How to get the most out of your questions

academic advice study skills

Even at the doctorate level, many students struggle with phrasing questions in a clear way that will result in thorough and informative responses from others. This can leave the student feeling discouraged and unsatisfied with their effort to speak up, leading to a decreased willingness to ask questions in the future. Here are three key aspects to keep in mind while asking questions to achieve the most from your inquiries. 

Preface your questions

We’ve all experienced asking a question and then being told information we already knew. Prefaces help circumnavigate this issue! Implementing a preface describing what you already understand will direct the conversation towards more productive learning. 

Instead of Saying:

“How did you get that answer?”

Try Saying:

“I understand how you achieved the previous line, but am not sure what method brought you to the next line. Do you mind going into detail about how you arrived at your answer from the prior line? Thanks!”

This kind of phrasing explicitly shares what you're trying to understand and piece together, which allows your instructor to dive in at the precise moment of confusion, leading to a more productive conversation. 

Be specific!

If an introduction to your inquiry still leaves you wondering, try constructing a more precise question. This takes a bit of practice, as it requires you to collect your thoughts to best shape your ideas. 

Instead of saying:

“How did you solve that problem?”

Try saying:

“I am unsure how to approach this problem. I feel quite confident about the theory behind the problem, but am unsure how to begin. Do you mind providing an example of how to take the first steps in a similar problem? Thanks!”

By specifically identifying a place where you feel lost, you help your instructor narrow the scope of their response. Furthermore, gathering other relevant practice problems can be a stellar way to improve your critical thinking skills.

Mind your p’s & q’s 

Everyone has seen a heated back and forth between a teacher and a pupil, which appears akin to an intense debate rather than direct learning. This usually begins as a tonal issue! If you are ever worried about the tone of your questions, integrate a “please” or a “thank you.” Even within emails, which can be very hard to interpret, a simple “thanks!” is a simple way to recognize the other person and their effort in supporting your learning. 

Brian is a PhD student at Columbia University studying Chemical Engineering. Previously, he earned a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering, Statistics, and Chemistry, with a minor in Accounting at the University of California San Diego.


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