Tag Archives: questions

CollegeQandA asks: On the college tours, what should I ask?

What are some good questions to ask on the college tours?

It is college tour season.  I participated in my first faculty panel this month.  These panels have professors representing different parts of the school sitting and answering questions from prospective students and families.  This is one small piece of the college tour.  I sit on these panels fascinated by the questions that are asked.  I wonder if the questions I hear are the important questions to ask.

Tour guide pointing to statue

What is the goal of the tour?

The goal is to find out if this is the place that will be a good environment for your next 4 years of learning.  This means you are looking for a welcoming, challenging, engaging, and interesting environment.  So, why then is place X better than place Y?

What would be a good question?

The good questions will have answers that will help you differentiate between different places.  This means the questions should be open ended.  The questions should be related to the learning environment.  The questions should be about personal experiences (the bad and the good).

For example, a question such as: “How big are your classes?” will have many nuanced answers from place to place.  Based on the size of the university (student enrollment) and the type of classrooms (how many large lecture rooms) you can easily guess to this answer.  They start bigger and progress to smaller, but this answer doesn’t give you any idea of the experience.

A better question might be: “How does your college make bigger lecture classes into good learning environments?”  That’s a very tricky question for a professor, and if they aren’t aware that there are different ways of improving learning, then maybe that university isn’t particularly interested in undergraduate education.  “How did you like your lecture with 100+ students?”, will get to a students perspective on the large lectures.

Similarly, “Can you describe a situation where you did a research project with a student/faculty member?”  This is another question that looks into the idea that undergraduates are doing research-like activities at this university.  What is actually being learned and what are undergraduates actually doing?

Follow these questions up with, “Can I get their email to find out more about their experience?” and “Can you name professors/students in your department who have done things like this?”

Questions that delve into personal experiences at a university will go deeper into the experience at said university instead of generalities.  Also, try and talk to people who are not directly involved in the college tours.  What do the non-groomed faces of the institution have to say?

What questions are bad?

The bad questions tend to include superficial questions (how big is the dorm rooms?), mechanical questions (are there internships available?), or too focused on a particular path (how hard is it to switch from major X to major Y?).

The first two questions can be asked via email or a web search and tell you very little about this particular university.  All universities have very similar offerings, will offer similar good rankings, will show how past students have been successful, and will have all sorts of statistics that are in favour of the school.  Therefore, asking these types of questions allows for the toured presentation to talk about things that don’t really matter in respect to what is the university offering to you and how it differs from your other potential options.

The last question is too specific to an upcoming experience (undergraduate degree) that is very difficult to plan out from day one to day 1200.

Credits: photo titled: Guided Tour; by Mads Bødker


CollegeQandA asks: What are office hours?

The most underutilized resource at universities

Person sleeping in their office

Some professors have busy office hours filled with students, but most of us schedule office hours and have little to no contact with students unless there is a major exam, assignment, or activity that has an upcoming due date.

But, what are office hours?  The office hour(s) is a scheduled time by the professor where they guarantee that they will be in their office to be available to students and their concerns.  The main purpose is so students can ask questions about things that they either don’t understand or want a deeper understanding as related to a course.  However, most professors are happy to discuss ideas beyond the course including advising, careers, new ideas, etc.

I want to go, how should I prepare?

This depends on the professor, but most professors have a basic expectation if you are coming to ask additional questions or get help for topics in a course.  Note, the title above implies that you prepare for the office hour, and it should not be considered a time to redo a lecture.  You should do some preparation before you walk in and ask questions.  For example, imagine I have given you an assignment on topic X.  You should first try to do work on topic X, you should search out resources (such as textbooks, internet, etc.) to help you on topic X, and then when you are having problems you can bring what you have done working with topic X, and we can look at what you are doing well and what is missing to allow you to make further progress.  Don’t come in and just say, “How do I do this assignment?” or “I don’t get this?” without trying to learn on your own.

The same is true if you are going in for curriculum advice.  You should have some idea what you courses you need to do in the future, and your meeting should be spent on questions that you are unsure of instead of simply saying, “What courses should I take?”

Preparing for a meeting is, likely, part of your future job, and it shows that you respect both the person you are meeting with as well as your own time.

What if I don’t have questions about …?

You should go to office hours even if you don’t have direct questions related to the course or advising.  However, you should still prepare what you want to discuss before hand that is of real interest to you and is, likely, an interest of your professor.  This might be tricky since you are learning an area where the professor is a more experienced person in the topic.  Try open ended questions (the ones that can’t be answered yes/no) related to the course topics or your professors research since they may lead to interesting discussions.

Note, I suggest that visiting your professor is a good thing, but don’t overdo it.  Just because a professor has scheduled time to meet with students, don’t spend all of that time.  If you don’t have course or advising related questions, then an interesting discussion with a professor once or twice a semester would be good and not considered overbearing.

Credits: photo titled: Office Intern, by: Richard Elzey


CollegeQandA asks: How bad is it to drop a class?

What does it mean to drop a class?

Parachute dropDropping a course means removing that course from your schedule before certain dates such that you will not get a traditional letter grade in the course that impacts your overall record, and there might be some monetary refund (if you pay per course).  Depending on dates at your university, a dropped course might appear on your transcript (official record) as dropped, and you might not get any money back.

Typically, in the early part of a semester (first few weeks depending on the university), you can drop a course with no transcript record or cost.  Later in the semester (normally before the half-way point) you can drop the course and this tends to be recorded with an annotation such as “dropped”, “withdrawn – W”, or something similar.  Also, this later type of drop usually does not result in any refund.  Check your universities “academic calendar” that should list these specific dates.

Why would you drop a course?

First off, most early drops are done because a student is still adjusting their schedule and figuring out what their course preference is for the semester.  These types of drops are minor in the big scheme of dropping, so I won’t deal with them and let’s move on to the other types.

Withdrawals later in the semester are the types of drops we are really talking about.  The first factor in dropping is can you drop?  There are different university rules for full-time standing, financial aid, scholarships, staying on campus, etc. which can impact your situation.  Depending on your course load dropping a course can have repercussions beyond academics, so be knowledgeable about the rules for your case.

If you can drop, then the question is should you?  From a repercussion stand point, dropping means that you potentially will delay graduation, which in turn means it may cost you more to complete your degree.  For example, dropping can result in a prerequisite challenge where you can’t take other courses since you are missing the prerequisite, and beware that there are things called prerequisite chains where course A is needed for course B is needed for course C and so on.

On the other hand, you are usually dropping a course because the workload and likelihood of success are, respectively, big and bad.  Given your circumstances, continuing in the course will have a significant impact on your grades, and as little a fan I am of grades, “F” and “D” are not good letters to have on your transcript (“F” is way worse than “D”).  My question as an adviser to students in this situation is, why are you on the edge of failure – knowing that it is probably because you haven’t been continually working on the course.

All sorts of things happen in life that can result in needing to drop a course.  Beyond delaying graduation, what impact might this have on your career?  My perspective is that a few drops have no impact on your career.  An interviewer might ask you why you dropped course X, but these can should be able to be easily explained.  For example, I was overwhelmed that semester and chose to drop that course.  However, multiple withdrawals of the same course Y or a large number of withdrawals can be a red flags for recruiters.

Bottom line

Drop a course if you have to.  Life will throw curve balls that make this choice completely reasonable given your situation.  It’s not a sign of failure, personal value, or anything other than you dropped a course.  Just beware of the rules and repercussions, and try to stay with each of your courses from day one so that this is not an issue.

Credits: photo by: Program Executive Office Soldier; title: Maneuverable Canopy (MC) Personnel Parachute System



CollegeQandA book review: The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking

Book Review: The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking

The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking
This is a review of: The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking authored by two mathematics professors – Edward Burger and Michael Starbird.  The book is a five part progression through techniques to make you a better thinker.  Each progression is explained in the text, and the authors then relate stories to elucidate the concepts with various students and situations they have encountered over their teaching and research experiences.

I have read a number of books on critical thinking, which can be hard to understand, but this book takes an approach that provides direct and simple ideas on how to improve your thinking.  The book, simply, makes sense, and even for a college professor, it is useful to be reminded both about how you and your students think and sometimes forget to think.

Does this book relate to CollegeQandA?

If I had a top ten recommended books on thinking and learning, then this book would be on the list.  Meta-thinking is one facet of self-improvement that will have big and direct benefits in college.  This book is short (and small).  Because of this, the authors recommend reading the book 3 times.  Not sure if that’s needed, but this is a nice book to get you started on understanding what learning and thinking are, and how to them more effectively.

And the book has a section on questions.  So, of course the book relates to this site.

I would recommend this book to…

Anyone interested in a quick and useful read on improving their thinking.


CollegeQandA asks: What are stupid questions?

What are stupid questions and is there a debate?

Questions are important as we’ve discussed previously.  You may have heard the adage, “there are no stupid questions“.

Well, this is wrong.  There are stupid questions and most of the time they are stupid because you could have answered them if you thought for a few seconds.  To figure out if a question might be considered stupid do two things:

  1. Think about a possible answer or where you could find the answer
  2. Try and empathize from the perspective of the person whom you are asking
Graffity question: can you dig it?
Is this a stupid question? (is this a stupid? (is this a? is this? is?

Types of questions and why you ask them?

There are a number of questions we ask and there are all sorts of reasons we ask them.  Briefly:

  • Ask for immediate help with something
  • Ask for quick information
  • Ask to save ourselves time from looking up the answer
  • Ask to start a discussion
  • Ask to make someone reveal more information
  • Ask to keep a conversation going

And that’s just a few reasons.  I would argue that stupid questions are ones that reveal that you are too lazy to think or find out the answer to by yourself.

Think before you ask…

Those of us who answer many questions on a daily basis must try and remember patience, but for those of you asking questions all we really want is for you to take a few seconds and think about what might be the answer or what other sources to find them from.  In some cases, we will pretend to not know the answer to force you to learn to do this.

In particular, I will list questions that you need to try an avoid:

  • Where is your office? – any internet search question is shallow and is for your phone
  • Is this right? – how can you figure out if it is right
  • Will this be on the test/exam? – now it is

The last question is, probably, the most discussed question among professors and students alike.

The will I lose my job litmus test…

The second part to avoiding stupid questions is to think about who you are asking.  You need to remember that your questions are part of your represented image to that person.  In the case of professors, is your question an interesting question that shows you have worked with the material on your own before asking what is just at the top of your head.

Imagine asking a question to your boss, future boss, or someone you want to impress.  Does the question show that you have thought about the question and possible answers?  Is the question needed to form real understanding and not shallow understanding?

In class questions

The problem in class is material is coming at you very quickly, and for you to pose a well thought out question is hard in real-time.  I recommend writing your questions down in your notes, and then asking them at the next lecture or office hours.  If a professor can’t deal with questions, then they are too focused on dumping material and not interested in true understanding.  Or they’re having a bad day – professors are people too.


CollegeQandA asks: Why are questions important to learning?

Are you just justifying this webpage?

Of course a web site dedicated to questions would think questions are important.  It’s your brand and product.

Justifying your existence

Why are questions important?  They’re one of our modes to thinking, and it is almost the only way for people to find out from someone else something they don’t know or understand.  Great teachers will stare into your eyes and look for understanding, but sadly, your eyes are not paths into your understanding sole.

Questions are more important than answers

This article and the next were inspired by the book The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, which I am currently reading and will review soon.  In part 3 of the book “Air”, they discuss the relevance of questions.

From my perspective, questions are almost all that I have.  But I am like most of us, I will pretend to understand or know something to make me look smart.  When you meet a really smart person, the first thing you will notice is that they ask questions.  The second thing you will notice is that they will wait and ask you to reexplain your answers until you provide a clear answer.  They will do that, or they will take your answer and think about it more, research it more, and verify to the best that they can that this explains it.

A university is “a community of scholars” who spend their days “asking questions” about what we don’t know, think we know, ought to know, and want others to know.  Why are questions important?  Because they are our best tools into investigating knowledge.

For you, stop trying to look smart and start asking and thinking to get smart.