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I teach an advanced engineering undergrad class online and typically I love and encourage students to ask questions both by unmuting as well as over chat.

I have never had this problem in earlier years, but this time around I have a student who asks so many questions that it's almost disruptive to the lecture flow. Many of his questions are also either simplistic / irrelevant / repetitive.

On the one hand, we have this precept that there is no such thing as a stupid or silly question. On the other hand I feel the amount and quality of questions this particular student is asking is not helping the class.

Meanwhile, I don't want to discourage the rest of the class from asking questions. I already offered to spend as much time is needed to answer any student questions at the end of the lecture. I would be happy if this student would ask his questions at the end but I don't want to make this a general policy since I do actually love taking most other questions during the class as they pop up.

Any ideas on how one could tackle this sort of situation diplomatically? I don't want to be unfair to this student, but also have the most positive experience for the rest of the class.

Of course, there's no good way I can think of to get the perspective of the rest of the students.

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    This sonds very similar to the situation in this question: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/63915/… Jan 15 at 8:09
  • 2
    Perhaps helpful: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/83628/… Jan 15 at 18:52
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    While there are no stupid questions, there are stupid people...
    – PatrickT
    Jan 16 at 10:10
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    @PatrickT - yes and no: there are stupid people, and there also are stupid questions. I don't know why everyone repeats this as if it was one of the ten commandments, unless it is simply used as a shorthand to encourage people to ask non-stupid questions, but I'm sure everybody has actually had experience with getting (or even asking), yes, a stupid question.
    – davidbak
    Jan 16 at 19:54
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    @davidbak I guess the idea is that everyone at some point is allowed to ask a stupid question: typically as a result of misunderstanding something that is otherwise basic, so yes the adage "there are no stupid questions" is intended to encourage tolerance for the occasional slip-up; also, you can often reinterpret stupid questions to make them smart. But if someone keeps asking stupid questions, that's evidence stacking up against them!
    – PatrickT
    Jan 16 at 21:19

13 Answers 13

61

Been there. Talk to the student offline and explain your request that they limit their questions in class and come to office hours if they have additional questions. If that doesn't work, you may have to cut them off publicly in lecture, asking that they give other students a chance. If you don't address the problem, you are sure to get dinged by other students in your course evals.

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    Do you have a rule of thumb for the student to decide whether the question would be appropriate during the lecture or should be asked in office hours instead? As a student myself, I find some "stupid questions" asked by other students very helpful because they make me realize that I didn't know the answer either, so need to pay more attention
    – lucidbrot
    Jan 16 at 13:16
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    @lucidbrot No. I treat every question as appropriate. (I never, never, never respond as if I think a question is stupid.) What's not appropriate is asking so many questions during lecture that it becomes disruptive and likely to annoy others in the class. (My objective is purely to avoid complaints on my course evals that I didn't properly control the class.) Jan 16 at 14:13
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    Thanks for the reply! I think you slightly misunderstood me though: I was wondering if you had a rule of thumb to tell the disruptive student. Because if a lecturer were to ask me to please ask less questions, without given a clear statement what or how many would be okay, I would probably stop asking any questions at all during the lecture. Unless I was very very certain that it was a good question.
    – lucidbrot
    Jan 16 at 14:45
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    @lucidbrot Thankfully, I've only had one such student. I knew it was a problem but didn't take action until after I got complaints on my mid-semester course evals. I talked to the student offline, explained that other students found him disruptive and I agreed, and suggested he try to limit himself to perhaps 2, 3, maybe 4 questions per lecture. I think I might have had to ask publicly once, maybe twice in lecture that he give other students a chance. Problem was solved and students remarked on my final evals that they'd noticed the lectures in the second half were much better. Jan 16 at 18:14
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Yes, that's a conflict. One thing you could do is having "question breaks" every now and then. The rule is: one question per student (at any given break), and you let the students know of this rule and stick to it. This way would allow more students to ask questions, while keep answering (some) of this particular student's questions.

Of course, you set the timings of these breaks according to your pace in your lecture. If there's a lot of time left, make a break every 15 min. If you need to cover more material (or, if you have already answered too many questions), delay the next break until appropriate. It's now in your control.

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    Thanks! That's a good idea. I just get the feeling that the conduct of just ONE student is forcing me to change the rules in a way that affects EVERYONE! It's like having to meter the coffee machine or printer just because one user abuses the privilege! Jan 15 at 11:23
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    I see what you are saying. All I can think of is this analogy, that once upon a time, when we were young, people never locked their house doors (at nights, etc.). It took one only person to convert an entire village. :( At least, next semester you'll be able to get back to your habits...
    – Ran G.
    Jan 15 at 12:36
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    I think this amounts to putting unhelpful limits on all the students when only one is a problem. I would try to solve the problem with the one student. Jan 15 at 20:43
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Maybe this problem could be addressed my setting clearer expectations. This is important because

  1. Your student might not be aware that his questions are disruptive, and in that case he would benefit from having clear guidelines on what constitutes a good question.
  2. It's a disservice to the other students to allow one student to hijack the class
  3. Speaking from my own experience as a student, I think that the shy students will actually be more likely to speak up if you give them a way to evaluate their questions. No one is going to believe that there's no such thing as a bad question. We've all had experiences with disruptive classmates, and no one wants to be like that. I often avoided asking questions because I worried about how they would be perceived. If you give students clear guidelines, they will know when they have a good question that it is okay to ask.

Some ideas for guidelines:

  1. It's always okay to ask a question when you don't understand something. If you're really struggling with a particular point, we can always continue these discussions in office hours.
  2. If a question is off-topic, I might tell you to save it for office hours (but it's okay to ask).
  3. Make sure you're paying attention in lecture. If you miss something every now and then, it's okay to ask, but if you need me to repeat myself several times per lecture, we should talk in office hours about how to fix that problem.
  4. I know asking questions can be scary, but you'll learn much better if you can be brave enough to speak up when something's not clear. It's an important skill that will help you even beyond the classroom.

And of course, the final aspect of this is to apply these guidelines in class and tell your students to come to office hours for questions that derail the lectures.

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My main tactic (mostly in the in-person context) is that after about the 3rd question from a given student within one lecture period, I start polling the rest of the class on whether I should spend time answering it right then or not.

Usually if I get 3 or more "yes" responses then I go ahead and do it; otherwise I say, "we can cycle on that after class". Among other things, I look at this as an honest attempt to gauge how the rest of the class wants to use our available time together.

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    if the response to a "is this relevant for everyone?" is "no", it is also provides a pretext to explain to the student: "I like that you ask so many questions and would like others to take you as an example there, but I also want to make sure that everyone else benefits from the lecture as well so let us discuss this after class".
    – Felix B.
    Jan 18 at 8:44
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Perhaps you can provide a separate channel for questions, even email or a chat app.

In face to face teaching a student will normally raise their hand to get your attention and you can ignore it at the moment if you need to continue. Hopefully you discourage shouting out then.

A separate channel that you watch lets you do the same thing. It even gives you a written (depending on the medium) list of student questions that you can answer when you like, during the lecture, or afterwards using the separate channel. Zoom, I think, has such a feature, but running another application on the side is usually possible in online teaching.

The student can then "ask" whenever they like and you can answer whenever it is appropriate without interruption.

In a somewhat different context I generally used a simple mailing list to which all students and course staff were subscribed. All questions to the list and all answers were seen by all. I found this advantageous over office hours since some questions from one student are actually unasked questions by others.

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    Piazza is great for dealing with questions offline, outside of the lecture, especially for the fact that it lets students answer each other's questions. And Zoom's chat feature can be helpful during a live lecture. But I don't think these are substitutes for letting students speak up to ask anything they like during the lecture. Jan 15 at 20:47
  • Similarly, Slack is a great way to provide constructive responses asynchronously when "live" lecture time is short. Setting expectations from the outset is key, e.g., "I have 40 minutes of material to present, leaving 20 minutes for questions. I'll try to give everyone a chance to get one question in. Any questions we can't cover today we'll handle via Slack" Jan 18 at 3:08
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I'm not a teacher, so this could be way off mark, but - I think that other students will have noticed this guy too and be moderately annoyed at him. I think it's safe for you to single him out and give him special rules, without having the rest of the class worry if they're next. Just make it clear that you've been patient with him for a long while now, but even you have some limits.

As for the special rule, I think a "cooldown" would be effective and not very harsh. Basically, after he asks a question, he needs to wait for at least 5 minutes before asking another. Or maybe you give him 2 or 3 questions, and after he's out, then he needs to wait.

In addition you could make it clear that he can write them all down and you'll answer them after the lesson in private.

Having the questions rationed like that will make him think twice about what is really important to ask. Making him write them down will help notice the repetitive ones.

Or maybe he's just too lazy to bother, in which case nothing will help him anyway and the cooldown will just keep the rest of the group running smoothly.

Or, as suggested in another answer, he might have some sort of mental disability - it's probably worth checking that out too, before taking any other action.

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    Yes, if a student is asking so many questions as to be disruptive, other students will definitely notice, they'll be annoyed at the instructor for not controlling the classroom, and they will definitely complain on their course evals. I speak from experience! Jan 17 at 14:34
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I agree with the other comments that you shouldn't let one student ruin it/change everything for the whole group (and for you), I suggest talking to them privately and not having to change your class routine too much to accommodate this student. You can always try changing the rules up a bit and be honest to the class and say you want to try changing the question time/rules etc for one day and see how it goes. Have you looked into their file/school history? I have an autistic student that has similar behaviours online so I chatted with them and they are working on it.

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This is a Zoom-specific answer, so I apologize if it isn't applicable.

In this case, I would disallow use of the chat function (or tell students they can use it to ask each other questions, but you can't keep up monitoring it), and instead have students raise their hand or use the question feature. I like the raising hands feature because it keeps hands in the order they were raised. You can always put off calling on raised hands, just like in-person.

I think the question feature is restricted to webinars, which is a bummer, but it allows others to vote on questions so you can see which questions a lot of people have.

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I had a class that had a similar-ish problem. People were asking questions that were already answered during this or a previous lecture or were just trivial. This lecture was streamed on twitch and most of the time trivial questions were just answered by fellow students but if a question was deemed interesting or new then they were forwarded to the Prof.

So I'd advise the students to use the chat function more often, so that other students could answer the question and if that does not result in a satisfying answer then you should answer the question.

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Apart from the other good answers: are you 100% sure the other students know the answers? Flip back the question to the class. So ask either the whole class that question, or ask specific persons like row by row (since the top 20% of your class probably will know everything which is asked).

Also, announce that new format, to avoid people feeling punished.

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Here's what I would do in this situation.

At the start of your next lecture, announce a new rule. Each student is allowed to ask up to three questions per lecture; and if they have any more questions than that, they should ask them in your office hours (or by email, or the class discussion forum, or however else you prefer).

That way, you're not singling anyone out - everyone has to follow the same rules. You're also allowing the student to ask decent questions if he/she has any. But most importantly, you're putting a lid on him/her hijacking the class.

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  • The set limit for the number of questions can vary depending on a number of factors. Other than that, I see this as a win-win solution. Jan 18 at 4:38
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You are a lecturer. Not an analog copy machine. Make your script / lecture material publicly available and give students reading assignments for the content of the upcoming lecture beforehand. This way you can make sure that even if you can't go through all of your material, everyone is on the same page. In any way: Thinking that presenting your material to the students is enough to teach them something is unrealistic. Students have to reread and study the material many times over. Don't constrain questions and interactivity in your lecture as this is more important to the learning process of your students than the pure act of them writing it down (analog copying) or hearing it from you first.

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Maybe there are no silly questions, but there are plenty of thoughtless ones! I'm certain your student could answer 90% of those questions with 5 seconds of thought.

Remember, the primary goal of higher ed is to teach people to learn and to think -- not to spoon-feed them with easy answers & facts.

You're actively doing students a disservice by answering thoughtless question. You should not answer those as it deprives the student of the mental exercise and habit of answering it for themselves.

You can explain this to the class. Even though you won't name names, everybody will know exactly who and what you're talking about.

When you get those questions, you can just say "thoughtless" or "think about that 2 secs" (depends on your style, but always exactly the same words) and move on without skipping a beat. If they insist, remind them you keep office hours, move on. You can periodically ask the class for feedback to see if you're being too stringent with your thoughtlessness threshold. I guarantee the class is majorly annoyed and will only be too happy to cooperate with your program.

I remember a guy at school who was exactly the type the OP describes. Teacher didn't control him and I hated that class. My friends wanted to grab him in the parking lot! I ran across him many years later. Still interrupts and asks unthinking questions. Hasn't yet figured out that he's not listening when he's talking.

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    Definitely DO NOT DO THIS unless you're tenured and don't care about your course evals! Students will crucify you if start labeling questions as thoughtless or ridicule them by asking they "think about it 2 secs". Jan 17 at 22:20
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    I agree with the Nicole Hamilton's comment for the most part. I would rather say "DO NOT DO THIS" (because students may feel belittled with this approach; not because students will give bad evaluation for your course). Jan 18 at 4:36
  • @CyriacAntony I agree with that. I pay attention to my evals because I care about my students being happy with my performance. I want to know that I was accessible, answered all questions and did it well, and that I always treated students with respect. As a former entrepreneur, I come to teaching with the attitude that my students are my customers and "the customer is always right". (Well, maybe not always, but you get the idea.) If they complain about anything, I want to fix it if I can because that's what they deserve. Jan 18 at 16:13
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    As a student who constantly had their class disrupted by thoughtless questions, I gave my instructor a bad eval for letting that nonsense continue. I would have given him a medal for shutting down that rogue student, as would have my classmates.
    – MilesK
    Jan 18 at 23:07

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