On learning to ask questions

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On learning to ask questions

Everyone knows that good students ask questions. After all, ‘the only stupid question is the question that is never asked’. But what we don’t often talk about is that asking questions is actually really hard.

As a tutor, I absolutely adore it when students ask questions. It’s a sign that they’re listening, they’re learning and best of all, they’re thinking. I don’t care what the question is. As long as they’re learning, my heart is content.

But more often than not, I suspect, questions go unasked. Genuine questions brimming with potential insights to be gained. Questions that would build new bridges between concepts and forge connections in our synapses. It’s a loss for the whole class when these questions never make it past the tips of our tongues and instead sink into the depths of that dark place in our brains where forgotten things go.

Now, what stops us from bringing these questions to light? What are some barriers to asking questions?

For me personally, the answer varied depending on the context. English was not my strongest subject. I’d constantly be at a loss of what I was supposed to be writing an essay about. More often than not, I’d have absolutely no idea what the writer meant by a certain phrase and thought that perhaps an easier route to the answer would be to call up the writer and ask. (Although in some cases, I’d first have to invent a telephone to the afterlife.) See, in English class, I always felt my questions were silly and superficial, so I didn’t want to ask for fear of slowing the class down. And perhaps more to the point, I often didn’t know how to phrase my confusion into a coherent question, so I couldn’t ask it anyway.

The situation was reversed in science class. Biology and chemistry were my top subjects. But ironically, there were also subjects in which I struggled to ask questions. Sure, I had questions, lots of them, and I even knew how to phrase them. But foolishly, I always double-guessed myself. My questions had to be intelligent, insightful and demonstrating a good aptitude for scientific thinking. And why? Because I didn’t want to disappoint my teachers. It was only when I became a tutor that I realised how my teachers would probably have loved for me to ask those questions, regardless of how insightful they were.

So we have established that teachers love questions but students are often hesitant to ask. Now, how can you improve your question-asking game?

  • Ask at first instance of confusion. Don’t wait. It will only get harder to ask a concise question that covers everything you need some help with.
  • Don’t worry if your question isn’t a beautifully eloquent piece of poetry. Even if you say ‘could you please explain that again?’, you’re getting somewhere. If your teacher doesn’t understand the question, he or she will clarify with you until you figure it out together.
  • Remember that teachers love questions. They can tell that you’re genuinely seeking to learn and they will rejoice. So be brave and speak up. Your question will be a gift to everyone.
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