Why ignore hundreds of free micro-trainings a year?

A quick poll of 12 PhD students indicated that, on average, around 7 questions are asked of the speaker at every seminar they attended. At a rate of just one seminar a week during term time, that’s roughly 210 questions a year.

Research students live in a world of questions. Research questions, supervisor questions, questions at seminars, questions they ask; yet unless a question is directed to them, or relates directly to the student’s own research interests, it rarely gets more than fleeting attention.

The questions you hear asked to other researchers, are a largely unrecognised resource for your academic development

As a first-year doctoral student, I had to attend weekly departmental seminars in my multi-disciplinary department as part of my core requirements.

An anthropologist in a Socio-Legal Studies Centre in a Faculty of Law, I often didn’t fully understand the seminar we had from legal academics; at first, that regular two-hour block felt like frustrating presenteeism.

Then, somewhere in the first term, my methodological training kicked in, and I started to take notes on what was happening in the room, as a way of staying engaged.

Just a few weeks into this practice, flicking through my ‘field notes’, the importance of questions asked of the speakers leapt out at me, and I decided to pull them out and start a “question bank”.

Questions are valuable because they’re an insight into processes which are usually hidden

  • How a listener / reader is thinking about what they’ve just head or read
  • What a listener / reader hasn’t understood or felt sufficiently addressed
  • How a listener / reader feels the content connects with their own interests
  • How a listener / reader articulates any of the above

4 steps to making most use of the questions of others

1. Take systematic note of questions

Jot them at the end of your notes for a session; as far as possible, capture word-for-word the formulation and who asked the question

After the seminar, take a few minutes to reflect on the questions in the context of your notes. Can you see where the question came from? Did the recipient seem to grasp easily what was being asked? Did it feel a ‘good’ question? If so / if not, why?

2. Create a “question bank”, and sort entries in a way that makes sense to you

This will depend on the platform / system you use for your question bank, and whether it allows you to assign multiple tags to a each question, so you can interrogate it from different perspectives, or it’s more linear.

3. Look for patterns in the questions and the questioners

You might find patterns in content, style, delivery, language … Tuning your awareness to these patterns allows you to reflect on their relevance and value (or not) to you as you formulate your own questions, and is part of integrating into your academic community.

4. Use your “question bank” to brainstorm the sorts of questions you might be asked

This can be super helpful in the run-up to a milestone assessment, and also the final viva! Review your bank, look for common questions and challenges, and then use word substitution to apply the question to your own work, before trying to answer it.

What I learnt from my “question bank”

Back to my field-note-taking first-year doctoral self: I can see in my notebooks that it was a very good use of my time. By the end of the first year, the practice had developed my understanding, in my academic context, of:

What a good question looks like:

  • If helpful to the respondee, it starts with an extremely concise preamble to anchor the question which follows
  • is in itself as concise as possible, so the respondee has the best chance of holding it in mind while formulating a response
  • is a single question.

And, correspondingly, what a bad question looks like:

  • a multi-question or multi-staged question, that could have been refined to a single question
  • ‘not really a question, more a comment’. Usually, if it’s a comment, it could be better shared with the respondee in a different context, often 1-to-1 or by email
  • even good questions can be frustrating for others when the questioner has poor etiquette in the context: time for any Q and A is limited, and there’s an unspoken courtesy around not taking up more than your fair share. If you’ve got very many questions to ask the respondee, might an email / one-to-one chat be a better way of engaging?

How different people asked questions:

  • compare the formulations and focus of your fellow research students with those of the senior academics present, and see what you can glean
  • note not only content of question but style of delivery (particularly useful to determine in your ‘academic home’ context where you’re likely to hear the same academics at work repeatedly and are likely, in due course, to be asked question by them).
  • are they conversational or abrasive?

That there are recurring question ‘hooks’

These are pieces of language which are a form of specialist terminology and can make a question just sound more academic

  • Can you speak a little more to …
  • Can you fill out / unpack …
  • I notice that …
  • I note that you didn’t touch on X ….

That there are an enormous range of purposes in asking questions

Including to teach, to guide, to challenge, to extend, to demonstrate the questioner’s superior knowledge (sigh), to probe, to connect, to clarify … Quickly identifying the intended purpose of a question can help formulate a better answer.

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