Often in lectures, my professors will ask rhetorical questions. Sometimes, their body language makes it look like they're waiting for a response, and they'll even look intensely at a specific student when asking as if they want that specific student to respond.

I don't want to stare at the professor with a blank stare (especially if they are looking at me), but I'm not sure what the professor wants us to do. Should we just nod/shake our heads, say verbally "yes" or "no", or do something else to show that we're engaged?

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    What makes you think the questions are rhetorical, rather than genuine tests of knowledge?
    – Bryan Krause
    May 4, 2022 at 14:03
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    @BryanKrause Usually, the professors ask, "<insert statement here>, right?" or other questions which very clearly seem to be rhetorical. If no one says anything for a few moments, they'll move on with the lecture as if nothing happened. If it was a test of knowledge, I'd expect them to wait for someone to answer or to re-ask the question rather than continuing the lecture.
    – 2br-2b
    May 4, 2022 at 14:06
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    On top of the comment by @BryanKrause , this is hugely dependent on the local culture. May 4, 2022 at 14:06
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    @MaartenBuis. Emphasizing. In some cultures a "thumbs up" is a good response. In others it is deeply insulting.
    – Buffy
    May 4, 2022 at 14:20
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    A rhetorical question is, by definition, one you are not expected to answer. So if you know it is a rhetorical question then that resolves the issue: don't answer, there is no need (and the professor would likely be caught off-guard if you did answer). The professor is probably looking at you when they speak because they want non-verbal feedback, your facial expression can reveal whether you are comfortable or confused with what they just said; perhaps they chose you in particular because you are subconsciously giving that feedback already.
    – kaya3
    May 5, 2022 at 11:24

10 Answers 10


Usually, the professors ask, ", right?" or other questions which very clearly seem to be rhetorical. If no one says anything for a few moments, they'll move on with the lecture as if nothing happened.

It's hard to judge without being there, but this sounds to me like the instructor is giving a pause to see if there are any questions on what they've just discussed before they move on.

From a US perspective, if they look right at you and you feel like you're following and understanding things well, feel free to nod, give a thumbs up, whatever feels to you like a comfortable response to affirm that you understand. This isn't to test or evaluate your knowledge, it's a self-evaluation to the instructor to gauge whether they're being clear, whether they're moving too fast, whether they need to restate or rephrase something they've said. As pointed out in the comments, the appropriate gesture can be culturally dependent; I think a head nod is pretty safe, but I can't say for certain. If you have a question, though, it would be a good time to ask it/indicate you have a question to ask by raising your hand or whatever signal is typical in your classroom.

If the professor looks at a specific individual (for example, you), I don't think they are necessarily intending to pick on that person specifically, but they may be looking for a representative response or maybe they noticed that person looked a bit puzzled earlier and they're just checking in. It's part of interacting with an audience that some people are more natural at than others.

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    Same thought at the same time. Sounds like my interpretation wasn't too far off then.
    – henning
    May 4, 2022 at 14:26
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    @henning Indeed, if the instructor wants to convey something different than what we've proposed, they probably should try a different approach. :)
    – Bryan Krause
    May 4, 2022 at 14:28
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    "Thumbs up" works fine in US. In Iraq and some other places, not so much (not at all).
    – Buffy
    May 4, 2022 at 14:42
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    @Buffy: And sometimes things that were OK only a few years ago should probably be avoided now. May 4, 2022 at 17:13
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    I don't thing the presence of "..., right?" confirms a rhetorical question; just images the phrase ".... So all problems are solved, right?" That may be just a check whether you followed the arguments (actually waiting for some protest).
    – U. Windl
    May 5, 2022 at 7:13

This is just me, but I would interpret the "rhetorical" question as an expression of the professor being unsure whether the students understood whatever the professor was explaining. The professor is looking for cues -- more or less consciously -- if the students are following. You could nod, simply ignore the question, or take it as a chance to ask for clarification. As a student, I would find this slightly irritating, and it's probably not the most methodical way to ascertain the level of comprehension. In any case, it's mostly a personal quirk to get used to.

  • "As a student, I would find this slightly irritating" engaging with the lecture/lecturer is part of the student's job - I'd be keen to hear a less irritating way to encourage them to engage. May 7, 2022 at 17:57
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    @DikranMarsupial you should post that as a question if it hasn't already been posted. In a lecture, there are fewer tools to actively engage the audience compared to a seminar, but there are several [1]. I'm not against questions as rhetorical device, but the students seems to be confused as to whether the question are rhetorical or not. So my first advice would be to ask actual questions that can't be answered by "yes" or "no" and to take time for responses. For "yes/no" or multiple choice questions, I would use a polling tool.
    – henning
    May 8, 2022 at 6:24
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    Thanks for the link. Thanks to COVID I now have my old lecture material pre-recorded, so the live lectures are now more seminar-like (I spend a lot of time programming in lectures now). Different cohorts of students can be very different, and some years one thing "works" and another year something else (so options helpful!). I think in this case it is not really a question, more that the lecturer is uncomfortable with the lack of student interaction. I think part of the problem is that the students don't necessarily know they need to bring something to the lecture for it to work well. May 8, 2022 at 6:30

If a professor wants a particular type of response to particular types of phrasings or non-verbal cues, that professor needs to communicate their expectations clearly.

In other words: it's not your job to figure out what the professor wants, it's their job to tell you what they want. So if you're not sure, choose any response that seems reasonable to you.

(I say this as a professor myself, by the way.)


Questions in lectures may also mean "Could you follow me?" or "Please ask if you hadn't this in other lectures so I can repeat the basics". Professors also need to know if they are going too slow or too fast fast, which isn't always obvious.

And depending on the lecture style, you may do the professor a favor by actually answering the question, because maybe he planned to get a short answer and then build up on that. Personally I always wonder why lecturers do ask questions when often nobody will answer, but most lecturers who do this seem not to have a problem continuing after they got silence instead of an answer.


It could also be the case that the professor reads from their own several year old lecture notes in which their younger self omitted the actual argument because they found it trivial at that time. Now they are insecure. So "<insert statement here>, right?" could also be some mixture of

  1. asking for help in the hope that someone (could be you) in the room sees the argument and explains it to everyone,

  2. gaining some time to think this over for themselves, and

  3. luring you into nodding so that they are relieved from the duty to provide the proof.

All camouflaged as a witty didactical trick. (This is not necessarily not too bad, because it has the chance to activate the audience.)

Not to mention that distinct frowning (effectively returning the ball to them) may be an as legitimate answer as nodding.

Really, professors are not always as well prepared as you might think. For many professors teaching makes up only a comparatatively small piece of their duties.


If the body language of a professor suggests that they are waiting for a response, and if they are staring intensely at a specific student, that would suggest that perhaps the question is not intended as exclusively rhetorical, so perhaps you are misdiagnosing the nature of the question. A simple response would be to answer the question.

  • I'd agree, but if the student doesn't respond, the professor will usually move on. That seems to imply that they weren't waiting for an answer but only asking the question rhetorically.
    – 2br-2b
    May 6, 2022 at 7:08

If the professor is truly asking a rhetorical question, the only reasonable answer would be: "Yes! Isn't hat what you wanted to hear?"

But maybe the professor is just asking politely: "Are you still awake (with me)?"


It is awkward for both parties if the professor is waiting for an answer and you are hesitating. It may be relieving for you both if you simply respond, perhaps with a counter-question: "Is that a question? No, I don't think so," ideally with a brief rationale for why that's your answer.

If they meant to ask, you have responded appropriately and defused the situation; if they didn't, they will probably stop doing that maneuver once they understand that some students find it confusing.

Among the professors I've had, the vast majority would prefer a student who spoke up and interacted with them over a silent one every time.


Be a respectful adult. The next time you aren't sure how to respond, clearly ask "Is that a question? Is that directed at me?" Use your hands to gain control of the conversation, create a brief exchange to establish explicitly the expectation. In a lighthearted manner with a coyish smile, nod enthusiastically at whatever his response is.

The prof probably is on some level of autopilot and doesn't realize he's spreading anxiety, he's likely just looking for some acknowledgement you aren't sleeping with your eyes open and will almost certainly correct this behavior, which again he's likely unaware of... Turning the tables on him by putting him on the spot unexpectedly will wake him up quick and you can be sure he will be more careful and explicitly direct in the future.

Caution, you'll be creating more conversation in that room forever moving forward, but that's a good thing in theory.


Usually, rhetorical questions don't have to be answered. Even my family told me that. When professors ask a rhetorical question - the best that you can do is just nod or smirk (friendly ofc), or agree or disagree. When you're trying to answer on rhetorical question - most often the reaction is rather negative or sarcastic.

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