Learning to learn: asking questions and taking names

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I went to a huge college. And by huge, I mean almost 40,000 undergrads.

By nature, this meant that I spent a lot of my class time as follows: find a seat in a lecture hall among 400 of my “closest friends,” listen to one professor in the front of the room talk for 45 straight minutes, take notes, leave, repeat.

This isn’t to say that professors did not encourage participation. At the end of every lecture, the last slide would read “Questions?” and everyone would look around praying that no one raised their hand so that class would end early and we could leave. Encouraging, right? I can guarantee that there were more than a handful of students at the end of each of these lectures who needed something clarified, wanted to know more about a subject, or simply wanted to continue the discussion who didn’t simply because of the peer pressure not to.

In my (humble) opinion, this mentality is cultivated within schools at many different levels, including, but not limited to, high school and college. Asking questions in class meant you were the nerd; the uncool one who made everyone else sit in class for longer than they had to, and this hinders learning.

In college, if I wanted to learn more about a subject from one of my classes, I would have to go to “office hours,” a period of time each week when the professor opens his or her office door to students who want to come talk, usually during a time when you have another class or meeting (thanks, Murphy’s Law). Now, though, I am constantly finding myself surrounded by brilliant people with no one staring me down with eyes that say “don’t you dare ask that!” and as the next step in my #learningtolearn process, I’ve embraced these opportunities.

Here’s a look at the few of the things I’ve learned about asking questions:

There are such things as stupid questions.

Just kidding, there aren’t. (Got your attention, though, right?)

I don’t care how many times we were told this growing up – I always find myself thinking, “Don’t ask that, that’s dumb. You should know that.” Well, guess what? Like I talked about in my last post, so many people of today’s world are in a perpetual state of learning. There is always something that seems obvious to one person that another person might not have ever thought about. The whole reason that conversing with others can be so amazing is because everyone has something to teach and everyone has something to learn. Why we view this as being stupid and not as an opportunity to extract new information is beyond me.

Don’t be afraid to keep asking.

I was recently lucky enough to have the attention of a certain CEO who knows a thing or two about entrepreneurship for an extended period of time. As someone who’s interested in being an entrepreneur one day, I wanted to dig as deep into his brain as possible about anything and everything from physically starting a company to building a multi million dollar brand. Being a 23 year old who’s only been in the “real world” for approximately one year, I really don’t know much about any of this. To be honest, I didn’t even know what to ask. But, once we started talking, I figured out how to lead him to teach me the things I was so eager to hear about. When the first question I asked brought out another question, I asked that one. And then another one. And another one. The likelihood of figuring it all outfrom one or two questions is low, and that’s why it’s important to keep asking. Also, you never know where it might lead you!

Class isn’t the only place to take notes.

Grab your notebooks (medium sized ones) for this one! Like I described, I always keep my notebooks handy, even if it’s just to jot down tidbits of what I hear people saying around me. Notetaking isn’t only beneficial to reference what you learned in the future, but it’s also an actual part of the process to remember information.

During my conversation with Guillaume (I mean, said CEO) I wrote down names of authors he told me about and sentences he said that really hit home (I’m not even sure he knows this). Then, guess what I did? I went home and ordered the books he told me about and so continues the vicious cycle of learning.

A few tips on asking questions and taking notes:

  • Follow your own logic path when asking questions. Ask the questions that naturally form in context during the actual conversation instead of waiting to ask questions at the end. Think of this as a two-way dialog instead of an interruption!

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification if you don’t understand. Some people understand their topic of expertise so well that they make assumptions that don’t make sense to a newbie. Call them out!

  • When taking notes, try to focus on key points of conversation instead of writing them word for word. Translating the concept into your own words will only help you remember better!

  • When writing a quote you want to remember, differentiate this in your notes. I’m a huge fan of lines – I separate everything that’s a different format and use actual quotation marks to write down exact sentences I want to remember.



Stay tuned to find out what I learned from this conversation and more!

What do you keep in mind when asking questions about something you know nothing about?



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About the Author

Ally Greer
Ally is Scoop.it's Director of Content & Community. She loves to geek out over anything social, Internet, or tech related. When she isn't working, you'll probably find her running the streets of San Francisco. Follow Ally on Twitter @allygreer.
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Chris Sharkey
Chris Sharkey
10 years ago

Hey great article. I take a notebook everywhere an always take detailed notes. My main problem is not going back and summarising them or reviewing them, mostly because I’m too messy! Asking dumb questions is my main skill, so I definitely feel you on that one. In history class my friends and I used to deliberately ask questions because we knew that the teacher would talk forever and thus waste class time.

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10 years ago

great article!

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