It's a lie, of course, that there are no dumb questions. During grad school I TA'ed a course with a lively discussion section. The next to last week of term, a student sauntered in whom I hadn't seen since the second or third week of term; I had assumed he dropped the course.
No matter. I launched into review for the exam. But within minutes a look of panic came over his face.
"Wait!" he blurted out. "What is the name of this course?!"
For a moment I looked at the other students, and they looked back at me. None of us could process what was happening.
"Seriously?" I finally managed to say. "There's one week left in the course, and that's seriously the question you want to ask?"
"There are no dumb questions," was his response.
"Well, actually there are..."
Questions are everything in college - and beyond. The folks who really get that principle will also get the most of their experience in college - and beyond.
In high school there's usually a penalty to asking things. If the question is "too simple," people roll their eyes to make clear how dumb they think you are. If the question is "too complicated," they roll your eyes to make clear what a kiss-up they think you are. And no question ever seems to be just right.
Hardly the right atmosphere in which to master this skill.
Here are four simple but critical principles for asking questions - whether you are asking them of your professor in class, asking them of your readings to create an internal dialog with them, or posing them at the outset of a research project.
- Only ask if you want an answer.
If you are asking things just to impress your prof, I can guarantee you your prof will not be impressed. More importantly, if you only are asking questions to impress, you won't be asking questions that help you make progress in your thinking/analysis. The corollary to "only ask if you want an answer' is:
- If you want an answer, ask.
Just do it. (Except if it's that situation above. Otherwise, it's true, there are no dumb questions.)
- Ask across multiple sources.
For instance, ask questions that compare works you're reading now in class to works you read five or six weeks ago. Or questions that compare something in this class to things you learned in another class last term. In a lit class, ask questions comparing literature to art or music, and so on. This sort of questioning will help you retain and reactivate insights beyond what you are studying that week in that class, and to gain new insights from old materials.
- Remember that your questions also serve as your calling card.
This doesn't mean you have to push yourself to ask questions that impress (see point 1). It does mean that you should think about rules of politeness. (Is this the right time/place for a question? Are you monopolizing discussion?) It means that you need to match questions to context. (E.g., instance, it may aid your own understanding to compare a book from class to a certain piece of music. However, comparisons to music may not be welcome in discussion sections where the prof/TA would like to just keep to the topic at hand.) Finally, it means that you have to put the work in, do your readings, move forward with your preliminary research, etc., before posing questions based on them, or you may get - fairly or not - a reputation for lack of insight.