Thursday, November 08, 2007

That's A Great Question

As I wandered the halls of two academic buildings today, I passed various classrooms with classes in session. No fewer than 3 times did I hear the phrase "That's a great question" uttered. I wonder how many times each day this phrase is used, and I wonder whether anyone says "That's a good question" any more. Good is not as good as great, so perhaps it is damaging to a student's self-esteem to label their question as merely good and not great. (?)

Other variants include: That's an excellent question. That's a really great question. That's an important question.

Is there an alternative? I'd rather not replace it with a more modern expression, e.g.: That's an awesome question. That question totally rocks. But is there anything as succinct yet effective?

That's a great question is distinct from I'm glad you asked that question, as the former in theory should mean what it says, but the latter can be used as a pedagogical technique for making a student feel better about asking a stupid question; i.e., the subtext is: Your question demonstrates a lack of understanding of the topic, but I'm going to use your question as an example of a common mistake that many students make and therefore you shouldn't feel bad about asking it because I can use it as a 'teachable moment' and therefore resolve what might be widespread confusion about this issue.

Earlier this semester, a student in one of my classes asked a question that indicated confusion about the topic of the day, and I said the typical professor I'm glad you asked that question thing and then did the teachable moment thing. Then I asked the class how they felt about a professor's saying I'm glad you asked that. Some students said they hated it because they know it really means That was a stupid question and you don't understand the topic, but they also admitted that they would rather a professor be kind that way than say directly what they thought of the question. They also don't like it when a professor tries too hard to find something positive about a totally wrong answer given by a student in class, even if the answer is totally wrong, as that can be confusing for everyone.

In a small or medium class, it is not so difficult to create an environment in which students feel comfortable asking questions. It is more difficult to do this in a large class, but it is certainly possible. That's a great question can be used to create just such a comfortable environment, but once it is clear to everyone that you welcome and enjoy answering questions in class (as I do), it can be tricky using the phrase. For example, what if you use it for some questions and not for others? Results of a brief informal and statistically invalid survey of a few students indicate to me that they notice things like this.

Thus far, I have been talking about the uttering of That's a great question by professors to students. I don't think this phrase does any harm, even if it is overused. However, there are circumstances in which it is not a great idea to use the great question phrase. In particular, people giving job talks during an interview might want to avoid this phrase. I have seen it annoy a number of colleagues to have a perky young interviewee tell them that they (a distinguished and brilliant person) asked a great question. Of course their question was great! Aside from the ego issues involved, it is particularly bad if That's a great question is used to mask the fact that the person hasn't thought about a particular issue and has no good (or great) answer.


Anonymous said...

Of course, some use That's a great question to stall, to mean I have no idea, so let's just move on so as to pay as little attention to my ineptitude as possible, or What the hell are you talking about? That question was so far out there that I am unable to intelligently respond. In other words, not all great questions are great questions.

ScienceGirl said...

I think most "that's a great question" responses are either buying time or an attempt to make the person asking the question feel better. A genuinely great question is most likely to generate a truly excited response.

Mr. B. said...


Sometimes it is a great question. When you have oversimplified something for the sake of making the topic comprehensible, once in a while a good student will call you on it.

This gives you an excuse to go into the matter in a little more detail.

Or sometimes you say great question just to encourage others to ask any questions at all because you get tired of hearing yourself talk.



Schlupp said...

We had a prof who WOULD say "This is a stupid question and shown that you haven't understood anything." Not good.

Anonymous said...

funny, because I was thinking about this this morning a class filled with good and great questions.

From my brief observation of myself, and biased memory of other's usage, it seems to me like they mean different things.

"That's a great question" seems to be more congratulatory, more like praise. Here's your cookie, good job. I suppose that is why it comes out as silly in job talks (I know exactly what you are talking about). IMO, this is used when the person being asked the question already knows the answer or has at least thought about it.

"That's a good question" seems more like an honest assessment of the situaton, a situation in which now they also would like to figure out the answer. I think it is used more when the one being questioned hadn't thought about it much, or in those terms, or at all.

anyone else shares these intuitions?

we should get the Language Log guys on this one =)

Anonymous said...

oh, I forgot to say. Even though I do it when I teach (good question, great question, etc), I think it is sort of weird that we feel the need to give a verbal score to the question. I mean, why not just answer it?

It reminds me a bit of waiters who say, "Excellent choice!"

I still feel bad for answering, "I'm glad you approve." that one time, but I couldn't help myself.

I know it is just a formulaic expression, much like "that's a great question."

Female Science Professor said...

Thanks for the waiter analogy -- that's an excellent one. I was recently at a restaurant with a colleague, and the waiter designated my entree choice as 'excellent' and said nothing about my colleague's choice. My colleague was a bit unnerved, wondering if he had just ordered swill.

Vodalus said...

As a student, I always thought of "great question" as a strange response. Either a question is prosaic and deserves an immediate response, or it really is great and takes a moment to think about how to answer it. Neither case has ever struck me as needing a compliment to the questioner.

Although I do like it when the answer to a question concludes with "that was a good question" or "I'm glad you asked that/brought that up."

Ms.PhD said...

Hmm, I usually consider myself hypersensitive to the overuse of certain words or phrases, but this one never bothered me.

Now I'm worried that I've used it to ill effect when presenting my work. I guess I use it to mean, "Great question because nobody knows the answer, somebody should work on that." But it hadn't occurred to me that some people would have a chip on their shoulder about that phrase having other meanings.

Will try to avoid it if ever I give a job talk.

Ms.PhD said...

On second thought, the waiter thing is a great point. I have had the same experience where my choice was complimented while my date's was not, or vice-versa, an then we spent the next 10 minutes taking bets as to whose would be better (or worse). Yeesh.

The other thing I should say is that in public speaking classes they actually teach you to use this type of phrase to give yourself time to think if you're not exactly sure how much you want to say, or how to best phrase it.

Perhaps it looks amateurish, but for those of us with stage fright, it's especially interesting to hear that while meant as a coping mechanism to help you stay calm and look suave, it would actually work against you in a job talk.

Anonymous said...

What the heck? Since when does "I'm glad you asked..." mean "that's a stupid question"? Sometimes I say "I'm glad you asked" when a student asks a question that leads naturally into the next point of my lecture. There's nothing stupid about anticipating where the class is going.

I've been teaching for 18 years and I have never heard this interpretation.

Female Science Professor said...

That's another example. The scenario I was discussing, however, was if the question/comment shows a lack of comprehension.

EcoGeoFemme said...

"That's a great question" is far better than the "you should know this" we got in reponse to our questions in one grad class I took.

Anonymous said...

"Perhaps it looks amateurish, but for those of us with stage fright, it's especially interesting to hear that while meant as a coping mechanism to help you stay calm and look suave, it would actually work against you in a job talk."

I've seen people use it that way, and it doesn't bother me. I'm not sure what the difference is, but just a couple of weeks ago I was at a talk where the "great question!" felt entirely patronizing. It wasn't a job talk even, though it was a junior person. Maybe it was the fake enthusiasm with which he said the phrase, or maybe it was that after saying that, he proceeded to ignore the question and dismiss follow-up calls for clarification.

I have seen (and probably have sais it myself), "That's a great question. I would love to know the answer too. This is what I'm thinking about it right now...." That seems sincere and does not bother me at all. I think it has more to do with "That's a great question!" followed by a reply that either makes clear that one does not think there is anything great about it, that makes it jarring.

but I'm not a senior professor. Maybe senior profs are bothered by both kinds. I bet there are senior profs who are bothered by just about anything though, including a testosterone deficiency on the part of the job candidate, so I would not worry about that at all. There are also people (like Prof. Troll) who seem to make it a goal to be as odious as possible to others, and I wouldn't worry about that either -- the faculty in the department are well aware of who the jerks are.

Unknown said...

I'm coming in a bit late to this discussion but can add this: To me, saying, "that's a great question" only works if the speaker says WHY it's a great question (particularly for student audiences).
If an explanation isn't given to what makes it great then I usually interpret it as not necessarily a great question but deserving of an anwer and the "great question" response said, like the waiter, simply to be polite or to stall before actually answering.

Paul Sunstone said...

I would guess students might treat "That's a great question" much like people have come to treat "Have a great day". And if that's so, then the literal meaning of the words would be insignificant compared to the tone in which they're spoken.

Anonymous said...

I think there are very few phrases that are always a problem or never a problem. So much depends on the tone of voice, the facial expression, the body language, and what you already know about the person's personality. I've interviewed job candidates who never uttered an inappropriate phrase, but who clearly conveyed that they'd already heard it all, and they thought we couldn't possibly ask anything interesting. Others would respond to a tough question with a furrowed brow, an introspective look, and a muttered "hmm, that's a really good question...," as they thought through a very intelligent response. Classroom behavior is the same: a teacher can convey enthusiasm, arrogance, condescension, humility, and a bunch of other attitudes in a huge variety of ways. The actual words used are a tiny part of that. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine saying "That's an unbelievably retarded question" in a supportive way.

Anyway, this is one thing I dislike about emails and online comments: I have a really hard time conveying my attitude when I can't use my voice and face to reinforce it. I find that I'm frequently misinterpreted, and it always makes me feel bad.

Anonymous said...

A great question:
A question nobody thought of asking before (to your knowledge), but if asked and possibly answered could contribute to the understanding of the subject matter from a different angle.
A great question requires thinking about about it, and admitting that one has not thought about it previously, therefore it is a great question.
I truly enjoy if students ask such a great question," and I readily admit that I have never thought about it. These are great moments in class, because it allows to engage in finding together an answer to such a question.
"Great question" as a means for buying time? Buying time for what? Of thinking quickly of a possible answer? Bad idea, better say, I do not know or never thought about it.

Anonymous said...

In a class I TA'ed for, we rewarded great questions (the ones that bring up different discussion areas or poke holes in the oversimplification) with a small "prize" (usually a thematically related sticker or such).

I guess the phrase I usually use in talks is "that's an interesting point/question" - particularly when it brings up an unexplored area. I also don't think all that quickly on my feet, so I suppose there's part of the stalling for some time to organize thoughts.