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During my masters, I used to ask a lot of questions in class and during the lecture. Whenever I had a doubt I used to ask questions. It was my habit which my undergraduate teachers inculcated in me and inspired us to do so. However, here, in my masters, I got the impression that this is probably a bad habit as professors tend to think that I am asking my questions to test them. Ultimately, it was proven to reflect badly on me.

I am about to go to another institution going for my PHD. Since then, I have changed my habit and I haven't asked a single question in the last several lectures. Instead, I wrote my questions down in my notebook and later read books or Googled them to search for answers.

Is this really the right way?

How can I ask a question such that the professors shall not think that I am somehow mocking them?

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Please add some tags. I can not classify it properly. –  Dutta Jun 27 at 3:05
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To answer the title question: Don't ask questions that include racial, cultural, sexual, or religious slurs, or that presuppose inappropriate behavior. (For example: "When did you stop beating your wife?" or "Do Jews really drink the blood of Christian babies?") Otherwise, anything goes. However, a question can still be inappropriate without being offensive. (For example: "Why is 2-2=4?", except possibly in a discussion of mathematical philosophy or Orwell's 1984.) –  JeffE Jun 27 at 19:40
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Your use of doubt is dubious: please see this question for more. –  tchrist Jun 27 at 23:54
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@tchrist Nope, the OP's use of doubt is perfectly fine. What is the sense of saying "whenever I had a question I used to ask questions"? There is nothing wrong if you read doubt as in a feeling of uncertainty, as I suspect was intended. –  Moriarty Jun 28 at 11:37
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@Moriarty: I agree with tchrist. This use of the word doubt to mean uncertainty in a neutral sense is not standard in the UK, the US, Canada, or Australia. It is specific to English in India, and outside India we don't say we doubt something unless we think something is wrong or not possible, e.g. I doubt I can improve on something. That is not what Dutta intended. –  KCd Jun 29 at 8:00

8 Answers 8

up vote 31 down vote accepted

Asking questions is a good thing, but you need to make sure that the questions you ask are appropriate. The best thing to do is judge for yourself whether or not a majority of the audience might be interested in your question.

An example might be that the lecturer has made a mistake, or has forgotten to define something in a mathematical derivation. In such cases, perhaps you could whisper to the person next to you for a quick second opinion.

If a concept has been neglected or poorly explained, then you should ask for expansion or clarification if you think that most of the class will be in the same boat.

These aren't always easy judgements to make. If you're uneasy, save the question for after class. You can also simply ask the lecturer if he or she minds you asking questions, or your classmates if they thought your question was a good one. Good questions enhance the learning experience for everyone.

The bottom line is that most good professors like to have some interaction with the class. Many students audience don't like to say anything, so it's often up to just a few students to ask any relevant questions. But more than one question every ten minutes or so can start to get tiresome for the lecturer, so unless it's a tutorial class you shouldn't turn it into a Q&A session.

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As a lecturer, I am always grateful to students who politely point out mistakes. They're doing a service to their classmates. –  David Ketcheson Jun 27 at 21:53
    
Thank you all for your suggestions. –  Dutta Jun 28 at 4:35
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@DavidKetcheson And thank you for being grateful! I'll take the opportunity to mention that students should of course always phrase questions about mistakes diplomatically, e.g. "should that be X, instead of Y", as opposed to "that should be...". It makes the dialogue a lot more congenial, especially if it turns out the lecturer was correct in the first place. –  Moriarty Jun 28 at 11:41

From my experience in college as a student who asks questions (as opposed to those who stay silent even if they do not understand what they're listening to) you can divide the process into the student's part (asking) and the lecture's part (answering). The student's part is the one you have control over, and so there are at least two possibilities:

  • The question is pertinent: it adds to the discussion, is useful to the general audience and it does not disrupt the lecture.
  • The question is not pertinent: it is too deep (save it for later when you can meet the lecturer in a one-to-one basis), it is too shallow (you were not paying attention, or lack previous knowledge needed for the present course, etc.), or it is irrelevant (you're trying to correct or point out some insignificant mistake or make an appreciation that does not help anyone except your ego).

If your question is not pertinent then do a favor to everyone (including yourself) and don't ask it.

Now, if the question is pertinent it is up to your appreciation and experience in that class to figure out whether that particular lecturer will welcome it or not. Some lecturers will be happy to answer anything they think adds up to the discussion and to be corrected whenever they are wrong. Others will feel that their students are being intrusive towards their work and even get defensive if they're pointing out a mistake.

Examples:

  • I once pointed out a mistake a lecturer had made on the board and he dismissed me implying I was clearly wrong without even giving a thought about what I was saying. Right after class I talked to him privately and he was happy to acknowledge I was right.

  • I did the same with another lecturer and he immediately admitted his mistake and thanked me for pointing it out. Asking a tricky question to this same lecturer he admitted he didn't know the answer but came the next day with two sheets of paper where he had worked out the answer after class during his own time.

To sum up:

It is your responsibility before asking to make sure yours is a good question. But it is also up to your judgement to decide whether asking that particular lecturer that particular question benefits you or not.

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Thank you for your suggestions. –  Dutta Jun 28 at 4:36

You should not always resort to Google. If the professor feels bad if you ask in front of the class, note down the question and either ask at the end of the class on one-on-one basis, or ask in a separate meeting during their office hours. Consider asking TAs too.

This is not the ideal solution though, as asking in the class provides others the opportunity to ponder on the question.

One litmus test that you might want to do before asking the question is, whats the point of the question, and whats the point of the current lecture. Are you asking a question that goes deep down some unnecessary details, or does it ask for a piece of information thats relevant and important?

Another way to test your questions is, what would I lose (or what would I be not able to do) if I don't know the answer to that question.

One more way can be that before asking the question, you verbally clarify what you understood, and then ask which bit you didnt understand. Similarly, verbally clarify what details you know, and then for which scenario, you need the additional information. That would not only justify it as a legitimate doubt, but also clear the context of question A LOT in your own mind.

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Thank you for your suggestion. –  Dutta Jun 28 at 4:37

if your question imply that maybe you hadn't learned the prerequisite classes well enough, then they could be taken as annoying to both professor and some other students. the prof wants to make sure he/she gets through a sufficiently prescribed amount of material (indicated on the syllabus) and spending a lot of time on remedial instruction might cost too much time to move ahead at the needed rate.

but, if it's relevant and at the correct level (like the level of the class learning this stuff), thoughtful questions should be appreciated by all.

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The appropriate response from the professor is not annoyance, but "Let's talk about that after class/in office hours." –  JeffE Jun 27 at 19:41
    
yeah, @JeffE, you're right. at least for the first few times of being inappropriately interrupted. at one time, back in the 80s and the early 90s, i was teaching electrical engineering. every once in a while we get a student that thinks he knows so much more than he really does (it was always a male student, which is not surprising because 9 or 10 EE students were male at that time). if he persists in trying to "redirect" the discussion (the class was about linear electric circuits, which are a conceptual topic) to the topic he wanted to discuss (which was electronic circuits)... –  robert bristow-johnson Jun 27 at 19:57
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... if a student persists in pressing in appropriate questions, annoyance might be a very honest, measured, and human response. –  robert bristow-johnson Jun 27 at 19:59
    
Thanks to all of you. –  Dutta Jun 28 at 4:39

Several answers have touched on asking the right type of questions. While this is important, how you ask a question can matter as well. (FWIW, these come from a US perspective.)

I find questions prefaced with "I know you covered x earlier, but I'm still not clear on..." get good results. It acknowledges that you were paying attention, that the professor covered some part of the topic, but it's asking for increased understanding. The same for questions like "You just said x, but the text seems to say y. Could you talk about the difference?"

Another factor is who asks the question. I'm usually the top student in the class, and the professors know it. So if I ask a question that starts with "I didn't understand how you went from step A to step B", they know it's because something was truly unclear -- I've already done the reading, and I've been following the lecture closely, so the professor is less likely to take offense. I often volunteer to ask this type of question for my classmates, because I know the professor will be more patient with the question if it comes from me.

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Thank you for your suggestion. –  Dutta Jun 28 at 4:39

A good talk from the auditory that professor likes (or, even if one does not, sees as "ok") is the one that contributes to the lecture, increasing its quality for all students, for instance:

  • An answer to the question that the lecturer has just asked for the auditory, aiming to attract attention to important topic.
  • Asking to comment on unmentioned yet widespread or very obviously looking alternative hypothesis, point of view or simply common misunderstanding, if still in the scope of the lecture.
  • Asking to clarify something that was really covered too fast, leaving half of the auditory confused (a knowingly good student should ask).
  • A typo in a formula on the blackboard that 50 students just wrote down (but double check first as false alerts are not welcome).

It is very difficult to ask such questions as they may require more knowledge from the student than it would be presented in the lecture. Indeed, one of the possible replies from the professor is "a good question, now please answer it for us" that may not already be difficult. If you managed to ask one such question per semester, this is already great and enough. If you keep trying but the questions are not so good, you may get one or another hint to interfere less.

If a question does not add much to the lecture, professor may see it as a waste of the precious time that could be used more efficiently. The amount of personal attention professor is capable of giving to each student is limited even after the lecture, and during the lecture you are also using time of many other students.

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Thank you for your suggestion. –  Dutta Jun 28 at 4:40

There are many ways to ask questions in seemingly appropriate ways and yet completely ruin the flow of class and earn some negative points with the lecturer/teacher. Here are some examples:

  • Asking a question about something that was just explained in great detail (but during which the student who is asking the question was busy texting or browsing on their phone or was simply not focuses). This type of question adds nothing of value, but suggests that explanation was not good enough. I even see other students roll their eyes and some just laugh out loud at one such student who seems to have that special talent for asking really bad questions. For instance, right after stating a fact such as "The sky is blue" they would ask "Excuse me, I am just not sure - is the sky blue?"

  • Asking a question that on the surface seems relevant, but in reality is about material which was not covered yet. For instance "Today we learn that at noon, the sky is mostly blue" and the student asks "What about the sky on Mars - is it also blue?". Students who do that do it for few reasons: they want to show that they are advanced (they usually use terminology that was not even explained yet almost like "name dropping"), and they like the attention they are getting. This is counter-productive and I just ask them to wait until we reach that point later. But the worst ones will keep asking such questions: "So, I just wanted to ask, if it is middle of the night, would the sky still be blue?"... and earn a bad grade as a result (since they are focusing on stuff that is not covered yet, they are not focusing on matters at hand, and that shows in their work).

  • Asking trivial questions, to which they could simply find answers themselves if only they remembered what was covered in the past or even just tried before asking (I teach practical stuff that is done on computers, so they have their tools right in front of them). For instance "What would happen if I...?" to which I would say "try it, see what happens, and get back to us!". Or at other times "How do I (do something simple)?" - again just asking for attention. First it tells me they don't care to remember important details and cannot learn more advanced concepts which rely on previous knowledge, but more importantly, they show their laziness and disinterestedness as such simple tasks can be figured out within seconds. The question would be along lines of "How do I switch my mouse to left handed?" - they have not even tried to open options and see what is in there, and to make it all worse - both how to change options and how to "switch to left handed" was explained more than once. (and - no I don't teach such simple stuff, it is just an illustration)

  • Even if questions are relatively OK, they can be asked in such a manner as to interrupt the flow of a good class. I expect my students to raise their hand when asking a question, but some of them will do so every few minutes. Some will ask a question by raising their hand, only to switch to not raising their hand when it matters the most - like when an important "A-HA" moment is about to happen in students' mind. Some complex concepts and ideas need a bit of a build-up to be understood, and that moment of understanding can be ruined by a question, asked aggressively. Or some others will raise their hand at the most inappropriate moment and try and get my attention with no regard for the explanation that is taking place. All they need to do is wait about 30 seconds and they can ask all they want then, but they are too eager to ruin the flow of lecture.

Basically, those who do this in a class are psychotic individuals who cannot live without being the center of attention for more than a few minutes. Unfortunately, they are also very skilled at ruining a class without doing much of what is clearly prohibited so they are hard to deal with (you can't tell them "Don't ask questions"). I just fail them or give them a really bad grade; usually their homework is not that great either, so failing them is easy.

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Asking Question is a good thing but ask in a right way is cumpulsory and you can not find your answer as you need to know on google so asking your teacher is a good thing but is to be done in a right way.

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You need to explain what you mean by asking in a right way. –  adipro Jun 27 at 20:13

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