Building Skill in Asking Questions

Being able to ask relevant questions is one of the most important academic skills. It helps you understand topics more deeply, allows you to demonstrate your critical thinking skills, and usually leads to improved participation marks.

With a little practice, you can learn to ask good questions about anything.

When the professor asks if the class has any questions, you’ll make a good impression if you often have a question prepared. As long as you’re listening carefully and thinking critically and creatively, you can come up with questions for almost anything.

Certainly you should be able to ask questions after reading any journal article or listening to a presentation or discussion. Once you’ve built your skills, you’ll discover you can ask meaningful questions about even the simplest things.

Here’s an example:

I ate eggs for breakfast this morning.

Now ask some questions…

Did you enjoy the eggs?

How were they prepared?

Do you like the yolk runny or firm?

Do you often eat eggs for breakfast?

Have you ever tried eggs benedict?

Did you eat at home or at a restaurant?

What else did you eat with the eggs?

Do you put salt on your eggs?

Do you ever have eggs for dinner?

What is your favourite egg dish?

That’s ten questions (and that’s just a start) about one seven-word sentence. Sure, it’s easier to ask questions about something you’re familiar with, like eating eggs, but if you can ask ten or more questions about such a simple statement, then you must be able to ask at least two or three questions about an article or presentation.

One of the best ways to build skills in asking questions is simply to practice. Whenever you read an article or watch a program or presentation, practice asking questions. Here are three question-asking strategies to get you started: probe for more detail, clear up ambiguity and inquire about important missing information.

And don’t forget who, what, when, where, why and how!

Exercising Body and Mind

I’ve been writing lately about some of the strategies that support university students’ success by helping all the hard work and studying pay off.

In a New York Times blog, Gretchen Reynolds writes about “The Right Dose of Exercise for a Longer Life.” She gives details on a large study published recently in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The study examined 14 years of data from over 661,000 adults. Here’s what death records for that period showed:

“They found that, unsurprisingly, the people who did not exercise at all were at the highest risk of early death.

But those who exercised a little, not meeting the recommendations but doing something, lowered their risk of premature death by 20 percent.

Those who met the guidelines precisely, completing 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise, enjoyed greater longevity benefits and 31 percent less risk of dying during the 14-year period compared with those who never exercised.

The sweet spot for exercise benefits, however, came among those who tripled the recommended level of exercise, working out moderately, mostly by walking, for 450 minutes per week, or a little more than an hour per day. Those people were 39 percent less likely to die prematurely than people who never exercised.”

Wow. Reducing your chance of dying by 31% just with 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week! That seems worthwhile, to say the least. Most of the adults in the study were middle-aged, so the exact figures may differ from those of the average reader of my blog. Nevertheless, the results are striking.

University students can become intensely focused on their studies, often to the point where they ignore their health. They don’t sleep right, eat right, or exercise. For a few days before your finals this might make sense, but not over the long term. After all, we work hard in university to build a successful future, and nothing can derail your future plans more quickly than dying.

Keep in mind, also, that exercise doesn’t just reduce your chances of death and illness; it also gives you energy, helps reduce stress and keep you calm, and improves focus.

And don’t abandon your plan to exercise because you’re more in the mood for a walk than something more strenuous. Another recent JAMA Internal Medicine study that Reynolds comments on explains that moderate exercise like walking will give you most of the longevity benefit from exercise. Try to have about one-third of your exercise time be “vigorous” if you can, but remember that a nice brisk walk is still doing a great job of helping you stay healthy.

“Resume” Virtues and “Eulogy” Virtues

Being a university student, or aspiring to be, can consume all your physical and mental energy. Applications, marks and references seem like the centre of the universe. And they are, in a way, but you can’t lose sight of the fact that university life is just one part of a bigger picture.

In The New York Times recently, columnist David Brooks wrote about his moral “bucket list.” He laments the fact that so many of us lose track of core values as we pursue academic and career goals:

“It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.”

I like Brooks’ article as a reminder of the multifaceted nature of accomplishment and fulfillment. An excellent career is only strengthened by paying attention to the things that make you a deeply good person, too. Remembering that academic life is not everything also helps you stay strong during the inevitable setbacks in your studies. There’s always more to life than that which seems most pressing at the moment.

Brooks also reminds us that fulfilment comes from looking beyond ourselves:

“Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?”

It’s alright to focus entirely on your studies. You need to sometimes! But in those quiet moments between exams and papers, contemplate whether you’re doing all that you can to improve not only your academic self, but also the core virtues that make everything else worthwhile.

POSTSCRIPT: I have to mention that applicants who can show the sort of well-roundedness Brooks advocates are much more likely to wow admissions committees.

Mental Toughness for Students

Knowing how to study effectively is one of the most important factors of being a successful university student, but studying is only part of a much larger challenge. Your learning and studying are supported by physical and mental processes that keep your thinking sharp and your focus steady.

A valuable characteristic that most students need to spend more time developing is “mental toughness,” also called “resilience.” Mental toughness is the ability to face challenges calmly and effectively, and to not let setbacks derail your path to success. In many ways it’s similar to grit, which I’ve discussed in a previous post.

This morning I came across Patrick Allan’s post on mental toughness on It’s a quick read and a great introduction to strategies that can help you beat back the many challenges of university life.

It’s impossible to study well if your mind is distracted with worry about your problems. A dose of mental toughness will help you now and every step on the path to success.

Your Daily Conciseness #7

Not concise:

I think the risks of hydraulic fracturing clearly outweigh the benefits.


The risks of hydraulic fracturing clearly outweigh the benefits.


You almost never need to write “I think” or “I believe” in an academic paper. Readers will assume you think or believe something if you’ve taken the time and energy to write it in your paper.

Notice also that the concise sentence above feels bolder and more convincing. Writing students often use phrases like “I think” because they’re trying to point out that they know they could be wrong. In life in general it’s admirable to remember that you could be wrong about something, but your writing should be as clear and convincing as possible. State your idea boldly and confidently. If there are factors that could make your assertion incorrect, then clearly state what they are and how likely they are to influence your claim.

Your Daily Conciseness #6

Not concise:

Nowadays, the price of oil is higher than it has ever been before.


The price of oil is higher than it has ever been.


You don’t need to say “nowadays” or “currently” in situations like this. If you simply state your idea without a time mentioned, readers will assume you mean the present. If you meant twenty years ago, then you would say so. You can also leave out the “before” at the end, because it has no effect on the meaning.

You could make the sentence even shorter, as in: “The price of oil is higher than ever.” But I like this sentence less. It sounds slightly informal to me. Writing concisely means eliminating unnecessary words, but that doesn’t mean making every sentence as short as possible. You also have to consider other values, like the tone of the writing.