applies in this case”. But you should also considering asking questions that are themselves supportive and positive: “Have you considered adding D? I think it might patch up a few holes in your argument, because...” or “Dr. Q has a good paper you might want to check out too, if you’re looking at taking this paper further”. There are enough negative or attacking questions that go around: try to bring some positivity to the table (you won’t be forgotten for it!).

Group of people in a conference hall raising hands to ask questions
Have any other tips about asking questions? Let me know in the comments below!

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