How to Make Students Actually Ask Questions

Every teacher has felt this before. You ask your listeners the dreaded question:

Does anyone have any questions?

Now that’s a dumb question. You would bet anything that they have so many questions that they should be tripping over their words to ask them. But you also know that not a single person will ask a question thanks to the stupid desire to not look ignorant despite the fact that they’re there in the first place because they are ignorant.

Yan Zhang at Berkeley gave me a great tip that he uses to combat this problem. At any opportune moment in a lecture, he asks the inevitable question.

But then, he puts down his chalk and sits down. And he waits.

The only thing that beats the awkwardness of not knowing something is the awkwardness of just sitting there in silence.

Eventually, someone cracks. They ask a question just to break the silence.

But once that they ask a question, it’s OK for you to ask one too. And soon enough, the entire class is asking and you can actually get some teaching done.

The best part is that after a few lectures of this, students become conditioned to just ask questions when they have them, rather than wasting time holding them in. This constant feedback is good for the teacher too. It’ll also let you get to more interesting material faster.

As Matt Might says:

Refusing to improve one’s teaching is morally unacceptable. Torturing a captive audience every semester with soul-sapping lectures is a criminal theft of tuition.

Too many professors seem to think of teaching as a distraction from research. Don’t be one of them. Care.

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