So this happened to me multiple times.

Scenario 1: I'm sitting in a lecture or listening to a talk (STEM related) which is more or less aligned with my background (so I know the big picture), and then half way through, the lecturer or the presenter asks a question.

At this point, I haven't even really figured out the meaning of various symbols and there seems to be a lot of ambiguity (even undefined symbols) in what has been presented, but almost every time another student is able to provide the answer on the spot. How is the student able to tear through all these ambiguities and absorb all these information in such a short amount of time? Note that by "another student", I don't mean just a particular student, but this happens in every class across my entire (graduate) life.

Scenario 2: The presenter is presenting and midway someone jumps in with a very intricate question about the material just presented. We are all seeing this for the first time, so why is it that some people are able to see the edge cases so much faster?

Maybe I have a study/listen/notetaking habit or concentration problems which are not conducive to learning and I would like to hear your thoughts.

  • How far are you with your grad studies?
    – cheersmate
    Commented Sep 17, 2021 at 4:49
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    Keep in mind that, assuming I understand the scenario correctly, there are 20 other grad students in the room who are asking the same question you are. It's really hard to answer questions about the exceptional, because they are the exceptions. Commented Sep 17, 2021 at 5:05
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    Have you considered that the students who ask questions may have read the material before the lecture and are therefore not actually seeing it for the first time?
    – N.I.
    Commented Sep 17, 2021 at 6:36
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    Probably not worth an answer, as I can't say "why" or offer a solution, but I graduated a while ago and this still happens to me in conference talks. A good professional acquaintance of mine always has several questions after each talk, and I'm just sitting there, blinking and processing. Usually, the discussion points will come to me a bit later and I'll end up chatting with the interesting presenters at coffee breaks, posters and lunches following the presentation session. Pandemic-online-conferences have been... difficult
    – penelope
    Commented Sep 17, 2021 at 9:06

2 Answers 2


How many students are in these classes?

The student that gives the answer or asks the question, is the first student in the group to come up with a reasonable answer or question. There can be only one student who is the first to do so. So if you're in a class of 100 students, and they're all equally talented and equally likely to come up with a clever idea at any point in time, you would expect to be the asker or answerer once in a hundred times. Most often by far, someone else will ask the question, by simple probability.

Beyond that, not all people are created equal. Some people have a real quick intuitive style of processing new information that allows them to react quickly, while others need to digest the information for a while. There is nothing wrong with either personality type.

Don't worry about it.

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    Yes, indeed, don't worry about it. It's true that this sort of quickness "looks good", and has some public-relations sort of advantages, but, in real life, "being quick" is not the same thing as "doing work". "Looking smart" is not "doing work", though, sure, it does create an impression. :) Commented Sep 18, 2021 at 0:30

Different people learn in different ways. Some people can pick things up in the lecture, others need time to go home after and reconstruct everything for themselves. While it's certainly impressive that some people can "get it" in the moment, it's by no means required for success in STEM, especially as a grad student. You should try to avoid comparing yourself to others, since you may have different areas where you excel. You should also keep in mind that you only see what other people project about themselves to the outside world and you don't have access to their inner monologue; because of this, I think many grad students tend to overestimate the abilities of their peers and underestimate their own. In the end, there's a certain rate at which you can absorb technical information, and there's no point in simply wishing the rate was higher. While you can increase this rate with lots of hard work and experience, that's not something you should expect to happen magically or quickly.

Having said that, if your goal is to be able to ask questions in lecture, here are some thoughts on various strategies to try:

  • most lectures start relatively easy and then ramp up in difficulty. Try to listen carefully and follow the logical steps of the lecture, see if you can identify the first spot where you start feeling confused. Take a moment and try to pin down exactly what you are confused about as precisely as possible (is it an undefined word; a new concept; an old concept being used in an unfamiliar way...) and ask a question about this.
  • don't be afraid to ask about ambiguous or undefined symbols; it could well be that simply getting over this "mathematical language barrier" will make the content a lot clearer to you and you can spot tricky steps more easily.
  • review the material at your pace beforehand so you know what the confusing parts are in advance.
  • do a lot of problems in this subject so you become more familiar with standard notation and the ways of thinking about it, which in turn will increase the rate at which you can absorb information in this area.
  • don't try to follow and absorb every detail in the moment, but only try to follow the logical outline of the lecture, since you will be able to fill in details later. If you don't see how the lecture logically flows from one part to the next at a high level, it's probably work asking a question to clarify the logic.
  • if the lecture is covering a general case of something, try reducing various statements to a special case you understand well and see if you can follow the details there. For example, if a derivation is being done in three dimensions, see if you can follow how the arguments work if you project out one of the coordinates.
  • try to explain tricky concepts out loud to yourself and to other people. While doing this, try to think of ways you could explain the material that weren't the way that was done in the lecture. This may either lead you to a better explanation, or to a realization of why the material was structured a certain way. Getting a feel for how your lecturer likes to think about and explain things, can give you some intuition for which aspects of what they are talking about are the most important.

To summarize: (a) definitely speak up to clarify unambiguous or undefined notation, since you will have no chance of following anything if the symbols are not defined, (b) working hard outside of class can help you follow things more quickly in class, and (c) try to identify the most important points and focus on those, leaving more detailed calculations or proofs to understand later. This frees your brain up to think about the material at a higher level; it is much easier to ask questions if you are following the structure of the lecture rather than trying to follow every step line-by-line. Note: "higher level" here is not a value judgment that some material is "better" or "more intrinsically interesting," but essentially a kind of coarse-graining of the material where you assume certain calculations / proofs work out and see if you can follow the logical implications of the results that are derived. You want to aim to be able to (a) identify the key results in the lecture and (b) for each result, understand what all the inputs are (and why they are needed), what all the outputs are (and what outputs you'd like to get that you can't get), and what you can do with the result. You do need to understand the details eventually, but you don't need to understand them in the moment, especially if you feel it is hurting your ability to understand the overall lecture. I suspect that many questions you perceive as being very intricate or detailed, are really coming from someone following at this kind of higher level finding that two results don't seem to fit together or making a connection with another subject they know well (again keep in mind you don't know the internal monologue of other people).

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