Four types of questions and when to ask them

Posted by Cypress Marss on 1/13/16 4:10 PM

source: Curious George and the Man in the Yellow Hat

When a toddler asks why to an infinite regress, their line of questioning inevitably becomes annoying. The reason is not that their questions individually are inherently uninteresting—or if answered seriously will not illicit fascinating information—but rather that the line of questioning that that toddler embarks on is without end.

What makes a “Good Question?”

  • A “Good Question” does what the toddler isn’t yet able to—it points towards the unknown with a plan of how to proceed, of how to process the unknown so it becomes the known.
  • The “Good Question” allows the asker to find, or if they’re doing original research, to posit an answer.
  • The “Good Question” has located uncertainty and addresses it in a precise and effective manner.

To ask "good questions" it is important to be self-aware of what sorts of questions you're asking, to be aware of the way in which they are directing conversation, and ultimately of the way in which the will allow you to process new information. Here, I have identified four types of questions that are useful whether you’re working on your participating more in class, brainstorming research topics, or preparing questions to ask an interviewer.

Investigative Questions

Investigative questions introduce a topic into conversation by asking for new information. The investigative question is asked in part to figure out what is unknown.

When to ask them: When you're beginning a conversation or interested in introducing a new topic of conversation.

In casual conversation you might say "what's the deal with [blank]"; here are some other ways to ask investigative questions:

  • What are some of the most commonly used and carbon neutral energy sources?
  • How does the CDC prepare for prepare for potential pandemics?
  • What factors lead to Silicon Valley becoming a hub of technological innovation?

Clarifying Questions

Clarifying questions provide confirmation that our understanding of something aligns with that of the people or discourse that we are engaged in—it asks that the concept/idea at hand be restated in a straightforward and explicit manner.

When to ask them: These questions rarely elicit particularly interesting answers, but are essential in avoiding embarrassing misunderstandings. At the beginning of a conversation they confirm that terms are clearly understood and at the end they confirm that both parties have the same perspective on what has been discussed or decided.

In casual conversation, clarifying questions are asked by saying, "Just to be clear [the speaker's understanding of the topic], right?"

Here are some other ways to ask clarifying questions:

  • What does it mean for an energy source to be carbon neutral?
  • What organizations does the CDC collaborate with as they prepare for potential pandemics?
  • Where are the boundaries of the Silicon Valley?

Quantifying Questions

Quantifying questions attempt to uncover the precise details of unfamiliar phenomena.

When to ask them: when you want to figure out the shape and material of the new topic of conversation. Quantifying questions draw a border around new information; they are the tools of a cartographer.

Quantifying questions ask “to what extent,” or  “how many” and “how often.” For example:

  • What conditions are necessary for a nuclear reaction to occur?
  • How is SARS transmitted?
  • To what extent did California's 1970's utopian, counterculture movement influence Apple Computer?

Comparative Questions

Comparative questions draw connections and establish relationships between topics. The comparative question puts new or hard to understand information into a well-worn context., and is particularly helpful when encountering abstract ideas.

When to ask them: comparing the thing you’re trying to understand—and something already understood.

In casual conversation, the comparative question often begins “so it’s kind of like [blank], except [blank]” Here are some other examples of how to ask these questions:

  • Why is the potential environmental impact of nuclear power treated differently both than the impact of burning fossil fuels and the impact that renewable resources--wind and hydropower--have on the environment?
  • How did the CDC employ what it had learnt during the AIDS epidemic as it responded to the threat of SARS?
  • What are the primary differences between how Apple and Microsoft approach developing software?

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More advice on expository writing: 

The Vital Importance of Writing Badly
Transitioning From One Paragraph to the Next
How Do I Write a Good Thesis?

Looking to work with an expository writing tutor on your essays? Feel free to get in touch! Cambridge Coaching offers private in-person tutoring in New York City and Boston, and online tutoring around the world.

Tags: English, expository writing, college, high school