My university has a course called "Technical Communication" that aims to teach undergraduate math and computer science students (usually sophomores and juniors) how to give good talks. We have lots of great materials for teaching them how to speak clearly, how to engage with the audience, how to construct a technical talk, how to make good slides, etc. We also bring in external speakers so that students can see how professionals do it.

I'd like to add a bit to the course teaching students how to ask good questions when attending seminar talks. I have my own technique for coming up with and keeping track of questions I want to ask speakers, but I'd prefer to have some article or chapter on this topic that I can share with the students.

Can someone please recommend such a reference?

I very much like the advice in this Academic.SE question, but asking students to read that thread feels a bit informal. I'm hoping for a source with similar advice but written with an audience of students in mind (ideally, a pdf I can give them to read, like a book chapter).

  • 3
    Expanding: I want my students to be active listeners, to think about where the speaker might be going next, to think of other ways the speaker could have proceeded, etc. I want them writing down questions as they pop up, and knowing when to ask (eg, sometimes you ask your neighbor, clarifying notation is good to ask right away, but "why did you do it this way?" might be best for the end of the talk). All talks are aimed at exactly these students (not at the faculty) but often no students ask questions. Having lunch with the speaker before might help (that's what we did when I was an undergrad) Aug 28, 2022 at 16:09
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    This is somehwat off-topic - but as the question just popped up at the frontpage I had a look ad the "great materials" you linked. I think it's nice to have such a collection of common mistakes during talks. I can't refrain from pointing out, though, that "Don't use a chalkboard [because] [t]he physical act of writing will take up too much valuable time. [...] Computer presentation programs can convey large amounts of material quickly and efficiently" ranks very highly on the list of the worst advice that one can possibly give - and the sample video illustrates perfectly why: Jul 31, 2023 at 23:25
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    One might use a chalkboard or slides for various different reasons, but the very moment one decides for slides rather than a chalkboard in order to "save time" and "convey more material", the talk is already lost. In the sample video, everybody in the audience who doesn't already know very well what a group is, will have forgotten the definition at the very moment the slide is switched, thus turning the remaining 14 minutes of this 15 minutes talk into a waste of time. Jul 31, 2023 at 23:30
  • 2
    I'm not sure whether you have any influence on the material presented there - but in case that you have, it might be worthwhile to remove advice that is extremely likely to make talks worse rather than better. Aug 1, 2023 at 8:36
  • 2
    Show them good and bad stackoverflow questions :D Aug 1, 2023 at 12:00

2 Answers 2


This isn't really an answer to the question in the body of your post, but it is an anecdotal answer to the question in the title of your post. (And it's too long to be a comment.)

In short, I'm not sure that reading an article is really going to teach students how to ask good questions. In my experience, the most important thing is to (1) ask lots of questions and (2) listen to questions that other people ask. I have found that over the years of asking questions and listening to other people's questions at seminars (and elsewhere), my sense of "good questions" has gradually improved.

I think what you really want to teach is: how do you learn to ask questions? As you know, this is an essential skill for mathematics in general. I don't know a good answer to this version of the question, but here's something that stuck with me personally.

As an undergrad, I took a second-semester algebra course taught by a geometric group theorist. It was an awesome course that got me hooked on the subject. Around midterms, he scheduled a meeting with each student to check on their progress. During our meeting, he told me something along the lines of:

"You're doing great on the assignments and exams, but you're missing the point. You need to ask questions. You take these courses to learn how to be a mathematician, and mathematics starts with asking questions."

I learned a lot of great math in that class, but this lesson has paid off even more.

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    Poin one in my opinion is not that right. "Ask lots of questions", doesn't make the environment the good, it might halt the talk or it might disturb other audiences. Every individual should ask at most 2-3 questions during a single talk atleast from the content if not precise.
    – learner
    Aug 1, 2023 at 3:13
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    Certainly not all questions should be asked to the speaker during the talk. You can also ask your neighbors, save questions for directly after the talk, or during the seminar dinner, or a week later via email when you still can't figure out the answer. A large percentage of questions that I ask, I only ask to myself. But I still think it is essential to ask lots of questions. Aug 1, 2023 at 13:06
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    I'll also say that as a speaker, I would much rather have lots of questions during a talk than a relatively silent audience. This is just a personal preference, but I tend to learn more from my talks and receive better feedback from the audience when there has been substantial back-and-forth. Aug 1, 2023 at 13:12

I have no references that you can read, sorry.

Just a couple of points:-

  1. I take your point on making a brief note on points they might want to question. To that end, would it be beneficial if a handout of the slideshow notes made available to each of the audience beforehand would make it easier for jotting notes near the relevant items ?

  2. I wonder if a seminar's format allowed for pertinent observations to be made as well as questions - would that make contributors less shy about speaking ? Observations are usually less challenging to presenters than questions. Plus after submitting a few observations at seminars such attendees might be moved to ask an odd question.

  3. Credit/demerit prizes and penalties for

  • Best contribution

  • Best contributor

  • Worst contribution

  • Worst contributor

The above awards to be initially nominated by the class and accepted or modified by the chair.

  • The OP was about questions during seminars, not in class. So, I don't think this answers it at all. When I wrote the OP, I was teaching a course called "Technical Communication" where students learn how to give seminar talks, partially by watching visiting professors give research seminar presentations. When I'm teaching, I don't mind any kind of question. But the goal here was to teach students to be active participants of seminar even when the talk is about something they've never seen before (as opposed to, say, day 4 on Pareto in a stats course) Aug 5, 2023 at 8:45
  • Apologies. Answer edited accordingly.
    – Trunk
    Aug 5, 2023 at 14:21
  • I like your idea in (2). I ended up having students write down questions that they could have asked, and just handing those in, plus a bonus point if they actually asked such a question in the talk. This seemed to work to incentivize them, and I did see a lot of growth in their willingness to participate as active listeners. Aug 5, 2023 at 20:15

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