Are we asking great questions?

How do you know if you’re asking a good question?

Although, perhaps that’s the wrong question to be asking. How do you know if you’re asking a not-so-good question?

Have you stopped cheating on exams yet?

Yes and no questions have their place, but they are often not deep enough to fully explore ideas or concepts that are not clear. As you can see, they can also be quite terrible – neither answer is particularly great!

So, how does one ask a great question?

I suggest good questions first require having an idea of what sort of response you are seeking. I try to match the language and the medium of my question to the information I am missing. In what sort of environment is the question being asked?

Remember, you can control the environment in which you ask a question.

Do you need a detailed response that shows you how precisely to perform a complex task? Write a detailed question that references a textbook or common literature on a topic (a shout out here to my librarian friends). If there is a subtle nuance eluding you, be sure to detail steps you’ve tried already unsuccessfully. An email or discussion post can work wonders – it allows your responder to carefully plan out the exacting reply you’re looking to get!

Do you need a high level description that helps you understand the general philosophy about how or why? Consider a face to face chat or a video phone call. You’ll want the high context environment of smiles and frown, nose wrinkles and snorts to understand what created a particular goal. When I need to understand “how to think like my boss” so that I can make good decisions in line with their thinking, I like to see facial expressions as well as voice tones.

“Why did we select a focus on critical thinking as our QEP?”

“How do I know if the data I’m seeing is merely signal noise or a legitimate trend?”

For the professors out there, remember that often we control the environment in which our students ask us questions. Are we picking a good environment for the types of questions we want to be asked? Do we discuss the great questions and mention the not-quite-so-great questions?

In the end, asking a great question comes down to practice. How do you know if you’ve asked a great question? Well, that probably depends on what sort of answer you get.

What sort of questions have you asked recently? Were they good? Were they great?



Matt Wiley is a tenured, associate professor of mathematics with awards in both mathematics education and honour student engagement. He earned an assortment of degrees in computer science, business, and pure mathematics from the University of California and Texas A&M systems. He is the director of quality enhancement at Victoria College, assisting in the development and implementation of a comprehensive assessment program to enhance institutional performance outcomes. A programmer, a published author, a mathematician, and a transformational leader, Matt has always melded his passion for writing with his joy of logical problem solving and data science. From the boardroom to the classroom, he enjoys finding dynamic ways to partner with interdisciplinary and diverse teams to make complex ideas and projects understandable and solvable.

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