Teaching Students to Ask Better Questions

Teachers have been imploring students to ask questions for as long as I can remember. In fact, most classes, from preschool to high school, reserve a portion of the grade book for participation. Participation means answering questions, sure, but many teachers reward students with more participation points for insightful questions. As we teach students as part of our unique EF-driven curriculum, impression management with teachers, parents, and peers is often less about being interesting and more about being interested. Listening skills, emotional intelligence, and self-awareness are only a few components of this puzzle. Learning how to ask better questions, on the other hand, forms the foundation for excellent impression management skills, yes, but also for improved learning, time management, and organization. 

For all the credence we give mandatory participation in the classroom, surely students deserve some instruction on how to make said participation productive. Yet many students aren’t taught the power of powerful questions. Within and beyond the classroom, learning to ask better questions is a macro skill that transcends subject, grade level, and environment. Questions spur learning and the exchange of ideas; they fuel innovation and performance improvement. Outside of learning, questions help build relationships by increasing rapport and trust with others. Yet few students think of questioning as a skill that can be honed over time. Shifting the concept of questioning asking from a fixed mindset problem to a growth mindset opportunity is one aspect of our unique EF curriculum and the focus of today’s blog post.

There are three essential skills required for excellent questioning ability: curiosity, emotional intelligence, and focus. This interrogative triangle represents both the challenge and the opportunity of learning the art of questioning. First, let’s define some terms. Curiosity is the easiest one. Obviously, to ask good questions, one needs to want to learn something new. Some people are naturally inquisitive, but others need to work on this skill. Emotional intelligence is perhaps the most valuable and underrated skill modern students can possess. “EQ” enables students to remain aware of the subtext both inside and outside of the classroom. Lastly, to ask good questions, one needs to possess focus. Contrary to popular belief, focus isn’t finite. It functions more like a muscle, growing stronger with the right progressive overload. Like an offseason athlete trying to build muscle in the weight room, building focus is about pushing the envelope a bit further each session. Focus is critical because most people don’t actually listen during a conversation, especially in dialogue. Rather than listening to what the other person is saying, most of us simply think of what to say next. This phenomenon produces disjointed, unfulfilling conversations. We’ve extensively about focus, curiosity, and emotional intelligence in other blog posts. Read more here.

Understanding these building blocks illuminates the innate complexity of asking good questions: you need balance. If a student has curiosity in spades but lacks the “EQ” to dial in his or her spontaneity or the focus to actually listen to the conversation, that curiosity becomes a hindrance rather than a strength. Likewise, if a student has laser-like focus without emotional intelligence or the spark of curiosity, questions often fall flat, if they are asked at all.

The good news is that question asking becomes a makeshift feedback loop to boost each of these three underlying skills. In essence, the more we practice asking questions, the better we become at asking questions because of gains in curiosity, emotional intelligence, and focus. It’s a vicious cycle of improvement. However, the quantity of practice shouldn’t be the goal. Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.

So, how can students become better question askers, thus improving their curiosity, emotional intelligence, and focus?

How to Become a Better Questioner

Make it Easy (for the Answerer)

Dale Carnegie simplified the question game in one sentence in his 1936 classic How to Win Friends and Influence People: “Ask questions the other person will enjoy answering.” For students, in particular, this rule is a gamechanger. We encourage students to ask questions their teacher would enjoy answering. This accomplishes a few academic goals: 1) students have to listen carefully during class to pick up on where the teacher is trying to lead the class discussion, 2) students must watch for verbal and nonverbal cues of teacher interest and classmate confusion, and 3) students have to grasp the underlying throughline of the lesson, which usually requires thorough content preparation. For example, if a geometry teacher puts three or four-word problems on the board that revolve around the same underlying concept (let’s say understanding the difference between the angle of elevation and the angle of depression), she probably knows this is a pain point for most students. Verbalizing a concise question about this underlying problem helps the teacher achieve the lesson goals while also aiding the other students in the learning process. It’s an all-around social capital win.

This rule works magnificently outside of the classroom as well, with teachers, parents, and peers. Making friends becomes much simpler when people ask questions about the other person’s interests. It’s human nature, but students often forget that parents and teachers are humans too. When in doubt, ask questions the other person wants to answer.

Gamify Curiosity

At Harvard Business School, first-year students learn conversation skills on the fly. Professors instruct pairs of students to have a conversation about any topic they want, but there’s a twist. Some students are told to ask as few questions as possible, and some are instructed to ask as many as possible, creating three distinct groups: low-low pairs (both students ask as few questions as possible), high-high pairs, and low-high pairs. This experiment produces some fascinating results. Among the low-low pairs (both students ask a minimum of questions), participants generally report that they exchange statements but struggle to initiate an interactive, enjoyable, or productive dialogue. On the other hand, the high-high pairs find that too many questions can also create a stilted dynamic. However, the high-low pairs often report the best experiences.

Students can use these results to gamify curiosity, particularly in dialogue. The aim is for the student to recognize the role of the other person (high or low) and adjust their role to provide a counterbalance. When the opportunity arises for the roles to switch, students can seize it. Having this mental model or gamification in mind makes conversation much less intimidating.

Know the Four Types of Questions and Use Them Strategically 

Alison Wood Brooks, a researcher who studies human coding and machine learning, theorizes that there are four types of questions: introductory questions (“How’s it going?”), mirror questions (“I’m well. How are you?”), full-switch questions (ones that change the topic entirely), and follow-up questions (ones that solicit more information about a previously discussed topic). Although a mix of the four question types is natural and good, her research shows that follow-up questions are particularly helpful for building rapport and trust.  Follow-up questions show interest and convey listening to the responder. Teaching students to default to follow-up questions is a useful habit to produce a free-flowing conversation. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Tell me more about that.
  • That’s interesting, how did you come up with that idea?
  • Any question that starts with why, rather than how or what….
  • Can you give me an example?
  • How do you define _________?

Follow-up questions are magical learning tools but also great for building rapport and boosting social capital.

Impression management is what makes SAOTG’s curriculum unique. We understand that succeeding in school (and in life) is about much more than your GPA. We know that our four pillars of Executive Function (organization, time management, learning skills, and impression management) can help any student thrive. The best part is all of these skills are teachable and transcend the walls of the classroom.

To learn more about our flagship one-on-one academic coaching program, reach out today!

Evan Weinberger

About SAOTG

Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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