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Asking Questions

Asking Questions - Mapping the Global Dimensions of Policy

Asking Questions at Academic Conferences: Summary

Erin Aspenlieder, PhD, Centre for Leadership in Learning, McMaster University, aspenled@mcmaster.ca

We discussed the qualities of a "good" question and determined that a "good" question should be: one question, related to the content of the presentation, a new question, a specific question and delivered in a respectful tone (more on tone in a minute). 

We discussed how to generate a "good" question by asking for clarification of a key term or idea, asking about methodology, asking about the theoretical framework for the presentation, asking about how an aspect of the presentation to could be applied/extended to another area, or asking the presenter to comment on an idea/article related to their presentation. 

I suggested that conference attendees might want to write down their question, or share their question with a colleague if they are nervous about delivery. We also suggested that in large rooms questions should be asked standing up and facing the audience. There was also a suggestion that if you encounter a language barrier, you could ask a colleague to read your question, or you could speak with the presenter after the session.

Finally, we discussed how if you have a question about how your research relates to the presentation, or if you're particularly nervous about public speaking, you might approach the presenter after the session has ended to talk about the topic.

A few participants at today's workshop had follow-up questions that I'd like to address:

What is a 'respectful tone'?
A respectful tone is one which addresses the content of the presentation and does not personally attack the speaker. e.g. rather than saying "You did not talk about X" a respectful tone might say "Could you please comment on X." Use of 'please' and 'thank-you' contribute to a respectful tone. A respectful tone can be also be achieved by beginning your question with a brief comment about an aspect of the presentation you enjoyed, or by thanking the presenter for their talk. When in doubt, ask the question as you would like to have it asked to you :)

When is it okay not to ask a question?
If you cannot think of a good question, or if the presenter is being flooded with questions from the audience, it is okay not to ask a question. Similarly, if you notice that the time for the session is running out, you may wish to save your question and chat with the presenter after the session. You do not have to ask a question at a conference!

How can to respond to a presenter who misunderstood the intent of the question, and so reacted negatively?
If the presenter responds to your question with hostility, or defensively, they may have misunderstood your intent, or you may have asked a difficult question :) Thank the presenter for their response, and then approach them after the session has ended to clarify your question and intent. 

What can I do to change the tone of questions if the first question asked is very negative?
Sometimes the tone of initial questions can set the mood for the entire question and answer. If you feel comfortable asking a curiosity or clarification question that is not negative: ask it! But ultimately it is the responsibility of the panel chair to monitor the tone of the discussion.

Is it okay to question the theoretical framework of another scholar?
Yes, you can ask questions about the theoretical framework of a presentation. Ensure that you are asking out of curiosity or clarification, and not as an "attack" question. Begin your question by asking "Could you tell me a little bit more about your theoretical framework..." or "I'm curious about your theoretical framework, can you comment on why you used X in this instance?"