What is a good question?
Our new blog post series explores a topic that we’re always wondering about: what is a good question? In any setting – in private or in public, in classrooms or in boardrooms – we all generate, formulate, and/or answer questions. What are the qualities that make us think highly of a question, and what’s failing when we choose to dismiss one? Our personal filtering system tends to take care of such concerns; however, the way a question is perceived in a social context is also important – especially within learning communities, where questioning to learn is far more important than questioning as an activity with no special focus.
In this 4-part Question Qualities series, we’ll share easy-to-use “good-questioning” standards that are practical and applicable across the board: a question’s relevance, feasibility, and learning potential. Which questions check all three boxes? How many different levels does each criterion have? What makes a question grow from “basic information” to “wonderment?” These are the questions we’ll be answering – about questions!
Who else will be joining us? We’re proud to have Dr. Harry Stokhof with us as a commenter, who is a senior researcher and teacher educator at the HAN University of Applied Sciences (Department of Education) in The Netherlands, and specializes in learners’ questions.
What do all questions have?
What do all questions have? If you’re thinking of “a question mark,” think again: in fact, not all questions are directly formulated as such! What we’re looking for is a Topic; in other words, “what we’re talking about.” You may be able to recognize it on the spot or it can be hiding in plain sight when a discussion is already in progress.
Let’s say our Topic was Distance Education. If you wanted to ask a straightforward question, you might ask “How can students stay connected to their community?” and your reader or listener could reasonably guess that the topic was, in fact, Distance Education. Conversely, if you asked “Is it challenging for students?” you’d be implying that the topic was already given. Questions like these may be an excellent tool to check who’s been paying attention; but they’re not the best for online question posts on platforms like 100mentors, because they don’t include all the pieces needed for other users’ understanding. On 100mentors, it’s best to stick with being straightforward.
“How relevant is this question?”
One way or another, we usually take for granted that an uttered question does fit with the Topic under discussion; in other words, that the question is relevant. In fact, relevance is a spectrum – we can break it down into four levels when asking “How relevant is this question?”
|Description||addresses other Topic than the one under study||addresses the Topic without a specific focus, revealing an emergent or only basic understanding||addresses the Topic in very general terms or on a very detailed level||addresses the Topic on a conceptual level, revealing an understanding of essential concepts and phenomena|
|What should I study to become a business consultant?||When did remote work start being applied by companies?||Are we witnessing the end of physical working spaces because of extensive remote work?||What are the consequences of remote work for the personal and vocational connections between colleagues?|
|Why is the earth round?||Where could we use nuclear fusion?||Could spaceships use nuclear fusion for propulsion?||How can we explain that nuclear fusion can not bring spaceships beyond light speed?|
When we first get to know a new Topic, it’s only reasonable that we’ll ask, hear, or be asked some irrelevant or slightly relevant questions; there is no harm in that. In fact, it means you are testing the “limits” of your topic! As soon as the most basic questions are sorted out successfully, we’ll be ready to ask more relevant questions.
HARRY’S TIP 💡
In online discussions, relevance will often develop when given answers to initial questions raise new – more relevant – questions.
PEPY’S TIP 💡
Think twice before dismissing a (seemingly) irrelevant question. Someone’s prior knowledge and experiences can create connections with the Topic that do not seem plausible at first sight, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t legitimate! Therefore, especially if in the context of a learning community, it’s worth your while to dig a little deeper before taking the question off the table.
In the second post of our Question Qualities series, we’ll explore the role of feasibility in formulating a good question. In the meantime, test out different levels of relevance in your questions – see if you can formulate some at all relevance levels for practice!
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Stokhof, H. (2018). How to guide effective student questioning? Design and evaluation of a principle-based scenario for teacher guidance (Open Universiteit).
Stokhof, H., de Vries, B., Bastiaens, T., & Martens, R. (2019). Mind Map Our Way into Effective Student Questioning: a Principle-Based Scenario. Research in Science Education, 49(2), 347–369.
Stokhof, H., Meli, K., & Lavidas, K. (2020). To answer or not to answer, that is the question: experts’ contribution to question-answering platforms. In L. Gómez Chova, A. Martínez López, & I. Candel Torres (Eds.), 13th International Conference of Education, Research and Innovation (pp. 2048–2056). Sevilla: IATED Academy.
Stokhof, H., Meli, K., & Lavidas, K. (August, 2021). Exploring factors for experts’ response rate on an educational Community Question-Answering platform. Oral presentation at EARLI 2021 “Education and Citizenship: Learning and Instruction and the Shaping of Futures.” Gothenburg.