How to Ask a Smart Question
By S. Snyder
(Last revised:11/19/03)

I can almost guarantee that at some point in your education a teacher has stood before you and in a self-satisfied tone said, "There are no dumb questions in this class." Well, he or she got it half-right. While there may be no dumb questions, some questions are clearly smarter than others.

So what makes a question smart? To answer this completely would probably take us deep into theories of knowledge, linguistics, rhetoric, logic and maybe even brain chemistry. But I'll give you the short answer: a question is a tool a for generating knowledge, and a good one does this well.

Here is what I mean: suppose you have just gotten off a late overbooked flight to Cleveland, on which you drank too much coffee while waiting for the flight attendants to turn off the sign that prevented you from "roaming about the cabin." They didn't, and now you are just inside the terminal and spot an airport worker. You could ask one of the following questions:

1. Hey, does Cleveland even bother to put restrooms in the airport?
2. Um, restroom?
3. Do you know where a restroom is?
4. Excuse me, where is the nearest restroom?

Given the context, all four of these questions might generate the desired knowledge, but one question is clearly smarter than the others. That is, it will obtain the desired knowledge more efficiently and with fewer chances for confusion. Most people agree that the best question -- and therefore the smartest -- is number four. The others may have worked, but four has the best shot at working.

Number one, of course, may even have gotten you directed to the farthest point from a restroom. Two is imprecise, and three (if answered with strict accuracy) would require still another question. Only number four possesses qualities that typify good questions: clarity of purpose, proper framing, sincerity of intent and respectfulness. Let's take a closer look at these qualities, because whether you are asking about restrooms in Cleveland or subatomic particles, these qualities prove beneficial in the generation of knowledge.

Clarity of Purpose

By clarity I mean that you have a good idea about what you want to know. Hey, wait a minute, you object. How can I know what I want to know before I even ask for it? And I respond that you can know what you want to know because questions are never asked from a state of complete ignorance. As Shakespeare's King Lear said, "Nothing will come of nothing."

Take, for example, the question How does a television work? It could not be asked without some previously held conceptual framework that something called a television exists and that it is designed to perform some specific function or sets of functions. Even if you encountered a completely unfamiliar term-- blork, for instance-- you would not be wholly in the dark because you would know a blork was a something, an idea, a person, perhaps an action of some sort. And you would frame a question about it accordingly.

Indeed, questions only arise because we've bumped into something unfamiliar and we are trying to use what we know to establish a conceptual link to it. You have experienced this if you've ever looked up a word in the dictionary. You may not know what the word means, but you know it's a word; and the only way you can understand this new term is to link it to a term you already know. In short, we always use what we've got to know what we've not.

Good questions aid the linking process by making it more intentional and self-directed. So when I say that to ask a smart question you need to know what you want to know, I'm not saying you already have the answer. I'm just saying that you know what kind of work you want your question to perform.

Below is a list of questions that have been grouped by the kinds of knowledge-generating work they do. Note that this list is arranged in a hierarchy of three levels. Level one questions are the rough tools you use to form a general understanding of a subject. Level two build upon this general understanding and try to fit it into the existing framework of what you already know. Level three questions extend your newly acquired understanding to the world around you and in new directions.

This list is not meant to cover every possible type of question -- just those useful in gaining an understanding of things and their usefulness. It is merely a first stab at organizing my own understanding of question types and their specific functions. I invite other ideas, hierarchies and/or critiques of what I've done here.


Level One

1. Definitions and clarifications
How do you define this (word, term, idea, etc.)?
What does this idea (passage, concept, etc.) mean?
What would be a specific, concrete example of this?

2. Contextuals
How was this idea (event, text, work, etc.) shaped by its time?
Where did this originate and why?
Who was the originator of this and what was he or she like?

3. Analyzers
What parts or features make up the whole and what does each part do?
How do the parts contribute to the whole?
How is this organized and why is it organized this way?
What are the most important features of this?


Level Two

4. Comparatives
How is this the same as that?
How is this different than that?
How are these more or less similar?
What is the opposite of this?

5. Causals
What factors caused this to happen?
Which of these factors is sufficient? Which contributing? Which probable?
On what grounds can we eliminate possible causes or explanations?

8. Evaluatives
Why do you like or dislike this (or agree or disagree with this)?
How strong is the case that this is correct?
What criteria are best for judging this?
What is the best order or priority for these things and why?
What is the strongest argument against this?


Level Three

7. Counterfactuals
How would this change if X happened?
How would things be different if X had not happened?
How would things be different if X happened to a greater (or lesser) degree?

8. Extenders (Synthesizers)
How can we apply this to this set of circumstances?
What can we predict because of this?
What ideas can be added to this?
What might happen if you added this to that?


Now let's see how these questions might apply to a real situation. Let's say, for instance, that you have just finished reading an extremely difficult chapter of a book for your psychology class (Karl Jung's Aion would make a good example). You read it all, but you haven't got a clue what Jung was talking about. So which of the following would be good questions?

Can you give me a real-world example of what Jung means by the terms anima and animus?

Who was Jung and what events influenced his ideas?

What is the logic for how this chapter is organized?

In this case, all three of these might be good questions. You are looking for a first rough understanding of the material, and that means asking a lot of level one questions. The first question above seeks to define the meaning of key terms and to clarify the terms by relating them to something you already know. The second tries to get some context on how the events in Jung's life informed his ideas. And the third, an analyzer, tries to understand the structure of the material to begin building a basic understanding of its main points

Once you have some basic understanding, you can start asking level two questions, which help you to better fit your new understanding into what you may already know. Let's say, for instance, that you have been struggling through Plato and Aristotle's ideas on ethics. You have a good general grasp on each of their ideas. There are some similarities, but also some interesting differences. Now you would like to know how important these differences are. Fortunately, you find yourself seated next to a professor of classical philosophy during that long flight to Cleveland. Here is the perfect opportunity to pose your question. So, given what you want to know, which of the following is the best question?

1. So what's the deal with Plato and Aristotle?

2. Who do you like better: Plato or Aristotle? And why?

3. What are the the most important differences in the ethical philosophies of Aristotle and Plato?

4. On what specific grounds does Aristotle reject Plato's theory of ideal forms?

Well? Which of these accomplishes the aim stated above efficiently? First, take a look at the aim: you want to know the most important differences. In essence, you are seeking an expert's evaluation. Given this, question one lacks clarity. Two asks for an opinion, but it lacks a precisely phrased request for an evaluation of important differences. Four has great clarity and precision, but it asks only for summary with no evaluation. That leaves question three. Of all of the questions above, it expresses the kinds of information it wants with clarity of purpose.

Level three questions can be some of the most thought-provoking and fascinating questions of all. Here you try to link (or extend) your newly-gained understanding to the world around you. What are the social implications if Jung was right? Answering these well, of course, assumes the work on levels one and two has been completed.

Proper Question Framing

Most people who browse through a gallery of paintings pay little attention to the picture frames. They are there to see the art, not the things holding the art. But frames are important. They purposefully focus the viewer on an image that an artist has selected out of an infinite world of images. A precisely framed question works in the same way. It focuses the mind on one issue among an infinite number of others.

Clarifying your purpose (i.e., specifying precisely what you want defined, illustrated, compared, classified, evaluated, etc.) helps tremendously in framing your question. Even so, it is still possible to make a fundamental error in question framing that will damage the value of the response. Sometimes these errors are unintentional. At other times they are used to intentionally mislead. Below are some common errors in question framing with accompanying examples:

1. Framing a question that sets up a false comparison: Why should we allow women to fight in combat if they can't even stand a little sexual harassment in the workplace? This question assumes that volunteering to place oneself in a dangerous situation is the equivalent of being involuntarily subjected to sexual harassment, a comparison that falls apart with the slightest critical reflection. Pay close attention whenever a comparison appears in a question. Someone could be trying to slip a fast one by you.

2. Framing a question that sets up a false dilemma: Why should we bother to spend money to save the whales when people are starving to death? The underlying assumption of this question is that saving the whales and helping the starving are mutually exclusive propositions, which may not be the case. By assuming a "one or the other" answer, the question narrows the focus to exclude the possibility that both are achievable. As a rule, be wary of either/or questions. They may be justified, but they can also be highly misleading.

3. Framing a question that doesn't necessarily follow from its premise: As the world's last remaining superpower, does America have a special responsibility to spread our values of democracy and freedom to other nations? Whether we have a special responsibility as a nation is a complex moral and political question that may or may not have anything to do with our superpower status. Try to think through the logic of premises in questions. Sometimes they are valid, and sometimes they are not.

4. Framing a question that assumes the answer: Are you still cheating at golf? Here the question is framed in such a way that the respondent cannot answer without affirming an assumption that she has in the past or continues to cheat at golf, which may not be true. Pay attention to the assumptions that are built into questions and try to make certain that they are well established.

5. Framing a question with undefined words or words whose definition is very loose: Do you love me? Confusion often arises when a question contains an insufficiently defined word, especially one that has many possible meanings. Some words are very generic and may cover entire classes of ideas or things that have quite different meanings. Love is such a word. It comes in many varieties (romantic, paternal, maternal, fraternal, platonic, etc.). Answers to such questions are difficult without a clear definition of the specific usage. Admittedly, this definition doesn't always have to be spelled out; it may be apparent from context. If your romantic partner is asking you the love question over a candlelight dinner, it might be clear which kind is meant. Even so, defining how you are using a word that is subject to many meanings is usually the best way to minimize confusion.

6. Framing a question that contains an ambiguity: Why is it that visiting relatives can be so boring? At first glance this seems a straightforward enough question, but on second glance its wording leads to a problematic ambiguity. Is the question asking why relatives that have come to see you are boring, or why your visiting them is boring? Without greater clarity or some context to help us understand the intended meaning, the question is difficult to answer. Oftentimes we are unaware we have framed a question ambiguously (because we know what we mean), but if two or more understandings of a question are possible, you'll soon get them.

7. Framing a question that asks for an answer the subject is incapable of providing: A special word needs to be said about these kinds of questions, which are quite common in public debate. The problem is this: despite our longing for a definitive answer, not every subject is capable of supplying one with the same level of certainty.

A few subjects like mathematics and geometry allow for absolute certainty. Science offers us a high degree of certainty on many questions (but not absolute certainty), while other subjects like history and sociology can only provide us with probable answers.

On the other hand, the answers to ethical and political questions can vary greatly with circumstances, and answers in matters of aesthetics are often articulations of taste. Lastly, metaphysical questions may only be answerable with deeply personal -- but no less valuable or meaningful -- statements of belief.

Here are some examples of questions framed to require an answer that the subject cannot supply:

Asking for certainty when probable truth is as good as it gets:What did Columbus really do when he landed in the New World? Barring the invention of a time machine, we can't know the answer for sure. The best we can do is make an educated guess based upon historical evidence. Our guess may be more or less probable given the available evidence, but it can never reach 100 percent certainty. A better formulation of this question might be Given the evidence, what likely happened when Columbus landed in the New World?

Asking for a definitive answer when the answer varies with circumstances:Is lying ethical? The question of whether lying is ethical depends on specific circumstances. Indeed, it can't be well considered without reference to circumstances. For the most part lying is probably unethical, but if you owned a gun and a burglar who had taken you and your family hostage asked where it was kept, the ethical response might just be to lie. Thus to ask for a definitive answer is to misunderstand the nature of the inquiry. A better formulation of this question might be what circumstances determine whether lying is ethical?

Asking for objective certainty when the answer varies due to taste:What is the most beautiful piece of art in the world? Few questions are as personal and passionate as those concerning our tastes, which are by definition subjective. This is not to say that subjective questions are unanswerable or a waste of time. Indeed, defining what we find beautiful is a highly valuable way to understand ourselves and our relationship to the world more intimately. A better formulation of this question might be what are the qualities that make this piece of art beautiful to you?

Asking for certainty when there is no demonstrable way of obtaining an answer: Do we have guardian angels? This is a metaphysical question and unanswerable by the standards of rational inquiry.

You may have noticed that all of the examples I've cited in this last category err by seeking a degree of certainty that is unavailable. It is possible, of course, to err in the other direction (i.e., by seeking a lesser degree of certainty than is available), but it's rare. People don't generally ask for a personal opinion about the temperature at which water freezes; nor do they spend a good deal of time pondering the probability that 4 x 7 doesn't equal 28. For whatever reason, we crave certainty even it is clear that we can't get it.

A few poets, artists, philosophers and theologians have found a value in uncertainty. The British poet John Keats admired what he called negative capability, which he defined as the capacity "to be in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." Another poet, W. H. Auden, expressed an admiration for writers who exhibited "clear thinking about mixed feelings." And the philosopher of science Sir Karl Popper believed that a fetish for inarguable certainty was one of the root causes of totalitarian societies. On the whole, however, most people continue to desire a certainty that generally eludes them, which means they are susceptible to errors in question framing.

Sincerity

Clarity of purpose and proper framing are vital characteristics of smart questions, but we shouldn't overlook the usefulness of sincerity. When people are sincere it means they say what they mean and mean what they say. It is possible, of course, to ask insincere questions, which can be defined as those that are not interested in knowing the answer. One example of this is a rhetorical question, which can actually impede the search for knowledge. In fact, rhetorical questions are generally more concerned with making a point, often at someone's expense. Here are some examples:

1. Hey, who died and made you king?

2. Tell me, did your mom have any kids that lived?

3. What part of NO don't you understand?

The first is a backhanded way of saying someone has overstepped his or her authority. The second and to some degree the third are assertions that someone is stupid or slow. Moreover, one and two contain unproven assumptions of fact (except in the unlikely event they were actually addressed to a monarch or a ghost). Keep in mind that rhetorical questions are not necessarily useless. They can be highly effective forms of persuasion. One thing is clear, though: the person asking them isn't usually looking for an answer.

Leading questions constitute another class of insincere inquiry. They may be concerned with the answer, but they aren't designed to generate knowledge for the person asking them. Most students are familar with leading questions because professors sometimes teach by posing a series of questions whose inescapable answers lead the student to a given conclusion. As a teaching technique (often called the Socratic method) such questioning can be highly useful, but it is not always concerned with an open-ended generation of knowledge. It may even be used to narrow the knowledge that can be generated.

A lawyer in court, for example, might use leading questions to undermine or minimize evidence or testimony that raises doubts about a desired outcome. Indeed, lawyers are often told in law school never to ask a question in court unless the answer is already known. What we are concerned with here, of course, are questions asked with a genuine interest in acquiring a better understanding, and this requires an openness to hearing the answer whatever it may be.

Respect

Learning often (though not always) takes place in a social setting. After all, you could take a semester's worth of textbooks into your bedroom and read for fifteen weeks, but you would probably learn more effectively by discussing what you have read with others. Indeed, the opportunity to share perspectives, to piece together an understanding with other people, and to test interpretations in debate almost always amplifies the effectiveness of learning. When the woman sitting next to you asks a question you hadn't considered, you benefit. When the example you use to back up a point illuminates an issue for people struggling with it across the room, they benefit. Consequently, a part of your success in class depends on those around you, and a part of theirs on you.

Obviously, then, a rude or disrespectful question can undermine the search for knowledge. Why should I share an enlightening answer or idea with a jerk? This is why good questions should always be phrased in ways that respect people's dignity. Asking someone to explain an apparent contradiction in his or her beliefs or behavior need not involve a prosecutorial or "gotcha" approach.

Remember that none of us is immune from self-contradiction or error. Certainly, it's unpleasant to discover our mistakes, but it is far worse to persist in them, right? So some respect for our fellow learners goes a long way toward building an effective, trusting community, one that even allows us to be wrong once in a while.

Conclusion

The title of this essay is "How to Ask a Smart Question" and I have tried to lay out some general guidelines and pitfalls to avoid when you pose questions to gain a greater understanding. I wish I could tell you that asking such questions comes easily; it doesn't. Rather, it's an intellectual habit or a disciplined way of thinking that you can only learn by doing. After all, an expert can give you pointers on shooting a free throw or hitting a golf ball, but you only get good at it with practice.

I also wish I could promise you ample opportunity to learn this skill in life, but it is one of the great ironies of the modern world that we spend a lot of time thinking about Powerpoint presentations, web search engines, electronic databases and no end of splashy technological gimcrack, yet spend almost no time thinking about the nature and structure of questions. I am not sure why this is, but I suspect it may have something to do with the way good questions unsettle the certainty of what we think we know. As I mentioned earlier, human beings (college professors included) don't care much for uncertainty.

I also wonder to what degree society really wants people to ask a lot of questions. Let's face it: questions are dangerous to those who think they have the answer. And when the powerless begin to put questions to the powerful, look out. World's may change, empires may topple. And maybe, friends, this is why many colleges and universities are more likely to offer you free laptops than lessons in how use the single most powerful learning tool that humanity has ever devised: a smart question.