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I'm teaching an online lab (to accompany an in-person course) to undergrads in their 3rd or 4th year of an engineering curriculum this semester. The aim of the lab is not to teach them any particular technical skills. It's only meant to supplement the content of the course by exposing them to some more advanced concepts in a hands-on way. The lab itself is the means, not the goal.

So beyond a single "orientation" lab, they don't get a whole lot of training in debugging things that go wrong in the lab, and I don't expect them to become advanced users of the lab infrastructure. They're encouraged to post questions on a course forum if they have trouble running a lab exercise, and I answer their questions there.

Having said that, some students post questions that would be closed immediately on a Stack Exchange site for lack of detail, and for good reason. Questions like:

I can't log in to the website, please help.


When I run the experiment, it gives me an error. Can somebody help me???


I can't see the results of the experiment.

with no further details. These are perfectly reasonable things to ask about, but the student hasn't even attempted to give me any details as to what went wrong. In the "real world," people that ask questions like this won't usually get help.

Since I operate the computing infrastructure for the lab, I can actually find out the specifics of what happened by checking the student's username against the server logs. So I can give them an answer even if they ask a really incomplete question (e.g., I can check the server logs and see that their experiment failed because they mistyped a command).

But I'm not sure if I should answer their questions (because I can, and I want to encourage them to ask questions if they have trouble), or if I should try to train them to ask better questions.

  • On the one hand: it seems like I am doing them a disservice by not teaching them how to ask for help properly.

  • On the other hand: students are (legitimately) frustrated when they're using infrastructure they haven't been extensively trained in, and they can't get it to work. If I try to get them to ask better questions, they'll feel like I'm being deliberately unhelpful and making them jump through hoops to get an answer to their question. (I know this because that's been their reaction the few times I tried this.) They may stop asking questions and just give up on the lab exercises.

Should I risk the actual course goal (delivering content to the students) in favor of a general educational goal (teaching them how to ask questions)?

Is there a way to train students to ask better questions without making them feel like I'm not helping them?

Just to clarify: I already provide answers to commonly asked questions, and a lot of material to help students formulate better questions before they ask. Some students ignore that material and ask very non-specific questions anyways. My question is how to address this once they've asked the question: should I walk them through the process of reformulating it before I answer? Is there a way to do so without frustrating them further?

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On Computer Science, I mercilessly close with links to the material they should already have read. Takes 10s of my time. Some make an effort then, and these I help gladly; most never come back. This is similar to the "a student who does not ask twice does not have a problem"-mentality; often students will solve their problem on their own if you just answer after a day or two -- you were the easiest solution at first. –  Raphael Apr 14 at 9:43
@raphael one minor comment: you don't want to be the easiest solution at first and then a disappointment and a source of frustration. Frustration is, to a great deal, due to disparities between expectations and reality. So you want to make clear from the start: the process of asking proper questions, the level of detail that these questions should have and the work they have to do prior to asking a question. The expectations that you have about the questions and that they should have about the answers should be as clear as possible from the start. –  Trylks Apr 14 at 10:33
Are you able to expose the logs to the students? –  sixtyfootersdude Apr 14 at 12:45
@Raphael I think your goals as a mod on Computer Science might be slightly different from my goals as a lab instructor. I can't afford to have students give up in frustration, for one thing :) –  ff524 Apr 14 at 16:51
@ff524 I should probably have said that "my" SE policy derives from my RL policy. Frankly, I don't care if people give up in frustration over "my TA did not respond within the hour". I'll help anyone who spends at least as much time by themselves as I'll have, but others... (One should note that education is basically free over here, so students are not typically viewed as customers.) –  Raphael Apr 14 at 17:36

11 Answers 11

up vote 34 down vote accepted

Being a student myself I know how frustrating it can be to work with technics or facilities you don't know enough about. Sometimes this means asking fully detailed questions can be tricky.

But there is a difference between a student that tries to ask a question to get help with their problem, and one that just declares that they have a problem and thinks it is another persons business to deal with it. What you posted above is the latter. They have encountered a problem and instead of trying to get help to solve it they try to make you solve it. That might even be clever, because as long as you DO solve the problem, they get maximum effect with a minimum of effort. And as soon as students realise that, even the good students won't bother to read your FAQs anymore, because it is a waste of time, when you obviously can identify and solve a problem as soon as they write "Help, I have a problem."

Additionally you have to keep in mind, that as a student you often take from the experience that people don't respond to your question of, "can anyone help me" as indicating that this person is just checking, whether someone responds. It is not meant to be a question, but a phrase to start a communication about the problem. That is something adapted from face to face communication. In the real world you don't go to people and start with a 5 minute monologue to your problem, you ask "Hey would you help me?" Wait for a "Sure what is it." And than give your monologue.

So what I read above is not a question it is the reflex of a student to a problem. Before even thinking they are posting (in my generation a common reflex in every situation - we are the tldr - too long didn't read generation). If I were you I would respond with a reflex. Just answer with a standard answer that explains, that you need more detail to help. Students who get frustrated by this are already frustrated and beyond your reach. If on the other hand a student tried to ask a proper question and just failed, you should provide the answer and give a hint on how his question could have been better.

How frustrated your student will be is less a question of what you respond, than of how you respond. "I could solve your problem, but I wont because of your stupid question" is of course frustrating. But even in a standard answer you can demonstrate that you care, that you take the other person and his time serious, that you would like to help and that you need more information in order to do so. I would try to phrase it, but as you undoubtedly realised I'm not a native English speaker, so I leave that to you. Just don't advertise the fact that you are trying to teach them something.

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This is a very thoughtful answer, thank you. Don't advertise the fact that you are trying to teach them something is not my usual approach. I normally explain to students for any assignment, "I'm asking you to do/learn X because I think it will help you with Y." It hadn't occurred to me not to do this for "asking better questions" - will have to think about this some more :) –  ff524 Apr 14 at 6:50
Oh you allready read it. I just edited it again, because one of your example questions made me think of something. You said in the real world, they would not get help with such questions, but thats only half way true. In face to face communication you start a conversation about a problem not with a full explanation, but with and social opener. "I have a problem, would you please help me" "Yeah sure what is it?" You expect them to skip that, thats usual thinking in an online context, but people might not be aware of that. –  Soronume Apr 14 at 7:04
So maybe that is a simple missunderstanding. You think they are asking a question, but they are't at this point of conversation jet. Maybe those students that don't ask proper questions, don't expect a solution, they are just waiting for an "Ok, you have a problem? We can fix that, what is it exactly?" And than they will ask a 'real' question. –  Soronume Apr 14 at 7:10
I think in the case of my particular students, it is more likely what you said at first (they just want me to fix their problem for them), but this is an interesting point, too –  ff524 Apr 14 at 7:15
And another one :-) About context again. Your approach to explain, that you want people to do X in order to learn Y, is very good in a learning-context. When people come to you to learn something they feel taken seriously when you explain your methods. But when people come to you with a problem, they don't want to learn stuff, they want a solution. (That you want them to learn from their problems makes you a good teacher, but to let them do so quietly without lecturing them makes you an even betterone ;-) ) –  Soronume Apr 14 at 7:21

To me it seems pretty simple. Stop beating around the bush and tell them to not waste your time. If they want a specific answer then they have to give you a specific question. Or as an alternative you can ask equally bad questions until they ask you more in detail.

In your examples above:

Q - I can't log in to the website, please help.

A - How did you try to log in? Please help.

Q - When I run the experiment, it gives me an error. Can somebody help me???

A - Help me first? What experiment and what error?

Q - I can't see the results of the experiment.

A - What experiment? What steps did you take?

After going back and forth a few times even "slow" students will catch on to that to loose less time emailing back and forth, they have to ask more specific questions from the start.

Keep your answers equally short, and use "their" language. When they give you more information, ask more detailed questions. They will find out the answer in time.

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I like this answer. If a 3rd or 4th year engineer has trouble logging in to a website and cannot phrase a question fully describing the problem, quite frankly I'm not sure that they should become an engineer... –  Moriarty Apr 14 at 7:59
@Moriarty I'm inclined to agree (our latest crop of undergrads has been really terrible), but whether or not they become engineers is out of my hands. Given that they're going to graduate, I feel like I should teach them this basic competency of asking questions before we inflict them on the rest of the world. –  ff524 Apr 14 at 8:14
I am not a big fan of this kind of approach. I think this (especially the first example) comes rather too close to trolling the students. It may seem smart and witty to you to answer in kind, but I am pretty sure this is not how it will be perceived by the students (assuming that they actually have a problem they cannot solve, which will be the majority of time). –  xLeitix Apr 14 at 10:18
@xLeitix I agree that this might seem like trolling, though the responses could easily be modified, i.e. by saying "I will not help you until you thoroughly describe the problem to me. The effort I put into a response is proportional to the effort put into the question". Something like that should be more appropriate. They're third and fourth year college students -- the time for mollycoddling is long gone. –  Moriarty Apr 14 at 14:55
Answer instead "Sure, I'd love to help. What's the error?" –  Sergey Orshanskiy Apr 15 at 9:26

Nobody replies with RTFM and STFW anymore, we are losing the traditions of the Internet and that is only bad.

Students should learn to make better questions, but they should also learn something much more important how to answer their own questions, because at some point they will not be students anymore and they may not have anyone to ask their questions (specially in research, where people are meant to find knowledge beyond the state of the art).

There are some related readings (I can think of now) in this context:

Also, don't give a man a fish, teach him to fish. In general I agree with this: Rubber duck problem solving

But... (there is always a but, nothing is ever so simple not to have it), additionally to giving students the tools for them to answer their own questions it's important to give them the information so that they can do that. There are a number of things that work quite well in that sense.

  • Clear definitions, terms, pointers, references and maybe even a glossary. It's much easier to search on the Internet for additional information when you can write a few words on a search box.
  • Detailed step-by-step instructions of the set-up and all the things they should do to get their work done. (RTFM is quite pointless if there is no manual in the first place).
  • A FAQ. If you are getting the same question repeatedly, then it's likely that something is not clear (which we could say it's your fault...) and it may be good to have a FAQ. If the FAQ deals not only with singular and particular questions but groups of questions then that's even better. E.g.(@cs): "I have an error in the code, how can I solve it?" There are many possible errors and the way to solve most of them is debugging, some instructions about how to debug would be very useful to solve many questions.

About your final questions:

should I walk them through the process of reformulating it before I answer? Is there a way to do so without frustrating them further?

Yes, definitively. I would consider forcing them to reformulate the question is good for them and helping them to do so is very kind. Frustration may be good as well, as long as it is not desperation. Desperation could be good, but it's not for everyone (sorry, I've to link this). I'd personally suggest to help them to improve their questions by asking your own, which very likely you can copy and paste from a template, because there should be a pattern in those questions. Allegedly, Socrates didn't make many friends by asking questions, so try not to ask more than necessary.

In any case, this "template" or process is something they should be able to learn and do by themselves, to make better questions and (if possible) to answer their own questions by themselves. Answering in this way would be teaching by example. You can also make the template explicit and part of the FAQ or a sticky post, teaching by example is not incompatible with other forms of teaching.

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You should recommend your students that before posting a question they should REALLY try for themselves to solve it out; and at the end if they send you the question, ask them to submit all the details to you. So questions like "my program does not run" are not acceptable. You will see a change in their attitudes.

Also remember that in the way you can get some questions that maybe will seem silly to you, but they are learning; and that is a process. I bet if you ask some question to another professor or a renewed researcher maybe your question will seem also silly to them.

Bottom line, try to give the advice that I told you in the first part of this post, and remember that your task is teaching for now; and that requires patience and skills (which you will get in the long run)

Good luck!

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Well, I have recommended that they ask detailed questions. Students feel free to ignore these recommendations :) the question is whether I should enforce it by making them supply more details before I will answer their question. –  ff524 Apr 14 at 0:28
@ff524 - I'll assume those recommendations are spelled out somewhere in writing, in a syllabus, or in an announcement on your LMS, or someplace like that. If that's the case, I would recommend a nudge, by answering a question with a question (one that ends with some positive spin). To "I can't login, please help," my answer would be, "As it specifies in the course guidance, I need specific information in order to troubleshoot your problem. Please look over that guidance [and I might put a link here], and then ask your question again with sufficient details so I can provide the help you need." –  J.R. Apr 14 at 19:32

It sounds like what you need is a couple of generalised forms/web forms and/or a student driven wiki/knowledge base specific to this lab. The latter is obviously more strenuous to implement, but might pay off in the longer term if you are going to be teaching this course for several more years.

As for the forms approach, a stickied post on your forum with clustering like below might be a good starting point:

  • general interface issues: can't log on, can't work out how to find x/y/z command
  • execution issues: errors and their likely resolutions
  • other: can't find results, stylistic questions about approaches etc

Within each section you can indicate steps for them to proceed through on their own, both in resolution of specific issues outlined as well as in general, while also providing a format for a question if that doesn't solve their problem. This approach can address your goals simultaneously: showing them how to formulate technical questions properly, requiring a modicum of thought and problem solving to proceed and transferring knowledge with less burden on the teacher for the generic queries, freeing you up to spend more time on the specific or advanced ones!

To answer you more specifically: I think it is reasonable to require that the effort put into the question at least equals the effort required to answer it. Asking if they have tried the solutions in the FAQ or other questions should be a standard first response to such a vague question, then using logs/user to steer a dialogue to reach a solution. I think a good benchmark for focus/specificity would be 'could I help them without omniscient access?'

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Thanks, but I already do most of this. I still have students posting very vague questions (they don't bother to read the FAQ or past questions); my question is whether I should answer them, or make them reformulate their question until it is specific and focused. –  ff524 Apr 14 at 0:48
Gotcha, it might be worth expanding your mention of the course forum to indicate it includes such provision to prevent similar suggestions. To answer you more specifically: I think it is reasonable to require that the effort put into the question at least equals the effort required to answer it. Asking if they have tried the solutions in the FAQ or other questions should be a standard first response to such a vague question, then using logs/user to steer a dialogue to reach a solution. I think a good benchmark for focus/specificity would be 'could I help them without omniscient access?' –  Sam Apr 14 at 1:07
Thanks, I have done so. Perhaps you could add that last bit of your comment into your answer :) –  ff524 Apr 14 at 3:25
Future academics are not able to phrase a comprehensible question and your solution is to give them first-level support treatment? Don't think that's wise. They want to learn. –  Raphael Apr 14 at 9:39
I have added my comment to my answer for visibility. –  Sam Apr 14 at 12:04

In teaching martial arts, what we expect from a new student, and what we expect from an experienced student are completely different. Even a student experienced in one style, is not expected to be of the same skill as a student of equal belt or rank, when they change style.

The methodology here, as applied to your situation would be as follows... Ask the correct question, along with providing the answer. Over time, the expectation is that there will be fewer times when the correct question will need to be explained and more times when it will be asked in the first place.

Something along the lines of:

The question you asked: "blah blah blah" The place where the question is answered: document, memo, FAQ, whatever The question you should have asked: "how do I do Xxxx?" The answer: "insert tab a into slot b"

The first couple of times each person gets the whole answer. After that, you start removing lines of the answer.
Telling them where the answer is, and make them go look it up, is the first step. Over time, you get to the point where you just parrot back bad questions, with no additional response. In the case of "good" questions, you provide both the answer, and some sort of recognition of the form "this was a good question".

The hard part of this sort of approach, is remembering to reset your expectations with each new batch of students. Remembering that each of them will arrive at the level of competence at different times.

Hope that helps.

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+1 for the "remembering to reset your expectations with each new batch of students." It is the same whether you are grading homework assignments or answering questions on an online forum. As you (the teacher) learn things, the basics become "obvious," but each new class is starting from where you started from oh so many years ago. Nice answer :-) –  darthbith Apr 14 at 12:18

Should I risk the actual course goal (delivering content to the students) in favor of a general educational goal (teaching them how to ask questions)?

No, and you don't really have to. (Though the goal definitely is lofty.)

It is certainly frustrating when people offer no context or appear to make no effort in the question, because that makes it more difficult and costly for you to help them. You also seem to be in a position where it is expected of you to help them to the best of your ability, so ignoring people may not be an option.

When helping people in general, I find two strategies especially helpful:

  • Assume ignorance over malice/laziness. For all we know, the students are computer-illiterate. It takes experience and knowledge to know what context is relevant and what isn't. Computers are magic!

  • Frame any questions as you asking them for help, rather than telling them that they failed to provide information you need. Avoid sarcasm or jokes at their expense. ("Sure, I'll just scroll through a couple of days of network traffic to look for failed login attempts. Not too many of those, right?")

Is there a way to train students to ask better questions without making them feel like I'm not helping them?

To prevent it from feeling like a brush-off, show that you care about solving their problem by leaving the door open and offering an inviting hand. Do refer them to standard texts that you or your institution have provided, perhaps even quote a relevant part if possible, but do not end the reply there, because it will appear as final.

Give it your best guess, even if your best guess is a sort of standard response, and solicit extra information from them if it doesn't resolve their issue. Ask specific questions that you may need, like user name, estimated time of the problem, and let them know that this sort of information helps you find and diagnose the issue for them.

Some (most?) people won't write back to you. That's okay. Perhaps the problem was temporary and resolved itself. Perhaps they solved it. Perhaps a fellow student helped them. Or perhaps they really have given up, and you've done what can be reasonably expected.


I can't log in to the website, please help.

You'll need your XYZ user name and password to log in to the website. If it's been a while and you've forgotten your password, our FAQ (link) gives instructions on how to get a new one.

Do you have an idea about when you tried logging in? Did you get an error message? This will help me find anything in the logs.

When I run the experiment, it gives me an error. Can somebody help me???

If I can find out what experiment and what error! :) Some of the more common issues are listed at our FAQ (link); did you take a look there?

If the FAQ doesn't address your issue, could you let me know what experiment you are having issues with, and what the error message is? That will help me narrow down the search.

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Here is a bit of real world, non academia experience.

We sell a software package to school districts - funny that. When a problem occurs, I'd say maybe half of new clients tell us about it in an actionable way. We get emails with nothing more than "it doesn't work" all the time.

Now, this is a hosted service and we maintain some fairly detailed logs. So we can usually reconstruct exactly what was going on at the time of the "problem". However, that takes time and we typically don't go that route unless we are talking about either an irate client or an issue in which the client couldn't possibly give us the details.

Instead our support people reply with a message such as "What were you doing? What was your expectation? Approximately when did it occur? Here's how to send a screen shot..." It takes maybe a couple times of that before that client sends us the needed info the first time.

The thing is, they are busy so their first instinct is to fire off a general query hoping someone will just take care of it for them. However once they realize that we aren't going to do anything without details then they learn that the fastest way to a resolution is to gather those details to begin with.

The key is to simply be polite. I'd think the same thing applies to students. They are busy with several classes. As soon as a roadblock occurs in one they are going to raise a flag for help and move onto the next thing. If you consistently require them to provide details up front then they will learn that the fastest way to resolution is to get those to begin with.

tldr; It's not a problem specific to academia. Rather, it's a more generalized problem based on how much work everyone has to do combined with the hope that someone else will just take care of it.

That said, some people just won't learn. For those, especially in academia, I wouldn't put forth any more effort than they are willing to as they need to be responsible for their own education.

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I think you'll teach them a valuable lesson if they learn that when you start writing, nobody knows what you're asking about. You have to communicate that. As you've observed on StackExchange and we've probably all seen at work from time to time, a lot of people struggle when it comes to asking detailed questions or just describing what they see vs. what they wanted. They can get better at everything by improving this skill.

They'll only think you're being deliberately unhelpful if they realise that you can solve the problem without any further information. And if they know that, then you can't conclude from what they write that they're bad at asking questions. If I know that you know which experiment I'm working on and what I typed, then it's pretty reasonable for me to write, "why didn't my experiment work?", and I don't think you can really "teach me a lesson" by "making me do it properly" and not seem obstructive. If I don't know that you know that, then I should know better than to ask such a vague question. If I know you can find it out but it's time-consuming for you to do so, then there's a lesson in there somewhere about being respectful of other people's time, but I can't say whether this is the place to fight that battle.

Aside from this, the process of asking a good question often solves the problem because you spot your own mistake. They might benefit from learning that too, and solving their own problems might reduce their frustration with the system since it turns it from "something that never works and ff524 has to sort out" into "something that's difficult to use but I can make work".

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In class there are always good students and not so good students (I know you are teaching an online lab, but still). Do you feel that even goods students are having problems formulating questions?

If only not so good students have that problem, then it is probably a case of laziness or not care attitude. There is no much you can do about that. If you try they'll probably just get frustrated. And they probably can ask very good questions about something care about. [I think this is the case].

If even goods students have that problem, you should explain that their future co-workers or people in online-communities would not be able to help them, if they don't provide more details, and therefore they should provide more details in questions. Good students should pick it up quickly.

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The "good" students ask detailed and focused questions. But I'm not going to write off the "not-so-good" students as lazy or uncaring - it's my job to teach them! –  ff524 Apr 14 at 4:12
@ff524 A "not-so-good" can be so because of lack of natural ability or because of their attitude, I feel like if they don't put enough effort to form a good question it is the latter. I think it is really hard to help somebody who doesn't care. This is just my view. And if you can do it, Awesome! –  Akavall Apr 14 at 4:19
So, you are advising to answer the question as is without making them go through the exercise of writing a "good" question? (Just trying to clarify) –  ff524 Apr 14 at 4:20
That's what I would do. –  Akavall Apr 14 at 4:23

All this is a life style preference.

What do you have the attention span for? There is no "right way". How do you want things to happen.

Answering inconsiderate questions leads to only one thing, more inconsiderate questions.

The only way to significantly reduce the number of inconsiderate questions being asked is to get a reputation for low tolerance to them. Many people fail to consider what information is useful or required to supply an answer when asking. Why bother thinking when you can use someone else's brain at the price of only moving your mouth a little?

Most people take the rude approach when they get bored of this, which is just as useless. I use the sarcastic. Last time someone walked to me and asked me what I was doing when I was making a salad in front of their eyes I said, "Building a vegetable based space ship, what did you think I was doing?"

For the persistently annoying people you can add a sour note: "Here's the salad, want some extra cyanide to go with your lazy question?" (and you put a bit of salt when you say it).

When I have the attention span for it, I say "try to answer your own question from my perspective..." They then ask it again and realise that they need extra information to go with it. When they've made this extra effort you can then choose to answer their question.

The shortest way of doing this is using one word "Define?", "How?" , "Why?" ... mostly people understand they need to rephrase or add detail.

In any case there is no polite way of doing it. You will always find people unhappy about YOU not going out of YOUR way to solve THEIR problems. Makes no difference if they could solve them by applying a brain cell to the task for 30 seconds...

You no doubt have co workers who get asked way less broken questions. Observe their behavior and emulate or integrate.

Regards Helen.

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