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The Power of Questions



In life, we all ask questions. Two-year-olds ask the notorious “why” in response to every answer presented to them. You have to eat. Why? You need to clean your toys. Why? The sky is blue. Why? So, looking back, I wonder why I never thought of utilizing a basic question when I was confounded by a client’s paper. Toddlers learn through questions, so why can’t we as writing consultants?

There are two main types of questions: clarifying and probing. Clarifying questions are questions that the student can answer with a simple, quick response (Ekey). They allow for the foundation to be built so that the consultant can understand the basics, which can be very helpful in complicated papers. If the consultant does not understand how a horse responds to pressure, then how can they be critical of the content of the paper? Clarifying questions allow the consultant to see if the confusion stems from a grammatical error or a simple lack of knowledge. 

Clarifying questions tend to be my favorite type of question when reading, especially when confronted with scientific dissertations. One evening, while working with a client, I noticed a sentence that read “we compared the total materials, oxygen and nitrogen, to the base model.” I was a bit confused because before oxygen and nitrogen were not mentioned in the materials used for his experiment. 

So, I asked, “Are the total materials oxygen and nitrogen or are all three things different items?”
He responded with, “No, the total materials are this items in this diagram, and the oxygen and nitrogen were measured to see if our treatment worked or not.”
After he replied with this, I was able to explain to him that since he had not used the Oxford comma, I was unaware that the total materials were not, in fact, oxygen and nitrogen. He seemed astonished that this was an issue for the reader, and he was grateful that I pointed out this error. Using a clarifying question allowed me to determine what he really meant, which turned out to be different from what he actually wrote. 

Clarifying questions can also be used to increase the confidence in the student. If the consultant asks a simple question that the student can answer, they gain some authority in the appointment (Graesser and Person). As consultants, we can set students up for success by giving them authority and confidence. How many of these students have come in to a Writing Center or turned in a paper just to receive it back with numerous red marks? How many of these students feel as if the Writing Center is remedial? Allowing the students to feel successful and confident, changes their attitude and will allow them to be more open. 

The other type of question is a probing question, which are more thought-provoking questions. Probing questions also give the student more authority and confidence. When a student can make connections of their own, they gain confidence because they are able to do so. When a probing question is asked, the student is forced to think about what they do or do not know. If they do not know the material, then the paper is probably lacking connections. After responding to probing questions, the student can see if they have a knowledge deficient so that they can fix it.

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