Ask Questions

The first verbal processing strategy: Asking Good Questions

The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he is the one who asks the right questions.   —  Claude Levi-Strauss

A silhouette of a head filled with red, yellow and white question marks. What Levi-Strauss says about a scientist is also true of a student. Asking good questions is the starting point.

Asking good questions  is the first strategy because you should begin asking questions before you begin to read, before you listen to a lecture. This way you will learn more from your reading and you will learn more from the lecture.

I also put it first because I believe Asking Questions is the most important Strategy. 

Building the habit of asking good or great questions on a regular basis really will help you learn faster, understand more, remember longer, make better grades and enjoy learning.

Questions are also an important part of an old strategy called SQ3R  It means Survey, QUESTION. Read, Recite, and Review. The expanded version of SQ3R+ found on this website is a powerful reading strategy that will help you read college level books.  If you want to know more, check out  SQ3R+ Reading Strategy 

Why are questions Important?

Millions saw the apple fall but Newton was the one who asked why.   — Bernard Baruch

As soon as you ask the very first question, you are beginning to process information. And, as you process information, your ever-active brain is starting  looking for an answer, searching your memory files to see if the answer might be there. And, as you begin to read or listen, your brain is alert for an answer.

After the lecture, the  student who begins with questions and asks new questions as she listens, will be excited. She should have dozens of new questions.

The student who had no questions at the beginning, probably still has no questions. She may have taken a lot of notes but she didn’t understand much and she has no interest in the topic.

Let us answer the question: Why are questions important?

1. Asking questions prepares your brain to learn. Your brain is alert and ready for answers. 2. When you ask a question, your brain begins searching for relevant information. 3. When you start reading a chapter or prepare to hear a lecture, your mind is alert, ready to find answers to your questions. 4. When you start by asked questions to begin with, you are likely to come up with more nd better questions as you continue listening or reading. 5. The people who ask the best questions will learn more, understand it better and be more interested in the subject.

How do we get started?  Q&A

Question:  Should we just think about questions or write them down.?
Answer:     If the only questions you can think of are “What does this mean” “What is this about?” you can just think them. These aren’t very helpful questions. All other questions should be written down in a list. Leave enough space for short answers.

Some people like to leave 3 or 4 pages free before you begin taking notes and list questions there.  Some prefer to write questions on loose sheets of notebook paper and file them away later in a binder.  Some people leave a wide margin in their notes and write questions there. That is up to you.

Question: How many questions should I write?
Answer:   It all depends. It depends on the topic, the length of the lecture or the chapter you are reading, it depends on how much you already know on the subject, and on how interested you are in the subject. You might write 20 questions or 200 or more.

Question: What kind of questions should we ask?
Answer:   I like to divide questions into three categories from simple to more complex. You should make an effort to include questions on all three levels. Here are some examples and questions and answers

When you start asking questions they are usually simple questions. These questions usually begin with Who, When, Where, and What.

1. When did the War of the Roses start?    In the 1450s
2. Where was the war?                                  England
3. When did the war end?                            1485
4. Who fought in the war?                           The House of York and the House of Lancaster.

Learning answers like these will help you prepare for objective tests.

The next level includes Deeper Questions, or what I call Good Questions. They usually take more than a few words to answer. Some of these questions are How and Why questions. Some kinds of What questions are also good questions such as What are the consequences of … What were the reasons for… What does this word mean?….. What is the purpose of ….

1. How did Galileo prove that the earth is not the center of the Universe?”
2. Why is neuroplasticity important?
3. How do we measure the speed of light?
4. What are the causes of global warming?

But even with Good Questions, you should be able to write a clear answer in a sentence or up to several paragraphs. Writing answers to good questions will help you prepare for essay questions as well as objective tests.

Finally, there are what I call GREAT Questions. Sometimes Great Questions can be answered with a good deal of research. Sometimes they cannot yet be answered. Sometimes they might never be answered.

When I was teaching high school physics, I encouraged my students to ask questions by offering extra credit. They could write their questions and give them to me or they could add their questions at the end of a test. For a Simple question, students earned 1 point to be added to a weekly test.  For a good question, they earned 5 points. For really great question, they earned 10 or more points.

The questons were wrtten on 3×5 cards and taped, first around the blackboard, and then around the room. Students enjoyed reading the questions and, when they provided a good answer, the question was removed. Of all these questions, the only one I remember was really a Great Question. I think I probably gave the student 50 points.

The Great Question was this:   “If the moon was the same size as the earth, how would this affect the earth?

Many students had suggestions. Some did research and reported back to class. But this isn’t a question that can be looked up in the library or on the Internet. It is a complex question that involves many areas of science.

I won’t ruin your fun trying to answer this question but you can certainly suggest some answers.  The important thing was that the students were excited about it. They spent time out of class trying to solve the problem. They applied everything they had learned in physics and other science classes to the problem. Best of all they were excited about learning.  

Questions do that. When you write good questions, When you care about the questions you ask, You will also be excited about learning.

Another example of a really great question

My son, Tony, who is severely dyslexic  – read about him in Tony’s Story –  was in fifth grade when he asked me this question.

“Mom, when you bend wire it bends but it doesn’t break unless maybe when it’s really, really cold.. When you try to bend glass it shatters… unless you get the glass really hot and then it will bend. How are the connections between the molecules different when things bend and when things break?”

You notice, of course, that even as a fifth grader Tony knew about glass bending when it is heated and he had some concept of connections between molecules being a cause.  Usually, as a science and math teacher, I could answer Tony’s questions. I couldn’t answer this one.

I was taking a physics class at the time and talked to the head of the college physics department. He couldn’t answer it either. He suggested that when Tony was older and ready to do research for his Master’s thesis, he might discover the answer for himself.

Actually I could have given Tony a partial answer based on the kinetic theory. But again, I’d like to see how you would attempt to answer his question.

So, if you are brave, if you want to suggest a partial – or complete answer to either of these questions, I’d be delighted to see what you can come up with. Yes, I know that both of these questions are science related so, if you can add a really great question in another area, that would be appreciated too.

To read a blog on this subject go to  The Power of Questions   It discusses how asking questions can help you improve reading, listening, writing, test-taking and thinking skills.

Another blog about asking questions is Tony’s Wonderful Question . It is a question Tony worked on for many years, contiually improving his answers but never finding a complete answer. Can you add anything to what he discovered?

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