November 14, 2021

DERY | Lowering Our Hands to Raise Our Questions

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“Are there any questions?” The age-old question asked by a professor as they look up from their notes. “So many.” I usually think to myself as the question is met with a combination of  silence and the scribbles of students scrambling to copy the notes on the board. 

Most of the time, I just want to know where some minus sign came from, having had next to no time to internalize the material freshly freshly transcribed into my notebook. So, I lean into the person next to me adding to the chorus of student whispers. Not wanting to force the class on an algebra quest into the minutia of a derivation, my hand stays lowered. The same three hands shoot up on cue, followed by an additional pause as the professor looks for “someone new.” Usually that just leads to more silence. 

I sit there hoping that someone else will raise their hand. But not me of course. It’s an uncomfortable moment usually attributed to a lack of attentiveness or interest when that isn’t necessarily the case at all. 

Since early grade school and through college, I’ve heard various iterations of the phrases “Others have the same question” and “There are no dumb questions.” While true, a classroom where everyone asks every — or even most — of the questions that come to mind isn’t always a better one. 

Most questions that come to mind aren’t grand or conceptual in any particular way; they arise in a much more preliminary stage of the learning process, as we try to understand the details of going from point A to B. It just wouldn’t be productive for all of our hands to shoot up when the professor asks “Any questions?”, only to go over a certain part of the lecture over again. 

Even studies have shown that questions focussing on details don’t help students learn as much as conceptual questions. And although greater conceptual questions are valuable to ask in class, for those still sorting through a more preliminary part of a derivation, they often don’t mean much to us yet. Most questions are therefore swept under the rug, forgotten until we revisit the material much later. We need to improve the method in which we ask our questions to ensure they are truly addressed, while being mindful of the flow of a lecture. The expectation that anyone who has a question raises their hand in class is harmful to the cultivation of an interactive classroom environment. 

For larger lectures, most of the smaller, detail-based questions could be otherwise answered by posting them to a forum much like Ed Discussion or Piazza monitored in live time during lecture by the TAs or the professor themselves. The convenience and anonymity would encourage students to ask about points of confusion more often without stopping the lecture. It seems unnecessary to ask about a single minus sign in front of dozens of people. 

In general, however, the subtle expression of disappointment by the professor when the class has no questions is indicative of the heavy emphasis we place on questions as a gauge of students’ learning and interest. This is why we generally believe students who raise their hand more during class are more thoughtful and curious than those who don’t. It’s for this reason that certain professors believe that participation alone (which more or less equates to asking questions during class) is worth an entire section of the grade. 

In many such cases, evaluations are not being made based on intellectual curiosity, but rather extroversion. Any attentive student is naturally confused about certain parts of the lecture at one point or another. The primary culprit of a lack of questions is not a lack of curiosity, but rather the way in which we are expected to ask them during class: by raising our hand. Slight fixes in this process that is so central to our learning would go a long way to making the classroom more interactive, and will minimize those times throughout a lecture where the class looks to the same few people to chime in during awkward silences.

Roei Dery is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. The Dery Bar runs every other Monday this semester.