Emphasis on Teaching
by Marshall Brain

The Importance of Questions

The facts and techniques that we teach are important, but they are also doomed. In 10 or 20 years much of what I teach today will be obsolete. For example, in an introductory computer class taught 20 years ago, I would have spent a great deal of time talking about punched cards. Today that knowledge is useless.

Although facts and techniques are important, they are not the main thrust of a university. What makes a university environment unique is its emphasis on, and bias towards, self-directed learning and research. Teachers try to convey to students the process of scholarship, so that the students can become problem-solvers and researchers themselves.


Research relies on a fundamental concept: the process of questioning. A scholar constantly asks fundamental questions about the facts and techniques that make up his or her discipline. The scholar then answers these questions in unique and original ways. Because of the importance of questions to the research process, one of the things a teacher at a university tries to teach students is how to ask good questions, and how to answer them appropriately.

This makes the process of questioning important in every class taught at a university. Questions are important to the students in a class for two reasons:

  1. Students learn to ask questions by asking questions. Students learn to ask good questions by asking questions and then receiving feedback on them. Students learn to become scholars by learning to ask good questions.
  2. A student asking a question is at that moment a self-motivated learner - a researcher. This is the behavior we are trying to nurture.

Questions are also important to you as a teacher:

  1. Questions tell you that your students can understand and are thinking about what you say. If you begin to talk at too high a level, students will stop understanding and thinking, and will ask no questions. Questions tell you whether your class is asleep or awake.
  2. If encouraged, students will ask questions about concepts they do not understand. These questions give you immediate feedback when you are unclear, and tell you where you need to spend more time.
  3. Education is a dialog between student and teacher. It is not a monolog - if it were, students could simply buy the textbook and read it themselves. Students attend classes so that 2-way communication can occur. Questions are an important part of this dialog.

For all of these reasons, questions should be actively and constantly encouraged.

Negative Pressure

There are a number of forces at work to discourage students from asking questions. A good teacher works constantly to overcome these negative forces.

The primary negative pressure against questions is "stupid" pressure. Students tend to feel stupid when asking questions. They especially feel stupid if the teacher answers questions in such a way that it makes them look like a fool in front of their peers. But "stupid" pressure is at work even when you are tutoring a student one-on-one, because nobody wants to admit that they don't know something: this is part of being human.

Many other forces work against questions. Large classes discourage dialog and questions because any intimacy or friendliness between students and teacher is discouraged by the sheer size of the class. Questions are also discouraged by time pressure. You may need to get through a certain amount of material on a given day, and you therefore leave fewer gaps for questions.

Another pressure that frequently discourages questions is the attitude or personality of the teacher. If the teacher insults students who ask questions, or makes them feel foolish, or sends signals that questions waste time (e.g. - negative tone of voice, monosyllabic answers, saying "we don't have time for that question", etc.), then students will not ask questions, and the class will become a monologue.

Encouraging Questions

A teacher cannot encourage questions solely by standing at the front of the class and asking, "Are there any questions?" There is so much pressure forcing students NOT to ask questions that it cannot be overcome by this single act.

The only way to encourage questions is to create a complete "question-asking environment" in the classroom. You must encourage questions constantly, using a variety of techniques.

The most important technique that you can use to encourage questions is to always answer questions kindly. Even if you have answered the same question three times already, the fourth answer should be even and friendly, and should include a new example. The student may have been copying something down, or may have been daydreaming. But normally questions occur multiple times because students cannot understand the language you are speaking. I can answer questions all day about "the lost block phenomenon common to poorly designed pointer-based data structures." But until the students understand the vocabulary, all of those answers will be completely meaningless. A student asking a question for the fourth time has just come to understand the vocabulary him/herself, and only then can understand the answer when you give it.

Here are some other ways to promote questions:

A good question-asking environment is a fragile and delicate thing. It must be nurtured every day. Once a good environment is created however, it can make a significant contribution to the quality of your class.

BYG Publishing, Inc.
http://www.bygpub.com - info@bygpub.com
(888)294-7820 - P.O. Box 40492 - Raleigh, NC 27629

Questions or comments, email:

© 1998 BYG Publishing, Inc.