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Why asking the right questions is so important, and how to do it

Research; study; learning; solving problems; making decisions — all these, to be done effectively and efficiently, depend on asking the right questions. Much of the time, however, people let others frame the questions, not realizing how much this shapes how they think.

This applies particularly to public debate and communication, even to something that may appear as ‘factual’ as an infographic presenting data. But the data that are presented, and the way they are presented, govern the conclusions you take away, and they depend on the question the designer thought she was supposed to answer, not on the questions you might be interested in. But so much of the time, our thoughts are shaped by the presentation, and we come away having lost sight of our questions.

In research and study, decision-making and problem-solving, the difficulty can be even more insidious, because we ourselves may think we came up with the questions. But asking the right question is crucial, and it should be no surprise that getting it right on the first attempt is not something to be assumed! Moreover, what might be the right question at the beginning of your task may not still be the right question once you’ve acquired more understanding.

In other words, framing questions is not only a first crucial step — it’s also something you need to revisit, repeatedly.

So how do you know if your questions are the most effective ones for your task? How do you test them?

To assess the effectiveness of your questions, you need to be consciously aware of the hierarchy to which they belong. Every question is, explicitly or implicitly, part of a nested set of questions and assumptions. Your task is to make that nesting explicit knowledge.

Here are two examples: an everyday decision-making task, and a learning task.

Because it’s that time of year, let’s look at the common question “Should I go on a diet?” This might be nested in these beliefs (do note I’m simplifying this decision considerably):

  • I’m overweight
  • It’s dangerous to be overweight / Fat is ugly / Other people hate overweight people / I’ll never get that promotion/a job unless I lose weight / I’ll never get a date unless I lose weight …

We’ll ignore the first assumption (“I’m overweight”), because that should be a matter of measurement (although of course it’s not that simple). (I’m also ignoring the issue of whether going on a diet is a good way of losing weight — this is a cognitive exercise, not an advice column!) Let’s instead look at the second set of beliefs. If your question is predicated on the belief that “I’ll never get that promotion/a job unless I lose weight”, then you can see that your question would be better phrased as “Will losing weight improve my chances of getting a job/being promoted?”. This in turn spins off other questions, such as: “How much weight would I need to lose to improve my chances?”; “Is losing weight a better strategy than other strategies that might improve my chances?”; “What other things could I do to improve my chances?”

On the other hand, if your question comes out of a belief that “It’s dangerous to be overweight”, then the question would be better phrased as “Is the amount of excess weight I carry medically dangerous?” — a question that leads to a search of the medical literature, and might end up transforming into: “What are the chances I’ll develop diabetes?”; “What is the most effective thing I can do to reduce my chance of developing diabetes?”

If, however, your question is based on a belief that “Other people hate overweight people”, then you might want to think about why you believe that — is it about societal attitudes that you read about in the media? Is it about the way you think people are looking at you in public? Is it about comments from specific individuals in your life? This can end up quite a deep nesting, leading right down to your beliefs about your self-worth and your relationship with the people in your life.

Let’s look at a learning task: you’ve been asked to write an essay on the causes of the Second World War. This might appear to be a quite straightforward question — but like most apparently straightforward questions, it is an illusion generated by lack of knowledge. The more you know about a subject, the fewer straightforward questions there are!

Any question about causes should make you think of the distinction between proximate causes and deeper causes. The proximate cause of WW2 from the European point of view might be Hitler’s invasion of Sudentenland; for Americans, it might be the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor — but these are obviously not the sole cause of the War. There is obviously a long chain of events leading up to the invasion of Sudentenland, and most will date this chain back to the Versailles Treaty, which imposed such harsh penalties on Germany after they lost the First World War. But that, of course, takes us back even further, to the causes of WW1, and so on. Ultimately, you might want to argue that the way civilization rose and developed in ancient Mesopotamia led to the use of war as the principal means of establishing state dominance and power. You might even want to go back further, to primate evolution.

The distinction between proximate and ultimate causes, while useful, is of course a fuzzy one. These are not dichotomous concepts, but ones on a continuum.

All this is a long way of saying that any discussion of causes is always going to be a selected subset of possible causes. It is your (or your teacher’s) decision what subset you choose.

So, given that massive tomes have been written about the causes of WW2, how do you go about writing your comparatively brief essay?

Clearly it depends on the larger goal (we’re back to our nested hierarchy now). Here we must distinguish between two points of view: the instructor’s, and your own.

For example, the instructor might want you to write the essay to show:

  • your grasp of a few essential points covered in class or selected texts
  • your understanding of the complexity of the question
  • your understanding of the nature of historical argument
  • your ability to research a topic
  • your ability to write an essay in a particular format

The tack you take, therefore (if you want good grades!), will depend on what the instructor’s real goal is. It is likely, of course, that the instructor will have more than one goal, but let’s keep it simple, and assume only one.

But the instructor’s purposes aren’t the whole story. Your own goals are important too. As far as you’re concerned, you might be writing the essay:

  • Because the teacher asked for it (and no more)
  • Because you’re interested in the topic
  • Because you want to do well in the class.

Each of these, and the latter two in particular, are only part of the story. Why are you interested in the topic? Because you’re interested in history in general? because you’re interested in war? because a family member was caught up in the events of WW2? Perhaps your interest is in Japan and how it came to that point, or perhaps your interest is in how a society can come to believe that their best interests are served by invading another country.

And these are only some of the possible ways you might be interested. Obviously, there are many many aspects of this very broad question (“What are the causes of WW2?”) that could be discussed. So you need to consider both the instructor’s goals and your own when you re-frame the question in your own words.

Let’s assume that your instructor is interested in your understanding of the complexity of the topic, and you yourself are keen to get good grades although you have no personal interest to shape your approach. How would you frame your initial question?

The simplest question, for the simplest situation, is: What were the causes of WW2 covered in the text?

But if your instructor wants you to reveal your understanding of the complexity of the topic, you’ll probably want to come up with a number of specific questions that can each form the basis for a different paragraph in your essay.

For example:

  • What were the proximate causes of Britain declaring war on Germany?
  • What was the immediate chain of events leading to Germany’s invasion of Poland?
  • What role did the Versailles Treaty play in providing the conditions leading to Germany’s invasion of Poland?
  • What was the immediate chain of events leading to Japan’s invasion of Manchuria?
  • What did the League of Nations do when Japan invaded Manchuria, and how did this affect Germany’s re-occupation of the Rhineland and later invasion of Poland?

Depending on your knowledge of the topic at the beginning, many of those questions may only be revealed once you have answered an earlier question.

If you do, on the other hand, have an interest in a specific aspect of the multiple causes of WW2, you can still satisfy both your teacher’s goals and your own by briefly describing the ‘big picture’ — covering these same questions, but very briefly — and then pulling out one set of questions to answer in more detail, as a demonstration of the complexity of the issue.

Okay, these are bare bones examples (and have still gone on long enough - demonstrating how long it takes when you try and spell out any process!), but hopefully it's enough to show how understanding the questions and assumptions behind the ostensible question helps you frame the right question (and note that questions and assumptions are often just the same thing, framed differently). You can read more about asking questions as a study strategy in my older articles: Asking better questions and Metacognitive questioning and the use of worked examples. I also have a much longer example in my book Effective notetaking, which goes into considerable detail on this subject.

This post has gone on long enough, but let me end by making two last points, to emphasize the importance of asking the right questions. First, the question that starts you off not only shapes your search (for the answer to the problem, or for the right information, or the right decision), it also primes you. Priming is a psychological term that refers to the increased accessibility of related information when a particular item has been retrieved. For example, if you read ‘bread’, you are primed for ‘butter’; if you’ve just remarked on a pastel pink car, you’re more likely to notice other pastel-colored cars.

Second, questions are also an example of another important concept in memory research — the retrieval cue. As I discuss at some length in Perfect Memory Training, your ability to retrieve a memory (‘remember’) depends a lot on the retrieval cue. Retrieval cues (whatever prompts your memory search) are effective to the extent that they set you on the right path to the target memory. For example, the crossword clue “Highest university degree (9 letters)” immediately brought to my mind the answer “doctorate”; I didn’t need any letter clues. On the other hand, the clue “Large marine predator (9 letters)” left me stumped until I generated the right initial letter.

As I say in Perfect Memory Training, when you’re searching for specific information, it’s a good idea to actively generate recall cues (generation strategy), rather than simply rely on a passive association strategy (this makes me think of that, that makes me think of that). Asking questions, and repeatedly revising those questions, is clearly a type of generation strategy, and in some situations it might be helpful to think of it as such.

As in every aspect of improving memory and learning skills, it helps to know exactly what you're doing it and why it works! This is a large topic, but I hope this has helped you understand a little more about the value of asking questions, and how to do it in a way that is most effective.