Should students ask questions in seminars?

Posted: May 2, 2014 in Blatantly Patronizing
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Should students ask questions in seminars? The answer is so obvious that, if you are a student you shouldn’t even be reading this. Go away! Well, let’s pretend that you knew the answer and wanted to read because I likely was going to explain why you should. Oh really? Well, you should know the answer to that one too: because seminars are not articles, they are with a speaker, who speaks, so that you can ask questions and, unlike an article, the speaker will answer. Cool no? Ok, that’s not what you meant, I get it. You meant: but WHY AREN’T students asking questions in seminars?

Good question! There are many reasons why scientists in general, not only students mind you, don’t ask questions after a talk, however inspiring it was. One is that you may judge your questions too uninteresting for the audience. One can be that you think this will be seen as a show off move and are afraid to be seen as challenging the speaker; another one is that you are too shy to express yourself in public. All these are understandable but should be fought against.

Another set of reason is far less okay. If you never ask questions because (a) you are afraid to show that you didn’t understand something or (b) however hard you think, you never ever come up with a single question, then you should be worried. You shouldn’t be afraid that you misunderstood something because chances are that most of the audience missed the same thing (most likely because the speaker was unclear), and they possibly missed other things as well. And if you misunderstood something – which is fine by the way – you shouldn’t stay that way; just ask. If it’s rather because you don’t have enough critical thinking to come up with questions then you should exercise yourself, as critical thinking is the crux of the researcher. That and the test tube, but many disciplines do without test tubes.

Now I have heard of a proposition to keep the students after the talk, so that they can discuss more freely with the speaker once the senior scientists have asked their questions and left. I’m not too sure this is a good idea, but this is perhaps an idea worth thinking about.

Asking questions in seminars and congresses arguably is as important as reviewing manuscripts for journals. It is an exercise and a formative task. It helps develop critical thinking and formulate ideas, concepts and interrogations. It also helps fight the insecurity feeling that most of us have felt in these conditions and that have neither sense nor utility.

Any question?



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