A few days before the start of every term, I get an e-mail from some eager student wanting to know how to complete the first writing assignment. I’m usually still in my end-of-term grading haze, but I direct that student to the assignment guidelines and the rubric, and I assure her that she’s always welcome to ask questions. Inevitably, the student e-mails me back. She thanks me enthusiastically, and then, she issues a warning: “I’m going be that student who asks you questions about everything. Just want you to know.” It’s that student, the one who asks questions on a weekly, sometimes even daily basis, who usually ends up being the superstar of the class!

I’ve taught online English composition courses for the past 5 years. Because my class is considered a gateway or foundation course, I get students from diverse academic backgrounds; my learners have a broad range of interests, goals, and skills. However, my most successful students have one very important trait in common: they aren’t afraid to ask questions. They aren’t afraid to be that student.

So, why is asking questions such a fundamental part of student success? Why is it so important to ask questions in an online classroom?

Asking questions is a great way to gain clarity.

Most students struggle in online courses because they don’t understand the instructor’s expectations or the assignment requirements or BOTH! If you don’t understand what’s expected of you, you can’t succeed. That’s why it’s important for students to ask clarifying questions.

Asking questions is a great way to enhance your understanding of the material.

Many online courses require students to read a lot of material in a short amount of time. It’s hard to process and retain all that information. Asking an instructor some thoughtful conceptual questions is a great way to develop a more thorough understanding of the course material.

Asking questions allows you to take ownership of your learning experience.

Although online instructors try to meet the unique needs of all their students, they can’t always provide students with the support they require. So, if you need an example or you need more resources, ask for those things! Most instructors will be happy to oblige!

Asking questions shows your instructor that you care!

Students hesitate to ask questions because they’re afraid to admit they don’t understand some of the material. They don’t want teachers to think they’re stupid. I understand this concern. When you ask a question, you make yourself vulnerable. However, instructors see your willingness to be vulnerable as a sign of your commitment to the course. Raising your hand (even your virtual hand) is a great way to show your instructor that you care about the class.

Effective vs Ineffective Questions

Of course, not all questions are created equally. There may be no such thing as a stupid question, but there are ineffective questions, questions that lead to less engaged responses.  When you do pose a question, make sure it’s one that will you get results!

Avoid sending your professor a late night e-mail like this: “HELP! I don’t understand the assignment. What do I have to do?” That kind of e-mail requires a lot of follow-up questions. Instead, identify specific points of concern and ask about them. If you do, you’re likely to get a more engaged and developed response.

Don’t ever be afraid to be that student, the one who floods the professor’s inbox, the one who contributes daily questions to the Q & A forums. That student will have a long and successful academic career!