Office of the Provost

January 8, 2018

Asking questions

Jerry Baldasty

“A key to understanding what makes teaching intellectually interesting for faculty is not to consider what the faculty bring to the classroom, but rather to consider what the students bring. In particular, the students bring their questions. We faculty cannot wait to hear your questions.

With that, Professor Sarah Keller, who teaches Chemistry and Physics, welcomed new students at the UW’s convocation in September. Her talk was thoughtful, engaging and set the right tone for all of us – students, staff, faculty. Her message: Ask questions!


As Dr. Keller pointed out, asking questions is a great way to learn, and to demonstrate to others that we really WANT to learn. “We, the faculty at the UW, are fully expecting you students to ask naïve, uninformed, and, even sometimes, stupid questions. When you do so, we’ll be overjoyed, because we’ll know you care as deeply about your education as we care deeply about your education,” she said.

Why should faculty care about lots and lots of questions?

Students’ questions, Dr. Keller said, helped her be a good teacher. “I cannot tell if I am teaching you effectively unless you students ask questions …. those questions tell me if I have overestimated or underestimated how well your previous courses have prepared you for my class. Your questions also tell me whether I have correctly conveyed concepts to you.”

Asking questions throughout life, career

Dr. Keller noted that her “not-so-secret goal” was to encourage a question-asking practice that students took with them after graduation, “after you walk across the stage.” And that practice would make our students “lifelong learners.” The ultimate goal: learning how to learn.

I found Dr. Keller’s lively presentation so relevant for our students; I remember well that I hesitated asking questions in class when I was a UW undergrad years ago, fearing that I would show my ignorance. I wish I had had Dr. Keller’s good advice then.

Her presentation is also relevant to the rest of us – UW faculty and staff, for ideally we continue as lifelong learners in our careers. Our ability to make a difference really depends on our ability to ask the questions that increase knowledge, spark collaboration and help identify solutions to the problems we face. Some of the people I admire most are those who ask a lot of questions — people like UW Regent Constance Rice and my Communication faculty colleague Dr. Nancy Rivenburgh. Julian Ishibashi, chair of my student advisory board, often asks questions about things I haven’t thought to tell him, such as how the University operates, in general, and why we’ve made the decisions that we have. Questions like these demonstrate a deep commitment to the UW, and help to make me a better provost, colleague and scholar.