Since joining this site about a month ago, I often see a lot of debate over "what is the question about?" and the manner and wording of questions, especially mine, ahem. For example, the comments to this question about which loop should be used try to revise the question in one way, then a different way. The actual wording asks the question in several different ways (which I am guilty of also) because the Asker is actually struggling to formulate the question. They don't know the answer, or what could be an answer, so the question cannot be clear right from the start!

Is this a sign of teachers being better at teaching than asking, or is this just something that comes up on this kind of site? (See? I asked it two different ways with opposite intended answers. Do you just hate that, or not?)

  • $\begingroup$ I think the OP in that question just has bad English skills. I'm guessing English was not their first language. $\endgroup$ – YetAnotherRandomUser Oct 31 '18 at 19:05
  • $\begingroup$ As far as teachers being bad at asking questions, I think "yes", but not because of the emphasis on "teachers", but because teachers are a subset of people, and people are bad at asking questions. $\endgroup$ – YetAnotherRandomUser Oct 31 '18 at 19:06

I think there are a couple issues at play here.

The first and maybe foremost is getting people acquainted with the SE format for asking questions, especially since a lot of questions here can toe the line between "good subjective and bad subjective." We also bring together a wide range of backgrounds and experiences since education is a broad community hence the need for specificity.

You hit on another important point:

"the Asker is actually struggling to formulate the question. They don't know the answer, or what could be an answer, so the question cannot be clear right from the start!"

Askers should not be using questions as a form of external processing to (eventually? hopefully? maybe?) get to a clear question.

If a question cannot be clear from the start it a) should not asked, or b) should be addressed in the chat referenced by @thesecretmaster.

I remember going to a conference a few years back that had a couple sessions on asking good questions. As a former English teacher, I often had to struggle to ask just the right question to spur student discussion on whatever literary work we were studying. One of the key facts I learned both from the conference research and from experience is this: asking a follow-up question to clarify an initial question rarely if ever clarifies it.

If one needs to use a question to clarify another question, he or she is not asking it well. One well-worded question is all that should be necessary. As I reflect on my practice, I do think I was not a good question-asker to start, and research bears out this fact for most teachers. It is hard to ask one question and let the classroom be silent for several seconds as students process it. The temptation is to fill the silence with another question in the hopes that it will inspire a response, but it is actually counter-productive.

Asking good questions is a craft that experience and reflection (and training) can improve, which is why we spend so much time and energy invested in improving questions in this community.

  • $\begingroup$ One of my "dearly held beliefs" has long been that it should be possible to get everything just right the first time. For example, why did the big-endian thing ever arise? and so on down the history of computing, electronics, science in general, philosophy, religion... The fact is, it just isn't. People are limited and so sometimes it takes a few tries to figure things out. Rather than browbeating the form of the question into some kind of pre-defined structure, why can't we just take the ball and run with it at some point? "Good enough is good enough." Don't try to clarify, just answer. $\endgroup$ – user737 Jul 14 '17 at 17:23
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    $\begingroup$ @nocomprende A couple thoughts..."why can't we just take the ball and run with it at some point?" We do. A question can be in the process of revision and still be receiving answers. That doesn't mean we don't seek -- as a community -- to improve it. "Don't try to clarify, just answer." That could be a bit of a reductive solution. I've had several occasions where I needed that clarification in order to provide a thoughtful answer. Bit of a catch-22 there. Were we a discussion site, I'd feel differently, but SE, including our community, is about questions-and-answers, not discussions. $\endgroup$ – Peter Jul 14 '17 at 21:04

We actually have already seen this issue and jumped to address it. We now have a question help room and a question sandbox which feeds into the question help room. There are some users who lurk over there to try and help anyone who needs help.

  • $\begingroup$ Right. I guess my question was more along the lines of how it is difficult to ask something in a way that meets all the SE guidelines when one is not already aware of what the answer is and how best to frame the question. So, perhaps, be less directive about telling people how their question can be improved, especially when opinions differ about what constitutes improvement! I think we are trying too hard to be 'great' sometimes. I saw one question where a perfectly good answer was told to be converted to a comment, then later another person posted the same answer, and it was upvoted. Silly. $\endgroup$ – user737 Jul 14 '17 at 17:14

There is an old platitude about preferring substance over form. From my experience of working with people, I get a lot farther by listening and not interfering. It doesn't matter how messy the form of the question is, answer what is being asked or just wait for more clarity to arrive. I have actually looked at questions years after I first saw them, and finally 'got' what it was about.

My father used to say two very important things:

  1. when people are giving you driving directions, don't interrupt!
  2. only one person talks to the dog (at a time).

Otherwise, everyone gets confused. To paraphrase Steven Covey and my meditation teacher: "Seek first to understand, or we are all on a hiding to nothing."

  • $\begingroup$ see also "can't see the forest for the trees" $\endgroup$ – YetAnotherRandomUser Oct 31 '18 at 19:08

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