Asking Lots Of Questions Is The Key To University Success

Asking Lots Of Questions Is The Key To University Success

So far in our Uni Success Guide we’ve covered PC choices for students, scoring cheap textbooks and planning your study regime — all areas where technology can play a major role. But there was a single central core of advice that emerged when we asked readers for their tips on university success, around a much simpler and more timeless concept: asking how everything works and making sure you utilise all the resources that are available to you.Picture by Hector Alejandro

No matter how outgoing and confident you are, starting university can be daunting. You’re moving from a school environment surrounded by people you may well have known for a dozen years with a largely fixed timetable, to one where you’re flitting between campuses, doing far more independent study and taking an entirely different approach to absorbing information. It’s not unusual to feel a little overwhelmed in that situation. The secret — as blindingly obvious as it may seem — is to ask whenever you’re not sure of something, a theme that runs through many of the comments we received.

That theme certainly rang true for me. I went to university in the same town I grew up in (Armidale in northern NSW), so I had a slight head start over the other first-years who poured in from around the state: I knew where everything was, and my father had actually worked at the university, so I wasn’t likely to get lost on campus (something that has rarely applied in the rest of my life).

But despite those apparent starting advantages, I spent a lot of time reading up every last word of the copious printed documentation the university provided, and asking a bunch of questions besides. And that was in a relatively simpler era, with potentially less information to absorb (to give you some idea, back then as a student at UNE you couldn’t get an email address unless you were either studying computing science or a postgraduate, so no process to learn there).

As rudimentary as asking questions might seem, this was far from a universal approach. I can still remember fellow students reacting with shock after they failed assignments because they didn’t know the footnoting requirements, or didn’t know how to find stuff in the library, or just didn’t realise that the due dates had passed. Pretty much all of this stuff was written down somewhere; much of it was covered in training sessions that were freely available; and there were always lecturers and tutors around to ask. But some people never got to the asking.

That questioning attitude also extends to using every resource you’ve got available, as Lifehacker reader Tim emphasised:

Make use of all resources. I didn’t go near the library until third year (typical IT student) and when I did I found there were books with algorithms in them! Would have made first year programming assignments a lot easier.

Access to resources can often be easier if you’re not at a mega-university, as Brodie points out:

Especially if you are at a smaller university, get to know your lecturers if you can. They’re a fantastic source of help, and having a direct line to them is a great help.

You also shouldn’t worry about whether other people will think you’re stupid for asking questions in a tutorial or other public setting. As trideceth12 put it:

The only people who you are going to piss off by asking loads of questions are the people who are not really that interested in the course, and who will probably drop out or finish with a low average. If you are interested then ask questions.

That said, you need to demonstrate in tutorials that you have paid attention, as Will Clark argues:

Never be afraid to ask your lecturer questions. That’s what they’re there for. Do try to ask good questions though, they aren’t there to do your work for you.

But the approach of asking questions can help you build up a better study environment, as GeminiScotty explains:

My best tip is to make a tight personal network with both your classmates and your lecturers/tutors, as if there is a strong personal connection it is easier to communicate and learn from each other. This can be helped with things such as Facebook groups or any place that a group of people can ask questions about the subject and for classmates to help.

University isn’t supposed to be just about memorising huge swathes of facts: it’s also about equipping yourself to discover new information and explore new frontiers. Doing that means asking the right questions, so the more practice you get at asking, the better.

So: questions? Let’s hear them (and your thoughts) in the comments.


  • I topped my undergraduate university class and went on to top my PhD class. In my four year undergrad course, I remember asking one question and remember being a little annoyed by some who asked repeated questions, slowing the class down when they obviously hadn’t read the course materials. As a lecturer now, I agree it IS important to ask questions when something isn’t clear, but it’s even more important to do the reading ahead of your classes, and try to find things out for yourself. A uni degree, after all, is all about becoming an independent learner.

  • Honestly, the best advice I can give is to get a job over summer in your respective field (for me engineering). While at your job, network with the people that have similar jobs to you and develop friendships. When you go back to uni you’ll find you’re able to email these people questions and they’ll be able to offer you their experiences and their resources in answering them.

    Sounds simple, but it will give you an edge over everyone else who is relying mostly on the university’s resources.

    Obviously this advice isn’t much help now, but it’s something to consider at the end of the year.

  • Lecturers are they to help you learn, not do the work for you. Ask an educated question and you will get a valuable answer, ask a lazy question and start preparing to repeat.

    And this is my biggest tip: passing a degree is not a competition. Share your knowledge and thing you find, you will still get the marks you deserve and you will build a network of ‘study buddies’ that just might be there to help you when you need it.

  • It depends on the lecturer. We had a lecturer basically yell at a student for asking a question basically saying “if you don’t know that, you shouldn’t be in this course”. Meanwhile I was sitting there not knowing the answer myself.

  • As others have said, ask questions but ask smart questions and if it’s something that you didn’t understand then ask the lecturer AFTER the lecture. It’s fine to interrupt them if they’ve made a mistake (maths lecturers do this all the time and correcting them is beneficial for the entire class) but interrupting them because you didn’t understand something can hold up the entire lecture.
    In my second year, I had a first year student in my astrophysics class and he would interrupt the lecturer every few minutes with a question or a comment. Not a good way to make friends.

    • I agree, lectures aren’t exactly the right place for continual questions. Save your questions for tutes also most lecturers have set times (at my uni this is mandated as 4 hours a week) when they will be available in their office to students seeking help.

      • Agree totally: ask questions in tutorials. Ask questions that aren’t answered by the reading, or ask questions to clarify something that is in the lecture, tutorial or reading.

        Ask questions on the forums for the subject, see if your prof is on twitter, ask questions during the office hours:

        But please, please, only ask a question in a lecture if you are pretty sure there is a mistake being made. Lectures are designed to pass on lots of information and if you break that up too much the whole subject can fall behind, causing the lecturer to skim over other stuff later on, to make up time!

        Questions belong in tutorials. Not in lectures.

  • “University isn’t supposed to be just about memorising huge swathes of facts” – Haha, not _supposed_ to, but the 80% exams they make you rote-learn content for sure seems to show otherwise!

  • The last comment in the post rang very true for me

    “My best tip is to make a tight personal network with both your classmates and your lecturers/tutors, as if there is a strong personal connection it is easier to communicate and learn from each other.”

    That works great at uni, AND in the workplace. If you don’t network (at work or as a research student at uni0, you are absolutely stuffed.

    Having said that, I agree with rhyme. You need to do a little research and have some background before you start asking questions – otherwise people do perceive you as a bludger who couldn’t be bothered learning things for themselves.

    I just wish I followed my own advice at uni. I still managed to get good marks at honours level(enough be accepted as a PhD candidate if I so whished – so I was told). However, but my life at uni (and in my early working years) would have been much easier if I had bothered to read the course materials and asked more questions during tutes in my first year at uni.

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