22

Recently I worked as a teaching assistant for a digital logic course. The topic for the day was full-adder. Professor explained the full concept of the full adder, along with question and answer session and then it is now the turn of TAs to clarify doubts of the students. One student asked me the question: what is the architecture of full adder circuit using currently in the most advanced CPU of laptops. I really had no clue about it.

But a new doubt raised in my mind that how should a professor react to such questions?

The professor may not know every aspect and every trend in the subject (s)he is teaching. If (s)he says that I don't know, then, the respect for the professor may go down. Else if (s)he says that it is beyond the scope of the course then the research aspirancy of the students may go down. Other methods are providing references later by saying I will send it to you/class later etc., but still, it is like saying I don't know, but indirectly. Because if one the student asks a question, then many people want to know the answer immediately from the professor. I feel that the professor should at least answer the question in a very short form.

So, the final question can be divided into two parts:

1) How should a professor react to the most advanced questions from their students of a basic course, if (s)he knows the answer?

2) How a professor has to react in the classroom for the advanced questions that (s)he doesn't know the answer?

  • 2
    What is the "most advanced" CPU, are they not produced for some purpose, i.e., a gaming laptop cpu might be different than a laptop that should operate more energy efficient. And also to what extend does the student expect an answer? I mean sometimes specs and operational details are not that easy to get or even not available outside the company, as they want to earn money and have an interest in keeping things secret. In any case, just say you also need to consult the specs/manual/blueprint/circuit diagram for the details, as a programmer you are also not expected to know everyones code [...] – StefanH Jan 23 at 14:14
  • 63
    I'd like to call out that saying "I don't know." is always OK if it's true; it should not impact your students' levels of respect for you. This is modeling at its best: students need to know what they do and do not know. An academic's job is to determining what they know, what is known in general, then push on the gaps in the two until new general knowledge happens. – Crisfole Jan 23 at 15:03
  • 27
    "If (s)he says that I don't know, then, the respect for the professor may go down." I teach in STEM at the graduate level: a student or instructor being able to say "I don't know," (when they don't know) is worthy of respect. A student or instructor being unable to directly say "I don't know," is a sign of incompetence and unreliability. – Alexis Jan 23 at 18:42
  • 25
    As a mathematician, I've noticed that the best researchers I've met -- including Fields Medalists -- are quite unembarrassed to admit when they don't know something. – academic Jan 23 at 23:19
  • 4
    Strongly agree with Alexis and academic on the "I don't know issue". And I would say the opposite is also true: a professor or a researcher who never says "I don't know" is not a good one. – Martin Argerami Jan 24 at 0:00
29

1) How should a professor react to the most advanced questions from her students of a basic course, if (s)he knows the answer?

I would distinguish between reasonable and obnoxious questions.

  • If the question is reasonable, then I would give a concise answer and encourage "offline" follow up. The question in your example seems reasonable -- it's essentially "how wide is the gap between what we're learning and what's actually used?"
  • If the question is obnoxious (e.g., student is just trying to show off), then I would consider giving a very concise answer (one sentence), or else explaining that you don't think the question is a good use of the available time (and, optionally, encouraging follow up in office hours).

2) How a professor has to react in the classroom for the advanced questions that (s)he doesn't know the answer?

I'm not sure one has any choice but to say "That's a good question, but I have no idea" or "I have no idea, and I doubt it matters for the purpose of this exam."

  • 2
    Also add “what is current now won’t be when you get a job”... – Solar Mike Jan 23 at 7:27
  • I would see your question 'how big is the difference between course material and state of the art' as reasonable but OPs question was 'what is the state of the art' which to me looks not reasonable because it tends to also depend on half a billion other things and usually there is no simple answer 'they use the X-adaptation of the Y-algorithm'. – quarague Jan 23 at 12:15
  • 11
    @quarague People who don't have a lot of experience in a domain often times don't know how to phrase questions about it. Part of being a good teacher is inferring what a student might be really asking about. (e.g. "Yes" is not an appropriate answer to the question "Do you know the time?") True, you sometimes get it wrong and the student's followups will reveal it, but it's far, far better to assume that the student's actual question is reasonable but poorly phrased, rather than blowing them off simply because their question, when taken literally, is obnoxious/unanswerable. – R.M. Jan 23 at 19:14
  • 1
    Assuming good faith is a good rule of thumb. In my experience, though, some students have a real tendency to ask many non-useful questions ("obnoxious questions") which can sidetrack the lesson. – cag51 Jan 23 at 20:59
  • 5
    "I doubt it matters for the purpose of this exam." I don’t think that’s a particularly encouraging thing to tell students. The purpose of exams is establishing minimum standards, they don’t and shouldn’t define what is and isn’t interesting. – Cubic Jan 24 at 15:54
15

@cag51 makes good points, but I want to focus on this aspect of your question:

The professor may not know every aspect and every trend in the subject he is teaching. If (s)he says that I don't know, then, the respect for the professor may go down. Else if (s)he says that it is beyond the scope of the course then the research aspirancy of the students may go down.

University is not like high school. University students are adults, some of them are coming back to study after some years working in industry. You can no longer expect that the student knows nothing and the professor knows everything.

A part of that, is that students start asking hard questions. Because by the time they get to university, they already know the answers to a lot of the easy questions. It's no longer a loss of face for the teacher to say "I don't know that right now", because they're no longer basic high school questions to which the answers have been mostly the same for years. Questions like "what is the state of the art" or "how about this corner case" are hard but potentially interesting questions.

I think as a professor it's wise to build a bit of room in your curriculum, to handle questions like this. If a student asks a hard question that you think is interesting to the whole class, then you can say "good question, I'll come back to that next class" and use the time you set aside. If nobody asks a good question, then you can use the time on something else.

So I don't think saying "I don't know" necessarily reduces respect for the professor. A professor who pretends to know things he doesn't, or who dodges questions, is going to look foolish. A professor who essentially says "I want to give you the best answer, please wait" shows that he's taking the student seriously.

In a fast-moving field like computer science it's entirely possible that a student has cutting-edge knowledge on some specific thing. Maybe the student has a side job at a tech firm or reads a key tech forum where new developments are discussed. One of the most inspiring things a professor can do is to happily acknowledge that the student knows something there that the professor doesn't yet know. This shouldn't really undermine respect for a solid professor because such a professor probably has much deeper and wider knowledge about the field as a whole. But being taken seriously like this as a student is a really inspiring feeling.

13

I would suggest two principles: build and reward engagement, and speak to the whole class.

Reward engagement: Someone asked you a question about something related to the course material you're presenting? Awesome! That student is engaged and interested! That's great to see. I recommend you choose an answer that rewards rather than penalizes that -- so a tone of enthusiasm and delight that they asked, rather than annoyance. You can also reward asking questions by making them look good of everyone else -- maybe you find the gem of insight in their question and articulate it for everyone's benefit, or something. For some students it can be intimidating to ask a question in front of everyone else, and it can often be hard to get students to feel comfortable doing that, so finding ways to set a tone that encourages that will help shift the classroom atmosphere towards more interaction and engagement.

Speak to the whole class: Remember that you are primarily there to help the whole class. You're not just answering the person who asked the question; this is an opportunity to find a way to respond that will be relevant to the whole class. The student asked about some real-world application of what you're teaching, or is reaching for a way to make a connection between what they're learning and something practical? Excellent! That's a fantastic opportunity right there to take a step back and see how you can make that connection apparent for the whole class. If you do that right, I suspect that might be beneficial not just for the one person who asked, but for many people who are motivated by the idea that what they're learning is used in real products, or in devices they use every day.

If the student asks a narrow question that's probably only of interest to that one student: you can give a very concise, one-sentence answer ("it turns out that modern CPUs something different than what we saw in class, to minimize energy consumption"), tell them how to learn more ("you can learn more about this in our class on digital architecture" / "come visit me in my office hours and I've love to tell you more" / ..), and use that to bridge to a subject that will be of interest to a larger fraction of the class ("it's a good question because it highlights power consumption as a critical issue for processors, and that's something we'll return to in week 10" or something).

If the student asks a question that might be of broader interest to the entire class: pull out what makes the question such a great one ("ooh, I'm so glad you asked, because this is really cool") or show appreciation or enthusiasm for their question or otherwise signal encouragement, and then answer in a way that'll speak to both the asker and the rest of the class ("this is really cool, this design we're showing you in class today was first introduced in the 8086 in the early 80's and now is used in every modern CPU", or whatever).

6

1) How should a professor react to the most advanced questions from her students of a basic course, if (s)he knows the answer?

It depends on how long it would take to explain the answer. If it is a matter of a minute or so, the professor can just answer. If it is going to be a lengthy digression, wasting the time of most of the class, these days I suggest giving a few key terms for web searches.

For example, for the question about adders I might say something like "That is a very interesting topic. Start by searching for carry lookahead.". That will get the student to articles that contain references to fast addition variations. I would not try to answer it in class. Fast binary addition was an 80 minute lecture in a course on computer arithmetic I took as a computer science graduate student, with understanding of full adders and general principles of processor architecture assumed.

2) How a professor has to react in the classroom for the advanced questions that (s)he doesn't know the answer?

Begin by saying "I don't know". That will always get far more respect from those whose respect is worth having than pretending knowledge one does not have. If it is relevant enough to make it worth discussing in class, add "I'll get back to you later" and look it up before the next class. If not, "I am afraid that is outside the scope of this course.".

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.