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Asking Better Questions: 3 Decision Points

One of the commentors on “10 Ways to Be a Better Learner: No. 3 – Ask Questions” raised the question (!) of how to ask good questions. Serendipitously, as I was doing some research on note-taking, I noticed that Fiona McPherson (who long time readers may remember from the About Memory podcasts a while back) has a post titled “Asking Better Questions.” In it, she highlights three key decision points for determining whether a question is effective:

  • does it make the information more meaningful?
  • does it make the information more comprehensible?
  • does it increase the number of meaningful connections?

I particularly like the last one. While Fiona, in the context of this post, is referring primarily to connections between concepts, ideas, and information, questions are also an essential tool in forming connections to more meaningful learning networks.

I highly recommend reading the full Asking Better Questions post. In it, Fiona goes through a range of “Why?” questions that might be asked based on a set of initial facts and then critiques these questions. (Note: When she writes “Look again at our original questions,” make sure you do it. A quick review of the earlier post in which the “original questions” appear makes the “Asking Better Questions” post a lot clearer.)

Given my repeated focus on asking “Why?” here on Mission to Learn, I’ll wrap up by highlighting an important point that Fiona makes about “why” questions:

Why questions, like any questions, are only effective to the extent that they direct attention to appropriate information.

Research confirms that it is better to search for consistent relations than inconsistent ones. In many cases your background knowledge may include information that is consistent with the new information, and information that is inconsistent.

By asking “Why is this true?” you focus on the consistent information.

Now – go read Fiona’s post. Why wouldn’t you?


Leave a Comment:

Jeff Cobb says

Celisa – Thanks very much for this addition. It seems more important than ever to recognize the way we all modulate between teacher and learner roles in asking questions. I think an important aspect of social learning – particularly as it occurs out on the Web – is that we very often don’t know “for whom” when we consider asking a question. It’s perhaps this nuance that makes me a little reluctant to agree with Fiona’s assertion that ““Bad questions can be worse than no questions at all.”

I’m not so much opposed to the idea that some questions are qualitatively better than others (i.e., some doing a better job of answering Fiona’s qualifiers than others). But that begs the question – as you suggest – better for what, and for whom? In very tightly defined situations we may be able to assume we know the answer to these questions, but at the same time, we may kill off questions that could lead to new and productive lines of thinking – not to mention creativity and innovation.

I probably just chafe a bit at anything that implies that some questions simply should not be asked. Maybe – perhaps we need to throw out that old saw “There is no such thing as a stupid question” – and yet I don’t have to do more than pick up a newspaper (okay, pick up my iPad) to see that so much of what is going in the world is being driven by assumptions, biases, and unquestioned beliefs (and much of what is positive is driven by the fact that people are asking questions). If and when I see that change significantly, I may start thinking that there is such an animal as a bad question. For the time being, I still be satisfied just to see more questions of any type asked.


Celisa Steele says

Thanks for this, Jeff. I found Fiona McPherson’s post interesting. I like that she says, “Bad questions can be worse than no questions at all.”

Her and your comments on connections has me thinking about social learning, which leads then to the following questions about questions (modified from Dr. McPherson’s):

* For whom does the question make the information more meaningful?
* For whom does it make the information more comprehensible?
* For whom does it increase the number of meaningful connections?

What I’m wanting to get at is the power of questions for both teachers and learners, and with informal, lifelong learning, we ebb and flow between those two roles. Sometimes I might ask a question because I’m trying to learn; other times because I’m trying to teach.

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