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How do I handle silly questions? By silly, I mean questions that are unrelated to the material of the course.

First, I am a TA. Recently, a student asked me a very silly question at the end of a lab session. I say silly because:

  1. it was not related to the lecture,
  2. it was asked at the end of a lecture - and the classroom was already full with the students of the next class, and
  3. I have previously talked about this issue.

The student insisted that I answer his question many times. So, I told him: "It is already late, but let me know about your question" .. when he asked it, I told him: "You can't be serious, this is not a question!"

He got upset, and he told me: "You are paid to answer my questions!"

I got angry, but how should I handle similar situations?

"I have previously talked about this issue." -- Yes, I talked about this issue even though it is not part of the course and the lecture. I talked about it to add more applications to the course material.

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If you can answer the question then what @waiwai933 said, if not then: "I'm sorry, I can't answer that question because it is not my field of expertise. Any question related with our course? No? See you next day :)" –  Trylks Jan 28 at 18:29
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Also: No question is silly to the person who's asking it. It is part of your responsibility as a TA to help folks who are having trouble with a concept, whether you've gone over it before or not. If they really aren't getting it after repeated tries and you can't think of another way to help them, refer them to the professor's office hours and let them try at that level... but the TA's job is specifically to offload most of that work from the professor. –  keshlam Jan 28 at 18:48
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"No, I am paid to answer questions about the course material, during lab sessions and during my posted office hours. If you have a question about the course material, please bring it to my office hours. Now if you'll please excuse me, another class needs to use the room, and I have another appointment." –  JeffE Jan 28 at 20:35
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@J.R. Primarily alumni, actually. Although my particular salary (like all academic personnel) is paid by the state. –  JeffE Jan 29 at 3:22
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@Ajed : it sounds like the student is treating you with disrepect, which is unacceptable. You shouldn't have to tolerate such abuse. Don't let your students walk all over you, or they will. Just tell him you can't answer the question right now, ask him to come to your office, and try to be not to be rude so you don't get in trouble. –  Stefan Smith Jan 29 at 12:27
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10 Answers

up vote 86 down vote accepted

I got angry, but. . how should I handle similar situations?

Got angry? No good!

You're not necessarily paid to answer his question but you are paid to help advance knowledge and learning.

Unfortunately, the tone of your answer doesn't let us know exactly how "silly" the question was (was it silly because it was personal question that had no bearing on the course? Was it silly because it was not relevant to the course material but possibly relevant to the overall subject? Was it silly because you had already covered the material in class? Was it silly because he was asking at the end of the lab session?) so unfortunately the exact way in which to respond might vary, but you might try:

  1. If it's a matter of time and you can't answer it because you have to clear the room, tell him, "Give me a few minutes to pack up my things to get out of the classroom." Clear the room, entertain question.

  2. If it's a matter of you having another appointment, then get him to submit the question over email or in writing or before next class.

  3. If it's silly because it's not related to the lecture, I usually do my best to entertain these kinds of questions because it sometimes means the student is interested in other topics around the material. If my class is on object-oriented design and programming in Java, but the student asks me about "how can you use design in procedural programming languages like C?" I'd probably give some ideas on how it could apply to that situation.

  4. If it's a personal question that you don't want to answer, you can say, "I don't feel comfortable answering that", "It's none of your business", "I can't talk about this", or similar.

  5. If it's a stupid question because it's sooooo obvious or because you covered it before, then, sorry, it's not a silly question but is something the student needs explanations for. Get him to visit you over office hours for extra help.

  6. If it's a matter of the student talking on and wasting time with questions, then you can ask the student politely to keep questions for after the class. If the student is trolling you with questions and is otherwise being a nuisance this option usually works as well.

Yes, it is rude for him to declare "You are paid to answer my questions!" but it's also rude to say that "Your question is silly". You are the teacher, the role model, the example, so you should be more patient with them than they are with you. Besides, if you tell them you'll answer it later, you can simply say, "Just wait - I haven't answered your question yet."

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Very wise, professional advice. Good distinctions among the possible interpretations of the words. Excellent. –  paul garrett Jan 28 at 22:53
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I like this answer a lot, but you left out one obvious possibility. What do you do if the student is trying to troll you by asking an obviously silly question and knows that it is silly? Should the TA take option 5 nevertheless? –  rumtscho Jan 28 at 23:53
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@rumtscho If students troll, often you can laugh it off and counter it with a witty statement. If that's not the case (I for example am not a very funnyman kind of guy) then I just say, "We can talk about that one after class. Let's move on for now." (Option 6) Or, if you have the time for it, you could actually ask the other students what they think of that question and make it a discussion exercise. That depends on the question though. –  Irwin Jan 29 at 0:20
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"I have already told you twice that I need to leave. If you have questions about the course material, please bring them to office hours. Goodbye." –  JeffE Jan 29 at 3:30
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I guess the generalisation is that no matter what you should keep your cool and act professionally. You are a professor and they are students: the situation is asymetric, there are things they could tell you that are rude but under no circumstances you should reply in the same manner. –  BlueTrin Jan 29 at 8:55
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"you can't be serious, this is not a question!"

Don't say this. Regardless of the question, this makes it sound like you think the student is either (1) intentionally wasting time or (2) very stupid. You can't make progress from there.

Next, if it's a quick question that's related to the topic of the course, but not the lecture necessarily, then the best thing to do is to take a moment to answer it anyway, since (1) the student might think the two things are related and it'll clarify things if you just explain it now, and (2) it'll be much less hassle that way.

If it requires an in-depth explanation, and you don't have the time for it because you have something else to attend to, tell the student that and also find the student a solution, whether that is telling him/her (1) to email you, (2) to ask you at the next lab, or (3) to ask the lecturer during office hours.

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Great answer - to add to this, don't be afraid to refuse to answer a question if it's outside of your jurisdiction. For example, if it's a question from a topic not in my course, or even another course, I'd be happy to answer it in a lab or tutorial if there is time and no one else needs help. But I won't answer it in my own time. If its a question like "will this equation be in the exam?", yes it's a silly question, but no you don't tell the student that. tl;dr: don't be afraid to refuse to answer a question, but be diplomatic about it. –  Moriarty Jan 29 at 1:15
    
@Moriarty I feel cheated that you put the tl;dr at the end :) –  Keith Layne Jan 29 at 18:04
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First, I'll assume that the student did actually ask a very silly question.

One thing that needs to be always taken into consideration in situations such as this is: Is the student aware of the silliness of the question?

While it may be obvious to you that the question is indeed silly, it may not be obvious to the student. You haven't posted any in-depth information about the whole background of the case, but it could very well be that the student is misunderstanding something extremely fundamental. You claim that the question is not related to the lecture, but at the same time, you say that you have in fact previously talked about the issue. In student's mind, that could somehow relate the issue to the lecture.

One more thing that could be very problematic is if student has a flawed thought process. This can cause the student to relate things that are not actually related and to find cause and effect relationships where there are none.

For example, due to administrative problems at my university, we were required to take an advanced course in one field before taking an introductory course. I already had some experience in that field, so a number of my fellow students asked me questions when they had problems with that exam. Some of them were actually very silly! Often, the silliest were for me the hardest to explain since that required figuratively digging through their brain in order to find the cause of the reasoning that got them to ask me the question in the first place. It often turned out that there was a mistake in reasoning somewhere or that they misunderstood something at a very basic level. One more thing that I noticed is that some people would try to avoid fully understanding the issue. Often, after explaining A for example, I'd have conversation going something like "Is A clear?" "Yes!" "Really?" "Yes, really." "100% clear?" "Yes, crystal clear!" and then it turns out that it wasn't clear.

Just explaining the initial problem and stopping there in cases such as the one I mentioned in the previous paragraph is just treating the symptoms of a disease and not the cause itself.

Another thing I'd like to mention is that (at least in my environment) those who ask questions do actually care about the subject they're learning and in general have a valid problem. It's usually those who don't ask questions that have no idea what's going on.

Next, I'll write a bit about "You're paid" problem itself.
It's commonly repeated that there are no bad questions, only bad answers. In my opinion, whoever produced that piece of wisdom didn't see enough questions.

You need to make a policy explaining what you should do in cases of inappropriate questions. Are you or are you not payed (or for some other reason expected) to answer such questions? What should you do in case you get a student who's too stupid to pass the course you're TA-ing for? What about students who can't form an answerable question in their mind? What about students who ask malicious questions? I was quite surprised to hear from one student at my school that he asks a certain TA senseless questions just because he like to see her struggle to answer them.

Only thing I can advise here is to think hard about what you are and are not expected to do. Talk to your colleagues about that and talk to your superiors about that. Make the limits clear to yourself and to your students. This way, when you come to a similar situation again and you explore all other options, you can honestly and with clear consciousness respond to "You are paid to answer my questions!" with "No, I'm not!"

Finally, I'd like to recommend to you to keep the tension low if at all possible. In this particular case, you mentioned that the student insisted that you answer the question many times. That probably means that the question is important to him. Is it normal that students should ask you more than once to answer a question? Is that expected in your culture? I never had to ask a professor or a TA question more than once in during my whole education so far. You provided an answer that upset the student. Were you aware that the student would be upset by such answer? If you were, think about why you gave that answer. Was that student confrontational before? Does he ask too many questions? Were you having a bad day? Did you give such an answer just because the student asked at an inappropriate time?

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To add to waiwai's excellent response, a good model to follow for TA's and faculty alike is professionalism. All too often, academics behave in an arrogant and demeaning manner.

How would you feel if your doctor told you "you can't be serious, this is not a question!"? What about your lawyer?

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@AJed, you seem oblivious to the fact that the student might not know the question is not related. If you ask a programmer a question about excel or word, chances are he's not going to know the answers - because you might expect a programmer to know this, though it's not related whatsoever to his actual field. –  Dylan Meeus Jan 28 at 19:51
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A lawyer will give you respectful, professional advice that will include how to find a pizza-making expert. –  vadim123 Jan 28 at 20:01
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@RemcoGerlich Programmers generally have an education beyond just learning how to write code, though those whose school days were prior to the 90s may not have had as much early experience with such programs as those from younger generation. However, I've found that, very often, the issues people have with Excel/Word/etc. are not issues that require detailed knowledge of and early experience with the program in question to resolve. For the most part, it seems to come down to a matter of willingness to investigate and resolve the issue; for example, if you were only now exposed to emacs, ... –  JAB Jan 28 at 20:34
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would you ask someone who seemed like they might know the control/escape sequences for various commands, or would you look them up and research them on your own, and most importantly, would you be willing to experiment and investigate within the program itself? From my (admittedly small compared to some) experience, reliable programmers tend to fall into the latter category, and that in itself often leads to knowing more about programs others may use more often. Of course, I still learn new things about programs I use on a daily basis now and then, but progs tend to know more than they think. –  JAB Jan 28 at 20:37
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@JAB You're getting way too caught up in the specifics of being someone in IT. The analogy Dylan made was only meant to try and explain the concept to the OP. –  Jeff Gohlke Jan 29 at 0:09
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I don't care how smart you are or how much of a rockstar you are in your field. You can be the most brilliant physicist on the planet, but you shouldn't be teaching PHYS 1101 if you can't convey basic information in a professional way to an uneducated audience. I emphasize "uneducated", because that's what your audience is. They don't know anything. It's your job to turn someone who knows nothing into someone who knows something. That's what being a professor is about (and, by extension, what's expected of you as a TA in a teaching position).

It may not be easy all the time to do this. Teaching is a skill just like anything else. Having knowledge doesn't mean having the ability to convey it effectively.

My question is briefly, how to handle silly questions? By silly, I mean questions that are unrelated to the material of the course.

I find it very hard to believe that a student came up to you randomly at the end of a lecture and asked you about something that is utterly unrelated to the course work. If you teach math, I'm fairly confident a student didn't approach you asking about the digestion mechanisms of an African elephant. Let's say you're a TA for MATH 1101 and going over basic calculus, and they ask you a question about geometry. To you, who supposedly understands all of this stuff, their question may appear completely unrelated and off-topic. But they don't know any better. If the question genuinely is outside the scope of the course, explain to them why that's the case. "Well, you see, quadratic formulas are actually only very loosely related to differential calculus, so your question is a bit outside of the scope of this course. You'll learn more about that in MATH 1103."

He got upset, and he told me: "You are paid to answer my questions!" ... I got angry [...]

It's not unreasonable to get angry when people verbally attack you or your profession, but as a teacher in any capacity, like it or not, a big part of your job is essentially human relations. You aren't there to sit at a podium and rant about whatever your little heart desires. You're there to convey information to people. Human beings. Each of whom has their own ways of learning, their own things they think are important, their own philosophies, their own lives. It's your job to actually connect with them and get something you're saying into their skulls. It's a skill of human interaction. So while you're free to experience whatever emotion you want, you must always still act in a professional manner toward your students. It's part of your responsibilities. It doesn't matter if you think your student is a rotten turd; you degrade yourself, your department, and your entire institution by treating him that way. Again, if you don't think you can handle dealing with people on a day-to-day basis, and thus with the inevitable conflict, go back into research or leave academia entirely.

Here's an example of how to handle conflict in a professional manner: "I'm sorry that you're frustrated. I have another lecture to give right now, but why don't you come to my office hours or send me an e-mail so that we can discuss this further? If I can't resolve your issue, you may have to go see Professor So-and-so, as he has more knowledge and experience than I do."

Part of the issue is that you've come here asking for advice and have given absolutely no detail about your problem except that a student asked you a question after a lecture which you thought was stupid. So all anyone can do is conjecture and try to make assumptions based on their own experience. If the goal of your question is genuinely to handle these kinds of situations effectively and to become a better teacher (and not just to rant about a student you dislike, as seems to be the case), how could you possibly expect to get a decent answer with the information you've provided? How would you answer such a question?

Actually, I think we already have the answer to that; you'd just tell them:

"You can't be serious, this is not a question!"

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I downvoted this for your first paragraph, which is way out of line. Being a TA, the original poster is presumably quite young, inexperienced and at the very start of their potential academic career. So he/she was rude to a student - it's not the end of the world, and he/she has a lot of time to improve. "You should probably be nicer to your pupils" is appropriate advice, "you should probably leave academia" is idiotic. –  Dan Petersen Jan 29 at 21:47
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@DanPetersen Fair enough. I take your point. And if you only read what the OP wrote in his question, I could see how you would reach that conclusion. I think if you track what he's said throughout the course of the discussion, however, it becomes a bit more clear why I said that. I'm basing the claim on many of his comments and responses to other people, not simply on the test of his question. Maybe he really was just having a bad day, but everything he's said in this Q&A/comments has made a lasting negative impression of his people skills (which is the premise for not teaching). –  Jeff Gohlke Jan 29 at 23:06
    
I suppose I should rephrase it to say "not teach", since research is a fundamental purpose of universities as well. Though as political as academia is, you would still require some people skill. –  Jeff Gohlke Jan 29 at 23:07
    
I would offer a caution about the "customer service" way of thinking: you have to be clear who the customers are (and it is not just the students nor their parents). I wrote a few words about that in a separate answer. –  dmckee Jan 29 at 23:35
    
@dmckee Again, fair enough. I realize that the word "customer" in academia has some odd/unpleasant connotations. I'll change it to "human relations", because that's really what I mean. Just the fact that you need to deal with people in a cordial, courteous, professional manner at all times. –  Jeff Gohlke Jan 30 at 4:08
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A student, recently, asked me at the end of a lab session, a very silly question. I say silly because:
1) it is not related to the lecture,
2) it is asked at the end of a lecture - and the class room was already full with the students of the next class, and
3) I have previously talked about this issue.

I don't see how any of these make the question "silly."

1) It is not related to the lecture

It might be a silly question if it was not related to the course material (I once had a student ask me about my favorite flavor of Jell-O, for example), but not all questions need to be related to the lecture. Part of teaching is synthesizing concepts. I hope you don't compartmentalize your lessons so much that you wouldn't answer a question about Lecture 3 during or after Lecture 6.

2) it is asked at the end of a lecture - and the class room was already full with the students of the next class

I don't see how this makes a question "silly." At worst, the timing is bad. Why not just step into the hallway and answer the question? Or, if you don't have time for that, ask the student to visit during an office hour? Or start your next lecture by answering that question?

3) I have previously talked about this issue.

This is one is most alarming in my mind. So, you talk about an issue, and you expect every student will understand it completely, the first time through, and never ask for it to be explained a second or third time?

I agree that students can be stubborn and selfish and have a sense of entitlement. But professors can also be arrogant and condescending and not have a very good grasp of pedagogy and andragogy.

Which is the case here? I believe that some standardized tests have an answer that goes something like, "Not enough information given." A student telling an instructor, "You are paid to answer my question!" seems like a naïve view of academia, particularly if the question isn't relevant. However, your definition of a "silly" question leaves plenty of room for the student to be making a valid point. If the question is related to the course, then you should answer that question – even if the room is full, and you have talked about it before.

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This strikes me as a poorly titled question since the key issue is not the student's behaviour but yours.

Have you ever wondered why "there are no silly questions" is such a widespread position? It's not because there are no silly questions, we know perfectly well that there are, just as we know that students will answer questions they could answer themselves if they'd simply bothered to listen and some students who are thicker than too short planks.

So why say "there are no silly questions"? Because there's a much bigger problem with students who should ask questions not asking those questions and thus not getting the information they need than there is with students asking silly questions. By adopting and respecting the position that "there are no silly questions" you help create an environment in which students feel free to ask their questions and thus create a more positive and helpful learning environment for all.

Your student shouldn't have said that to you; but you behaved badly first and you're the one who is supposed to be a professional not them.

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“You are paid to answer my questions!”

Actually, you are paid to do something rather more subtle than that. You see, contrary to common belief, the students are not your customers. Or at least they are not your only customers.

You are paid to help students to learn and to evaluate that learning and certify it as acceptable only if it meets certain standards (which are set by the customs of your discipline and the expectations of people who will be looking at the credentials that the school does issue and are enforced by the accreditation agencies).

So answering their questions is a part of your job, but so is knowing which question are meaningful or helpful.

None of which really illuminates what you should do when confronted by this student, but it does provide a better framework for understanding your job than the one suggested by the student.

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If a question in itself makes no sense, try to think about the motivation behind the question. Answer the question behind the question. Just because someone is bad at phrasing a good question doesn't mean that he's not worthy of an answer.

There are however cases when you don't want to invest the time to help a particular individual at a particular time. In that case I would simply say: "I need a moment of rest to be at my mental peak at my next lecture. If the question is important to you, come back at office hours."

In general, if you don't want to answer a question at a particular time don't say: "It is already late, but let me know about your question."

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Nope Christian, I was going to answer a question if it was related to what I teaching in class during that day. –  AJed Jan 29 at 16:05
    
@AJed : Why? What's the goal you are try to accomplish? If you goal is to help the student learn something my first paragraph addresses it. If your goal is to answer question about a lecture for the sake of answering question about a lecture, then get better goals. –  Christian Jan 29 at 19:25
    
I like your answer, and thanks. The problem, though, is that you are judging that I did not want to answer a question. –  AJed Jan 29 at 19:33
    
@AJed: I'm not. I don't care whether or not you want to answer the question. To the extend that I judge, I just particular reasons for not answering it. –  Christian Jan 29 at 19:41
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Technically the student is wrong regarding the payment part. You are not paid to answer any question at any time. And I'd be more interested in how to handle impolite students/clients, if this is the case, than in the silliness of their questions.

However, I doubt that your account is accurate. At one place you claim that you have already deal with the issue during the lecture and at another you claim it was not related. Besides that, you find it acceptable to post the reaction of the student, but do not find acceptable to disclose what question he asked, which would have been essential to know how to react towards it.

So:

If the question has a truly obvious answer, or if the student is truly lost, follow a Socratic approach, asking questions to make him realize how easy would have been to him to know the answer. This part is probably somehow related to your job, which is to educate people.

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