[Miscellany] On the importance of questions, and different types of answer, plus what I am reading

  1. The best predictor of good grades?

Several people in my Twitter timeline have been talking about this journal paper (paid access, only). The authors of the paper analysed the extent to which various variables could be used to predict student’s grades, and concluded that:

“These relationships make class attendance a better predictor of college grades than any other known predictor of academic performance, including scores on standardized admissions tests such as the SAT, high school GPA, study habits, and study skills.”


For several years, I have been collecting student attendance in my classes. Then, at the end of module, I check the correlation between class attendance and module grades, and I, too, found this correlation. It usually looks something like this:

Grade v attendance


But what is it about class attendance that helps a student attain good marks?


This article in the Financial Times, on a similar topic, advises students to:

  1. Sign up for challenging courses
  2. Do the work
  3. Turn up to class
  4. Interact with people that look and think differently to them
  5. Put their devices away
  6. Get involved
  7. Don’t rush off after class


I fully agree with this list, and particularly number 6. When a student in my class asks ‘why’ or ‘how does that work’ or ‘what if x happened’, I am happy: I know that student has their thinking hat on, and is learning in a way that will allow them to apply the concepts to new situations. In my experience, asking questions in class is a very good indicator of the student’s likelihood of getting good grades.



  1. The best way to answer a question

Last week I attended a fantastic talk by Randall Munroe, the cartoonist creator of xkcd. The talk related to the launch of Munroe’s latest book, How To, which presents a number of science-based, yet impractical, solutions to real world problems – from moving houses to landing a plane in an emergency. A fascinating book, as you can see 😉


The key message from Munroe’s talk was that, no matter how unconventional you think your question is, most likely somebody else had the same thought and tried to find an answer – often those answers were impractical (which is why they did not see the light of the day), but in the process of searching we can all learn a lot about how things work, why they work the way they do and, sometimes, come up with something new. So, don’t give up: allow your mind to formulate unconventional questions, and pursue your curiosity.


It was a very entertaining talk, followed by an equally good Q&A session, chaired by Tim Harford, aka The Undercover Economist.


The closing question, posed by Harford, was about the inspiration for this book. I can’t remember the exact wording of Harford’s question, but, in essence, he was asking what compelled Munroe to write about the fascinating solutions that he had found. Munroe replied (again, I can’t remember the exact words) that when someone asks you a question about something that, you think, it’s obvious (e.g., what happens when you mix mentos and coke), the way you handle the question can have a dramatic effect on the confidence and the curiosity of the person asking it.

For instance, you can say: “You don’t know what happens when you mix mentos and coke? Everybody knows that!”.

Alternatively, you can say: “You don’t know what happens when you mix mentos and coke? Check YouTube.”.

Or, his favourite approach was to say: “You don’t know what happens when you mix mentos and coke? Let’s go to the grocery store. We are going to have some fun!”. I love this!



  1. What I am reading

The teen has left the house, but left me with some reading suggestions. So, this is what I am reading now:


What does this week have in store for you?


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