Asking Questions

Note

This page provides some useful guidelines on how to ask questions in your classes (and more specifically on an online discussion board). If you have questions about this guide (e.g., if you need help working through any of the instructions provided in this guide), please see the Getting Help page in the “About This Guide” section.

As you work through your coursework, many of you will probably have questions or will encounter issues that you are not sure how to handle. Your course staff will typically set up some form of online discussion board for this very purpose, usually through Canvas or Ed Discussion.

Online discussion boards provide a convenient mechanism to ask questions, but it can sometimes be challenging for course staff to help you if you do not provide the right information when asking a question. Here are a few suggestions that may help you ask questions more effectively on an online discussion board:

  • Before you post a question…

    • Search before asking. Before posting a question on the discussion board, check whether it has already been answered in a previous post. We realize the volume of posts can be overwhelming, but you should start by using the discussion board’s search functionality to see if it brings up any relevant posts. For example, suppose you are failing a specific test in a programming assignment; you could search just for that test’s name to see if any other students have encountered that same error (and, if you’re lucky, an instructor/TA will have already answered it).

    • Make sure to formulate an actual question to ask. Make sure you are describing a specific issue you’re encountering, and why you’re stuck on it (e.g., you are not getting the expected result, the tests are failing in a way you do not understand, etc.). Writing a post that says “I can’t get Task 4 to work, I’ve pushed my code. Please look at it.” is not a question: it is a request for someone to debug your code for you. Try instead to describe the exact reason why you’re stuck (we provide concrete suggestions on how to do this below). If you’re struggling to do so, you may want to go to office hours to get help more interactively.

  • Public vs private questions. Discussion boards often have mechanisms that allow you to ask private questions, which will be seen only by the instructors and teaching assistants. Typically, this mechanism should be used only for truly private matters that relate uniquely to you (e.g., you need to notify the course staff of a family/medical emergency, etc.).

    Of course, when you run into an issue on an assignment, it may seem like “it applies only to you” because it relates to your code. However, it’s possible that other students will run into the exact same issue you ran into. So, questions about coursework, course logistics, etc. do not qualify as “private matters”, and should typically be asked publicly. This way, everyone can benefit from the answer to the question and, if someone runs into the same issue you do, course staff can refer them to the answer they provided in your post.

  • The more information, the better. We know that, in some classes, you may feel the need to be brief and concise when asking for help to “avoid wasting the professor’s time” or because “professors don’t have time to read long e-mails”. The absolute opposite is true in most CS classes: when asking for help, we prefer that you overwhelm us with information.

    In particular, it will be much easier for course staff to help you if they are able to reproduce the exact issue you are encountering (i.e., when they run your code, they must be able to observe the exact same issue you’re encountering). And to do so, they need as much information as possible from you:

    • If your question relates to your code, and your class is using a version-control system (e.g. git, svn, etc), make sure you push your code to the server (e.g. GitHub, GitLab, PhoenixForge) before asking for help.

    • Make sure you’re running your code on a UChicago CS software environment. Course staff will not be able to provide assistance if you are running your code on your personal machine, as this will make it harder for them to reproduce the exact issue you are encountering.

    • Include a detailed description of the exact chain of events that lead to the issue you’re encountering (Are you testing a specific function? If so, with what inputs? Does the issue come up when you run a test? Etc.).

    • If you encounter an error message (or any other unexpected output) when running a command or a specific test, please make sure you include the command that you ran and the full and unabridged error message (or unexpected output). Summarizing the message (e.g., “The tests says it was expecting value 42, and I’m pretty sure that’s what I’m returning”) makes it harder for course staff to identify the issue.

    • If something is “wrong”, please describe in what way it seems wrong to you. For example, were you expecting a particular output but got a different one? Is a piece of code behaving in a way you were not expecting? Etc. It can be useful to describe what you were expecting the code to do, and what you encountered instead.

  • What not to include in your question:

    • Never post your code on an online discussion board. If you need the course staff to look at your code, and your class uses a version control system, just push it to the server (e.g. GitHub, GitLab, PhoenixForge) and the course staff will look at it there. Please note that, if a test prints out a few lines of code as part of its output, that is typically acceptable.

    • No screenshots. Do not post screenshots of the command or the output. Screenshots are not searchable, and may pose readability issues for some people. Instructors/TAs may also want to copy-paste your command elsewhere, which is not possible if you post a screenshot.

      If you need to share some output from the terminal, copy-paste from the terminal onto the discussion board, and use the discussion board’s “code block” or “verbatim” formatting. To copy something on the terminal, just select it (the same way you would do in a word processor: click, and then drag until the end of the output) and press Control-Shift-C (Command-C on MacOS).

  • One question, one post. Avoid posts that have multiple unrelated questions. Instead, write a separate post for each question. Please note that it is ok to ask multiple questions in one post if they all relate to the same issue.

  • Comments vs Answers. Some discussion board distinguish between “answering” a question and adding a “comment” on an existing question. In those cases, you should use the “comment” functionality if you’d like to provide additional information on a question, or have a follow-up question. You should use the “answer” functionality only if you are providing an actual answer to the question (including if you’ve resolved the issue on your own, so the question is flagged as “answered”).