The Art of Stupid Questions

Man in red shirt sitting on a hill with fist on forehead thinking about something.

As a woodworking hobbyist I read Wood magazine. In the latest issue, the editor Lucas Peters related an experience from his first semester in college. A couple of weeks into a lecture course he was lost and feeling he was the only one. It was then that a student raised a hand to tell the professor that he was lost and asked him to explain. The rest of the class raised hands to agree. The professor changed tactics that better assured student learning. Peters noted that this one student’s “stupid question” was all it took to create success. This resonated with me as I have had a similar experience, but from the professor side. I have found that the art of stupid questions is important not just for students in asking for clarification but for professors in making sure students understand.

My Experience As a Professor

Over the years, I have found that exam performance does not always equal understanding. For example, in my introduction to industrial-organizational psychology class I covered the concept of KSAOs (knowledge, skill, ability and other characteristics) that are a central concept for the field. I assigned a chapter in the textbook that explained them, and I would cover definitions in class. Having taught the class a few times, I knew that on exams if I asked students to define KSAO, most could do a good job. One day I decided to try something different. I asked the class to think about a job they were familiar with and write down an example of a K, S, A, and O, and then write down a specific job task. We went around the room so each student could give an example. It became quickly apparent that the students could give definitions of KSAOs and tasks, but they didn’t really understand what they are. What the class told me was that they thought they understood the concepts, but when asked to provide examples, they realized they really didn’t.

The Art of Stupid Questions

The art of being a student is in knowing what and when to ask. This can be difficult at times because it is hard to know what you don’t know. Often students think they understand something when they do not. The art of being a professor is understanding how to ask stupid questions that will test the students’ understanding that goes beyond wrote memorization of definitions and facts. This means asking questions that require active engagement with the material. I did that by asking my students to generate their own examples of KSAOs, but there are many ways to accomplish this deeper level understanding.

  • Analysis of a Problem: In a statistics class I liked to give students a page from the results section of a journal article and ask them what was wrong with the author’s conclusion. One case I used was an article that misinterpreted a multiple regression analysis because the author didn’t recognize a suppressor variable. The students were familiar with suppressors from the text and from lectures, and on exams they could define it. What only a rare student could do is recognize one when they saw it.
  • Explain a Concept: I like to give short writing assignments–sometimes a paragraph and sometimes a single sentence–where students have to explain something in their own words. I can then see if they understand the concept, and I can provide feedback. Short assignments are not intimidating for the student or the grader.
  • Research Project: A good exercise is to ask a question that requires research to find the answer. In most cases this means a literature review. Sometimes a semester-long project can involve collecting original data. In doctoral classes I would have students generate their own question and then conduct a study to test it.
  • Student Debate: A good way to enhance learning is to divide the class into groups and have those groups debate different sides of an issue. Nothing motivates a student to understand material as having to go head-to-head with peers and defend a side of an issue. I serve as moderator and ask the groups a series of questions that have debatable answers.

Asking and answering questions can be an art and should be encouraged. Often students are reluctant to ask questions in class because they do not know what they don’t know, or they think they know something that they do not. Other times they are reluctant because they do not want to look dumb. Instructors can create a class climate of asking questions by first modeling (ask their own questions of the class) and in how they respond to questions. An instructor who comes across as enthusiastic about questions can be encouraging and over time students will lose their reluctance about asking questions. Rewarding the asking with comments like “I am glad you asked me that” or “That’s a great question” can help create a question-friendly climate. Expressing reluctance to address questions with comments like “Let’s hold questions until the end of class” or “We don’t have time to get into that today” is discouraging.

The asking and answering of questions is a vital part of the instructional process and should be encouraged by both students and instructors. As I think about my own college classes, the best instructors were ones who engage the class by asking questions. But asking questions is as much an art as science. To note an old expression, often knowing what questions to ask is more important than having the answers.

Photo by Nathan Cowley from Pexels

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