Why ask questions?

Like many, I’ve recently returned from the Institute of Australian Geographers annual conference in Canberra. I listened to some terrific research papers, especially by graduate students from around the country: well conceived, carefully planned and structured, rehearsed and timed, executed with interest and sometimes pizzazz.

But the speaker’s final word does not mark the end of the performance. It is now time for questions. There is a moment of tangible nervous energy in the room.

Why do we ask questions of each other at conferences and in seminars? And why are they so important?

  1. In all facets of life, questions are a key part of learning; they allow us to clarify things we don’t understand.
  2. Questions prod and encourage the researcher to think more deeply about their topic: methods employed, literature engaged, connections made, research questions posed. They sometimes contest an approach or finding.
  3. Questions allow those in the audience to pursue their own interests by querying an expert.
  4. Questions demonstrate that the audience is listening. They provide a generous form of engagement between audience and presenter; a respectful act.
  5. Questions form the core of the peer-review process. Asking questions of others, and responding to questions posed to us, is what makes scholarship scholarship.

AUSCCERites at the Institute of Australian Geographers conference, UOW, 2011

But asking questions is an art. Questions don’t generally just pop into your head. They take work. They require listening, thinking and planning. Those who ask questions do so intentionally, with at least one of the points above in mind.

As I listen to a seminar or conference paper, I work actively to think of a question. One that will be helpful to someone in the room: the presenter, myself, my research group, the broader discussions of which the assembled people are a part.

I heard some fantastic questions at the IAG conference in Canberra: supportive, probing, demanding. Indeed, one the best conversations I had through the week was stimulated by a question posed to another presenter, to which I took exception. Speaking with the questioner after the session revealed space to work on greater communication across the sub-disciplines of geography. It highlighted to me the strength and possibility of asking questions at a slant to our specific sub-disciplinary expertise. Different conceptual traditions provide unique perspectives on research problems.

So this note is a call – of sorts – to encourage people to ask questions. Particularly to encourage students and early career researchers to ask questions. It is not – usually – an art we teach. But given its value, and centrality to academic practice, perhaps it should be.

4 thoughts on “Why ask questions?

  1. Thanks Leah for a great blog!

    I am provoked to reply because I am spending part of one of my first lectures with our new social science students in ‘Becoming a social scientist’ on asking research questions’ and have just spend some time thinking about different kinds of questions and their hierarchies as outlined by social researcher Keith Punch 2014.

    Asking questions is not only a key part of academic practice – it is a key part of being a social scientist – indeed, without a question we cannot hypothesis, investigate or provide evidence for our ideas about the world and the way it works.

  2. Thanks for this neat summary! I have a question… I entirely agree with you that there is an art to asking good questions, and that perhaps we should do more to cultivate it. But do you have any suggestions as to how might we go about teaching students the skill?

  3. Thanks Jenny and Laura for your great comments. Thrilled to learn how timely this is for you Jen. Of course it follows some of our earlier conversations. I’ll look forward to hearing more about the teaching material you’re developing for that new big social science class.

    In answer to your great question Laura (!), teaching these skills to groups is something I’m still trying to get my head around. But I’m conscious that others have worked on this a good deal. I think Jenny has some insight on this challenge through developing her new subject. Any pearls of wisdom Jen? Or other readers?

  4. Thanks Leah. This is something I have been thinking about too, so it would be great to hear tips from other people. I suppose one way of thinking about it would be to encourage students to think about general ‘types’ of question that often get asked. So for example:

    I want to know more about your sources/ evidence.
    I want to know more about something specific that you mentioned briefly.
    I know about the argument of this scholar – how does your argument fit with them? (might not work if the speaker has never heard of your scholar!)
    It struck me that this concept (gender? hiearchy? politics? etc) was quite prominent in the content/ language of the talk. Could you say anything more about that?

    These could all work as basic starting points into developing the sort of active listening that you describe so well in your post. Something to do with constantly turning around what is being said in your mind as you listen, to tease out angle for further enquiry…

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