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College Resource Center : Web Design and Development : Tips for Course Success : Asking Productive Questions

Asking Productive Questions

It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers. —James Thurber

Your instructor has given you an assignment: you are supposed to formulate three questions on the reading and discuss one of them with your small group. What is the value of this assignment? Why isn’t your instructor giving you the answers, instead of making you ask questions? You might wonder how you are going to get anything out of this assignment.

As a student, asking questions helps focus your thinking and helps you interact with the material. Asking questions—of yourself, fellow students and instructors—turns reading, listening and learning into active dialogue, rather than merely a passive exercise. Asking questions allows you to consider multiple scenarios and stimulates creative thinking. Asking questions helps you to clarify, understand and evaluate information.

But asking questions is not just for students. In the workplace, being willing to ask good questions when you need to will probably make the difference between being able to perform a task successfully or not. Asking questions at work can demonstrate your desire to learn, as well as an awareness of your capabilities. Being able to ask effective questions is one of the marks of a well-educated, insightful person, as well as part of being a valuable employee.

Let’s turn to some techniques for constructing effective questions. We will focus on written questions—but these suggestions could also be helpful for discussions or conversation.

Tips for Constructing Effective Questions:

First, be clear about what you want to know, what you are asking. To do that, figure out what your questions are. Try brainstorming as many questions on the topic as you can, sort them into similar groups, and then choose the top three or five that matter most to you, that express what you want most to know.

Or, ask yourself these questions:

Why is this question important?
How will an answer help me?
What information do I have about my topic, and what am I missing?

Make your question specific and concrete. Avoid ambiguity. Include enough background about your topic to make your question clear, but not so much that it overshadows your question. You might make reference to a previous conversation, a date, a page or question number, but don’t reproduce the entire conversation or chapter. Give an example to show what you mean.

Try to avoid questions that will only result in yes or no responses—unless that is what you really want.

Are you asking for facts or opinions? Which do you want—or do you want both?

Before You Ask:

Consider whom you are asking—is this person likely to be able to provide the answers you need?

Evaluate your topic and its related questions as if you were a journalist, by asking who, what, when and where, why, and how. What do you need to add? Or is there too much information—what should you leave out?

Are you asking more than one question? Consider the order of your questions—put the most important question first, unless another order makes more sense (chronological order, for example). Or, consider dividing your questions; use numbers to clearly identify separate questions.

With written questions, pay attention to grammar, spelling and punctuation—they are important tools that help others better understand and respond to your question.

After You Ask:

Make sure your request for information includes how and when to respond to the request. Do you want an e-mail or phone response?

Allow enough time for a thoughtful response. Any responses you get will probably not be as thorough if you wait until the last minute to ask.

Be able to evaluate the responses you get—can they be verified? Do they fit with what you already know? Are there contradictions that make you doubt them?

Ask a follow-up question if any part of the response needs clarification.

Be persistent—if you don’t get the answer you need the first time, rephrase the question, break it into smaller pieces, connect it to something concrete, or ask someone else—but don’t give up.

Be ready for surprises—for answers that may take you in new directions, or offer insights you hadn’t expected.

Acknowledge the help you’ve received—say thank you!

The Other Half of the Equation: Responding to Questions

How can you make your responses truly helpful when someone asks you a question? Check out the guidelines below.

Do respond, and respond promptly. If you don’t know an answer to part or all of the question, or you can’t answer within a reasonable amount of time, say so. But either way, respond as promptly as possible. If you can, offer suggestions for other resources (including people) that might be helpful.

Ask for clarification if you need it.

Try to answer specifically, rather than generally. Example: A classmate asks for your opinion of his paper topic. “It sounds great,” may be encouraging, but a response that points out how the topic is closely linked to the assignment, or to an important part of the class, will be more helpful as he or she works on the paper.

Answer the question that is being asked. In your response, address the actual question, not your own feelings about a related topic, or other points you would expect the topic to generate. Example: If a classmate asks you what you would do if a patient agreed then refused to take her medication, your response should focus on what action you would take rather than on how much you dread dealing with demanding patients.

Notice what isn’t being asked. This is the flip side of the previous piece of advice, and will help keep your response more focused. If you feel that answering the question calls for you to share more information than you were asked for, say so, and point out where you are offering additional facts or ideas.

Pay attention to the order of your responses. Consider whether it would be most helpful to answer a group of questions in the order they were asked, or whether you will answer them in another order—which might itself offer information about when something happened, for example, or about what you consider more or less important.

The important thing is not to stop questioning. —Albert Einstein



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