Have you ever started to develop a learning question (also known as a research or evaluation question), and before you even write anything down you start to wonder… “I have so many questions, where do I start?” Or maybe you’ve already written down a few ideas and then you think… “Ugh. There are so many to choose from, how do I pick the right one?” Or “Wait, will any of these provide me with the information I need.”
So how do we learn to ask the right learning questions? Practice.
Like reading, writing or public speaking, asking questions is a skill that requires practice. It’s something you have to intentionally work towards cultivating. Most of us aren’t taught how to ask questions because it’s a natural part of speech – something we do from a very young age, without being directly told how. Yet asking questions is a skill that is a key component to both our professional and personal lives that many of us often find challenging.
3 elements holding us back from asking good questions:
Feeling the pressure that you must have the answer.
From a young age we are taught and rewarded for having the answers versus asking the questions. Our traditional education system reinforces the value of correct answers through quizzes and exams. This value of correct answers in school, then gets carried out throughout our careers. We build a set of knowledge and then are expected or feel pressured to have the answers as we gain more seniority. So instead of trying to seek solutions by asking the right questions, we jump to trying to come up with the answer first.
Fear of judgment.
Have you ever been in a meeting or in a classroom where you didn’t ask a question because of your fear of coming off as “stupid” or “inattentive”? We fear the negative response that a question might elicit, but on the flip-side, even positive responses can have its consequences. If someone asks a question and it’s rewarded with, “Great question!” and a question from a second person is met with no response, the second person might perceive that as a cue that their question wasn’t great. The next time the second person has a question, they might pass on the opportunity to ask it.
Underlying assumptions and/or beliefs.
We might avoid asking questions because we assume we already know the answer. Or we might formulate questions to prove what we suppose is already true. Recognizing these assumptions and/or beliefs can help us ask better questions and uncover opportunities that you might not have known even existed.
How to practice asking better questions:
The Question Formulation Technique (QFT), created by the Right Question Institute, is a great tool and brainstorming technique to help generate and prioritize better learning questions. It’s a valuable tool within the evaluation context but can be used for many other purposes outside of evaluation and research as well.