In order be successful, engineers must ask their clients, coworkers, and bosses questions. Asking questions can improve work quality and make the asker appear smarter. However, people often hesitate to ask questions for fear of seeming incompetent or inferior. This study investigated: what characteristics and experiences are connected to engineering students’ perceptions of asking questions?
We analyzed data from a survey of over a thousand engineering undergraduates across a nationally representative sample of 27 U.S. engineering schools. We focused on three dependent variables: question-asking self-efficacy (how confident students are in their ability to ask a lot of questions), social outcome expectations around asking questions (whether students believe if they ask a lot of questions, they will earn the respect of their colleagues), and career outcome expectations (whether they believe asking a lot of questions will hurt their chances for getting ahead at work).
We were surprised to find that gender, under-represented minority status, and school size were not significant predictors of question-asking self-efficacy or outcome expectations. However, students with high question-asking self-efficacy and outcome expectations were more likely to have engaged in four extracurricular experiences: participating in an internship or co-op, conducting research with a faculty member, participating in a student group, and holding a leadership role in an organization or student group. The number of different types of these extracurricular activities a student engaged in correlated with question-asking self-efficacy and positive outcome expectations around asking questions.
The results illustrate the power of extracurricular activities to influence, or at least relate to, student behavior. These experiences deserve more attention because students who do not have the opportunity to join extracurricular activities may enter the workplace lagging behind their peers. This study also begs the question of what educators can do to encourage and give more opportunities for asking questions.