Art of asking questions

Published 12.10.2021 at the SWATNet project webpage.

(pic: Prof. Minna Palmroth’s Introduction to Plasma Physics class)

Ladies and Gentlemen of SWATNet class ’21:  Ask Questions.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, asking questions would be it. (For more general life advices, please listen to this)

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We all know that uncomfortable silence when no hands rise for questions after a lecture or a seminar has ended.  ‘So all was clear…’, the lecturer/presenter mutters finally awkwardly.  Everyone gathers their stuff and quietly leaves the room.

Maybe it was all clear. More likely, it was so difficult and fast-paced that nobody could come up with a sensible question. Or someone had one, but thought it was too obvious or was afraid to speak up.

Young children are constantly asking questions, even to the point of annoyance. But as years go by, questions get fewer and fewer, until they almost completely cease.

Benefits of questioning

Why is it important to keep asking questions?

It is not so that you can impress, or try to look smart or baffe the speaker.

It is because that fosters interactions, challenges your understanding, and enhances critical thinking and creativity.

Asking questions helps you to learn more efficiently. It is a way to self-assess, clarify things and place them in context with what you already know.  It enhances your verbal, communication and problem solving skills.

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A well-formulated question is the foundation of research.

It is (or at least should be) the starting point of every scientific article. In funding proposals you need to come up with a set of research questions that convince the reviewers that you are going to make something groundbreaking if they grant you the money.

If the apple falls, does the moon also fall?” Isaac Newton asked in 1666 while having an evening walk through his garden. And the rest is history.

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Asking questions is also a great way to network, boost your visibility in the scientific community and support the presenter.

By doing that you show interest in what others are working on and possibly even advance their research. This could lead not only to fruitful exchange of ideas, but initiate new collaborations.

Your questions will make the event a better experience for everyone. All speakers generally like getting questions, even very straightforward ones, and discussions allow the whole audience to get more out of the topic.

Different types of questions

There are no bad questions. But different kinds of questions have different value.

Benjamin Bloom was an American educational psychologist who in the 1950s developed a method to categorize cognitive skills. In the revised version of ‘Bloom’s taxonomy’ the six levels of thinking from the lowest to highest are: 1) Remembering , 2) Understanding, 3) Applying, 4) Analyzing, 5) Evaluating, and 6) Creating.

Climbing towards the top of the Bloom’s taxonomy requires active contribution from the learner and asking questions will help in that endeavor.

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Fact-based questions aim at getting basic knowledge about the subject and procedures.  They rarely lead to profound discussions, but are also valuable. For example, it is critical to understand temporal and spatial scales to build a comprehensive picture of the system and comprehend underlying physical processes.

Conceptual questions in turn aim at the highest levels of thinking and enhance deep learning. They target for example for linking, comparing, and justifying, and finally, for producing original work and new knowledge.

Things that keep us silent

Alecia Carter, a research scientist  at the University of Montpellier in France and her co-workers published in 2018 an article about question-asking behaviour at academic seminars. They found key reasons to remain silent being a fear that the question in mind was not appropriate, worry that the content was misunderstood and not having the nerve to ask.

The common answers to open-ended questions included reasons such as feeling unimportant, being worried about judgement from the members of the audience and feeling uncomfortable with the language.

It is a pity if one refrains from discussion due to unfounded doubts. It is almost certain that the question you were afraid to ask was at least on half of the audience’s mind.

According to Carter’s study males ask 2.5 times more questions than their female colleagues. Females also found internal concerns and personal characteristics more limiting than men. Positive role models are crucial. If you are a female and have a question, it is even more important that you speak up.

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There are also several other reasons for not raising the hand.

It could be just a lazy day or being distracted. At conferences almost everyone nowadays has a laptop open or a mobile phone at hand. Although multi-tasking is sometimes necessary, it prevents us from fully paying attention. We hear just bits and pieces.

New things may come so quickly that there is no time to process the information, in particular if you lack the background. And sometimes the speaker is just so completely confusing and dives straight into a zoo of incomprehensible details that all listeners are lost after the opening line.

Mastering the skill

If you are not a natural-born-question-asker you can luckily practise this valuable skill.

Coming up with a question takes effort and most of us need a systematic plan to make it a habit.  You need to stay alert, listen actively and reflect. Taking notes during the talk/lecture helps in that.

One of my students once told me that he had decided to challenge himself by asking at least one question during all upcoming seminars. What an excellent idea!

The majority, even senior ones, feel nervous asking in a big auditorium full of experts. One can start practising in smaller seminars and workshops.  You can also approach the speaker/lecturer afterwards or write an email.

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It is easier to shape questions on topics you are familiar with. If it is a lecture, try to find time to read the material beforehand. For seminars and conference talks it is good to think some typical questions to ask.

You can inquire details about methodologies. Were there assumptions or techniques not clearly explained? Or alternative ways to do the analysis. The speaker is also usually delighted to share more information about observations or numerical approaches.

Perhaps there were some results you can ask the speaker to elaborate. Confusing things in the plots, no uncertainties shown or weird data outliers she/he did not have time to discuss. Maybe it was not fully obvious how the conclusions were reached based on the data that was shown.

Could there be other interpretations or possibilities to extrapolate the results? If several explanations are given, you can ask what the presenter considers the most likely scenario. Was there something that surprised you or contradicted your current understanding?

You can also ask about future plans to continue the research, perhaps in a new setting or with a different data set. Are there some new observations or numerical advancements foreseen that allow resolving the open problems?

Right questions

So challenge yourself to ask more questions. It will help you to blossom as a researcher and develop your own ideas. You will start to enjoy the lectures, seminars and conferences more. Even if you would not finally raise the hand, just by formulating questions in your mind is beneficial in many ways.

The world is not simple, but beautifully complex.

Focus on learning to realise what you do not understand and in particular what you would love to find out. A French philosopher and anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss stated: “The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, but the one who asks the right questions.”

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