‘Community Acuity’ blog posts are from supervisors, to supervisors. They share the thoughts, experiences and reflection of the highs and the challenges of supervising doctoral students.
Dr Ann Rowan is a Research Fellow in the Department of Geography at the University of Sheffield.
Our department runs weekly research seminars given by invited external speakers, as well as presentations throughout the year by staff and students. After these presentations there is time for questions from the audience. The same small, and senior, section of the audience provides the majority of these questions each week. These are insightful questions, often with a lengthy preamble that demonstrates knowledge of the topic and comprehension of the material presented.
Few questions are asked by PhD students even if they do put their hand up, as the senior staff often don’t wait to be called on to ask their question. Does this sound familiar?
Why don’t students ask more questions at public talks?
An informal survey of our PhD students resulted in comments along the lines of “we don’t get a chance to ask questions”, “I’m worried about asking a stupid question which would be embarrassing” and “I don’t want to waste the speaker’s time with my question”. However, these students are the members of the department that do research all day every day and are likely the most up-to-date with the current literature. Only one student felt confident that the value of having her question answered outweighed the perils of asking, but the majority felt nervous and invisible in the audience.
To actively encourage PhD students to confidently ask questions, and following a suggestion from Kay Guccione, I ran two ‘Question Club’ workshops this semester. The outcome was great; the students had so many questions that I had to stop them asking follow up questions.
How to encourage students to ask questions?
The Question Club session follows this format in a 50-minute session:
- Start with a short (not more than 10 minutes) research presentation either by an early career researcher or a postgraduate student. The focus of the session is on asking questions, not on the talk itself.
- During the presentation, each member of the audience writes down all the questions that occur to them. The important point to emphasise is that there is no question too basic and it’s not a problem if the speaker later answers these questions. Let the students know at the start that they won’t be asked to read out their questions and so don’t have to screen them or be worried about ‘stupid’ questions.
- Then the students split into small groups (4–6 people) to pool their questions for 15 minutes and put together two or three questions that they want to collectively ask. I talk to each group about the sort of question they want to ask: Is it constructive? Does it encourage the speaker to make an expansive answer (not just a yes/no)? Does the question ask about the research undertaken rather than just how the study could be expanded?
- The groups then ask the speaker their questions for 15 minutes.
- The speaker and session organiser lead a discussion of the questions asked for the last 10 minutes of the session. The speaker comments in general on what they thought; have they been asked similar questions before? Was the question easy or difficult to answer?
Tips for running Question Club:
The focus is on being supportive and constructive.
- The presentation is not the important part; keep this as short as possible. It is useful to have someone who is approachable and good at communicating his or her ideas.
- This session can double as practice for PhD students to present their work, and answer questions.
- Senior academic staff (lecturer-level and above) are excluded as students can feel less confident speaking in front of senior staff.
- One audience member, maybe an early career researcher, could be responsible for thinking of particularly difficult questions to ask, as long as this is not done in a confrontational manner. It makes for a good discussion in the final part of the session.
- Although the students hopefully have lots of questions that they are keen to ask, make them aware if needed of the limited time available for asking these and encourage them to thank the speaker after their question has been answered rather than asking a lot of follow-up questions. The reason for this is to avoid the sort of behavior that stops them asking questions in the first place. There is always the conference coffee break…