Fireside Chat: A True Story – Asking Questions is Key to Learning

There we were in Dr. Lewis’ textile chemistry class. Organic chemistry was the prerequisite. This was a very serious class. Dr. Lewis never smiled.

She would walk into the classroom and begin writing formulas on the board.  You could hear only the scratching of our pencils as we frantically wrote in our notebooks trying to keep up. No one dared to speak or ask a question.

It had been a while since I had organic chemistry and it wasn’t coming back as quickly as I had hoped.  One day as I sat in class, I was confused.  I was too scared to raise my hand.  No one ever asked a question.  If looks could kill – she was very good at giving you this look – the “look that could kill.”

After class that day, I asked my classmates, “Did you know what Dr. Lewis was talking about?” They all said, no.

That was an “ah ha” moment for me.  Up until that time, I thought everyone else in that class understood everything Dr. Lewis was teaching, everyone but me.  I was experiencing lots of self-doubt. I figured everyone else was better prepared than I was.

My “ah ha” moment was this.  There we were sitting in our graduate textile chemistry class and no one seemed to understand what was being taught. No one was brave enough to ask a question.  I thought for a moment. This is “stupid”.

So, the next class as Dr. Lewis was writing away on the board, I got the courage to raise my hand.  When she turned around Dr. Lewis was surprised to see a hand raised.  She gave me a look – I held my breath.  She called on me.  I asked my question. Dr. Lewis answered it.

After class everyone came over and thanked me for asking that question.  They didn’t know the answer either.  It took courage to raise my hand and ask my question. After that class, my fellow classmates became brave and started asking questions. I learned that once one hand raises and breaks the “ice”, others follow shortly thereafter.  If you can raise your hand to ask a question the first time, it becomes easier each time thereafter.

What I learned from that experience is this. Questioning is the art of learning. It’s okay to ask questions. Asking questions is the best evidence of understanding.

Questioning is important. Questioning is the key means by which professors find out what graduate students know, identify gaps in knowledge and understanding.  If the professors are excellent teachers, they can scaffold the development of the students’ understanding to enable them to close the gap between what they currently know and the learning goals.

I learned that brilliant thinkers and scholars never stop asking questions. “Asking questions is the single most important habit for innovative thinkers,” says Paul Sloane, the UK’s top leadership speaker on innovation.

Asking questions is the simplest and most effective way of learning.  Children are proficient at asking lots of questions. That’s how they learn.

I learned a lot from Dr. Lewis’ textile chemistry class in addition to the chemistry. Every time I teach, I make a point to smile, engage my students, and encourage them to ask questions.  It is their questions that keep me learning.

Dr. Lewis got used to us asking questions and I learned a lot in her class. We did get her to smile. Sometimes teachers don’t realize that their student aren’t at the same level of understanding.  It’s important to explain things in different ways to reach all the students in the class.

If you don’t ask, you won’t know.  I always say “the only dumb question is the one not asked”. Have courage – raise your hand. Ask a question.

“He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who doesn’t ask a question remains a fool forever.” Chinese Proverb

Published by

drmgrasso

My experience as the chief academic officer and administrator charged with providing vision and leadership in planning, guiding, and coordinating all aspects of graduate education from admission through graduation at two major research universities provides the foundation for our fireside chats.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.