Raise your hand and ask

College lecturers (and teachers in general, I suppose) assume they need to ask if the class has any questions. The benchmark is that if the class doesn’t have any questions, then they understood the material, and if there were questions, then the lecturer should slow down a bit and maybe review it in a bit more detail.

It doesn’t work. Each class may have one or two students that play along with this and actually ask when they can’t follow along. Everyone else, when faced with inscrutable material, tends to shut up and sit through it.

Asking questions in public can be a lot of pressure. You worry that you’ll annoy other people by holding up the class. You worry that everyone else in the room already knows. You worry that you’re missing something really obvious. You worry that you’ll look like an idiot. And despite whatever cheerleading there is to encourage questions, all of these are possibilities.

What would you do if someone asked:

Can’t you just run `make -j` to parallelize your code?

Snickers? Laughs? (Look clueless because you’re not a computer programmer?)

It’s easier for someone with experience and accomplishments to ask questions—the experience means that you probably know as much or more than other people, so it won’t be a dumb question, and the accomplishments create a solid ego that won’t bruise so easily. The people without experience—the beginners—should be asking more questions, not fewer, but if they don’t have much in the way of experience or achievements (or have trouble internalizing them), then it can be a very scary deal.

We can do more to help people ask questions. The Internet is great for dumb questions—just check Yahoo! Answers. Every time I can Google my dumb question in private (“light stove without electricity”), then I feel better knowing that someone else took the fall.

And they probably asked under a pseudonym too. What if we created this tolerant environment for students? Several of my courses had simple CGI message boards where any student could post questions or reply to others, and for every asked question, there were probably several who wanted to ask it.

We could take this one step further and make it an anonymous board, where administrators could, if needed, unmask users (for cheating, harassment, etc.), but people with questions wouldn’t be so afraid of asking a dumb question. A college could create such a feature for their entire school—maybe even go to the extent of not even letting the teacher know the poster’s identity without going through some bureaucracy.

There is value into keeping course-related questions within the school. Teachers can monitor what people are asking about. Students can feel some camaraderie in their problems (misery loves company). Homework-specific questions often require a lot of context, like the homework questions that constantly pop up on Stack Overflow. And really, missing out on all of the help that could be provided in a school setting is a shame.

Nobody should be intimidated into not asking.