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I am planning to apply for Ph.D programs in mathematics in U.S. and I am thinking about which professors I should ask for letters of recommendations from. In order to get "strong" letters, I need to determine which professors believe I am really strong.

Although I do well in most of my classes (I am always trying to get full marks on my homework and tests), I do have a "bad" habit of asking stupid questions frequently. I can see from the faces of professors that they dislike students who always ask stupid questions, while welcoming students to ask questions. (If you are a professor and don't think this is the case, please let me know...I really appreciate it.) I feel like professors prefer the questions that will make them have a better understanding about the subject instead of the questions that they will waste their time on.

What do professors think of a student who has good grades but always asks stupid questions? Should I expect good letters from them? Or I should go to the professors whom I seldom ask questions (but still do well in their classes)?

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    "There is no stupid question but stupid answer"... this dear Einstein. What do you think is a stupid question ? – Gautier C Jun 7 '16 at 12:45
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    @GautierC I define a stupid question to be a question which is so easy that a professor believes that a student should think of it by himself instead of asking it. – No One Jun 7 '16 at 12:47
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    Human relations are as much important as notation is some cases, especially for recommandation letter. Anyway, why do you not try to ask him what he thinks about you ? It's not like it is impossible to speak with this teacher, right ? – Gautier C Jun 7 '16 at 12:59
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    If there are students like that, I would certainly start questioning my assessment techniques. If a student clearly demonstrates a complete lack of understanding when asking a question and still does well in my exams, then there is a problem with my exams. – Burak Ulgut Jun 7 '16 at 13:01
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    @BurakUlgut I don't think that is always the case. In most times, a student who ask stupid questions still does better than most of the students in your class. Because at least this student dare to ask and is able to ask. If a student can't digest at least half of the materials covered in your class, he may not ask any questions. – No One Jun 7 '16 at 13:06
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Students often have a highly distorted perception of themselves with respect to the feelings of their professors. The differential in both power and experience between student and professor is just so large that it's quite common for a student to confuse the very distinct attributes of professorial attitude, personal affection, and intellectual respect.

As such, I would suggest that you really don't know what your professors think of you until you ask them. Maybe you are reading them correctly, but maybe not: many professors are quite pleased to have a student who carefully advocates to improve their understanding of material, even if they might wish to be getting on with the lecture in the moment.

My recommendation is to tell the professor you're thinking of applying to Ph.D. programs and ask them something like:

Do you think that you would be able to write a strong letter of recommendation for me?

The "strong" is important here, because that's what will get you the honest opinion of whether the professor thinks well of you or not, and you don't want letters that are not strong.

  • Oh ...I have just posted the question in yellow on this community~~~but in a more sensitive way... – No One Jun 7 '16 at 13:35
  • @TiWen I'll put a linked answer there. – jakebeal Jun 7 '16 at 13:37
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Although I do well in most of my classes, I do have a "bad" habit of asking stupid questions frequently. I can see from the faces of professors that they dislike students who always ask stupid questions while welcome students to ask questions. (If you are a professor and don't think this is the case, please let me know...)

I don't think you've provided enough context to really say for sure whether or not your questions would be annoying.

Here's what I'd need to know: Does the professor (or the syllabus) say that you should read from the textbook before you come to class? If so, do you read the book as assigned?

If you constantly interrupted me with a barrage of questions that indicated you hadn't done the assigned reading, then my face might also show some of the consternation that you claim you see.

How do professors think of a student who has good grades but always asks stupid questions?

Generally speaking, I like it when students ask questions. It shows me they are engaged. It shows me they are interested in learning the material. It helps provide feedback when I haven't explained something clearly. Quite often, the one student who is brave enough to speak up is asking for help that other students probably need and appreciate.

That said, though, there are times where there can be too much of a good thing. If one student's questions are so frequent and incessant that it becomes distracting for everyone, that might be viewed negatively. But that's perhaps more of a timing issue than a "stupid question" issue.

  • None of my professors write in syllabuses that students should read from the textbook before they come to class(we may be required to read the book after class). – No One Jun 7 '16 at 21:44
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    Ti Wen, your professors may omit the point that students should read before coming to class because they consider it painfully and completely obvious. :) – paul garrett Jun 7 '16 at 23:03
  • Don't forget off-topic questions. I suppose these are less likely in math but I remember in economics classes that dealt with things that were remotely political there'd be one person that wanted to turn the class into a debate on the topic du jour – Dean MacGregor Jun 8 '16 at 13:04
  • J.R.: regarding your last two paragraphs, and also @Dean MacGregor's comment, the following was written by a student in my linear algebra class: "The instructor was very kind and patient with students who spoke out of turn and reacted heroically to questions that were asked which I found to be far off topic and confusing". – Martin Argerami Jun 9 '16 at 5:22
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While jakebeal's answer is good for what you should do, I'll expound on your titular question:

How do professors think of a student who has good grades but always asks stupid questions?

First, there are a couple of things you could mean here by "always": you're incessantly asking stupid questions or all (or most) of your questions seem stupid to you in retrospect. J.R.'s answer addresses the first, so I'll ignore that aspect except to say you can always ask your professor outside of class if you are asking too many questions during class.

Second, I ask "stupid questions" all the time also, though I don't vocalize most of them, just some of them. I think this is normal for researchers, and it's especially common when you're thinking about something for the first time, or thinking about something in a new way, and trying to understand something in a short amount of time, such as a class meeting. So just because a question has an easy answer, doesn't mean it's sounds stupid to a teacher. It may or may not, so as the other answers say, you may not be able to accurately judge a professor's opinion of your questions without explicit feedback.

However, if these questions are coming long after you should have learned the material (e.g., asking something that's obvious from high school algebra in an advanced math class, or only now asking something that was crucial for understanding what's been going on in the class for the past 10 weeks), then probably the professor will think you don't understand the material as well as you should.

Finally, I get lots of students in math classes who ask lots of questions that make me think they don't understand what's going on very well at all, but then surprise me by doing great on the assignments and exams. This sort of thing seems to be what you're concerned about (though may in fact not be the case). Without knowing anything more specific, generally my impression is they're good students, though probably they didn't have a strong background coming in and/or they're not exceedingly quick. By not quick, I don't mean they're not smart or that they wouldn't do well in grad school--you can be quick and smart or slow and smart. While thinking quickly can be impressive, I view thinking deeply as more important.

I would generally be able to write a good letter of recommendation for such a person, though I would probably be writing different things from "Ti has one of the fastest minds I've ever known."

  • I think this is a good answer, although any student reading this answer should know that faculty will vary. I am someone who didn't have a strong background and typically asked a lot of questions in class. I once had a faculty member become upset with me for asking too many questions. I then went and asked each of my other professors (current and past) how they felt about my questions. Other professors said that they liked my questions, and a few noted that I was one of their favorite students because of my questions. – Dawn Apr 30 '17 at 14:28
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First, even if your questions annoy your prof intensely, you may still get a good letter. And conversely even if your questions demonstrate your commitment to learning and are actually welcomed, you may not get a good letter. So the only way to know is to ask,

Do you think you can recommend me strongly for [whatever] in a letter?

And if they say no, don't push them because they are telling you it wouldn't be a positive letter.

Now let's tackle those questions. There are so many reasons why I might make a small face when a student asks a question. Imagine we're doing non-university level material and I say "there are five vowel letters in English: A, E, I, O, and U." Up pops your hand and you ask:

  • isn't that 4? No, it's not 4, you've interrupted me for no reason. It's 5, right? Now where were we?
  • What about A? I said A, that was the first one. Oh, sorry, wasn't listening
  • What's a vowel? Either that's what this whole lecture is about or it's in the material I asked you to read before class, or I just covered that on the three previous slides but you were zoned out, or in some other way, a person who doesn't know what a vowel is shouldn't be trying to find out by interrupting a list of them to ask
  • In [some other language] there are 7! Fascinating, but not interruption-worthy. Thanks for sharing.
  • What about Y? I was just breathing in to explain Y, it's a little more complicated. On this one my annoyance is just that you've broken my rhythm, it's actually a fine question and leads to my next point, so I need to relax and keep going

Think about the questions you tend to ask. Are they the first kind, where you are correcting or contradicting the prof, pointing out an error, when there is no error, you made a mistake? Try not to do that. Are they overly broad, or do they show that you came to class unprepared? Try not to do that. Are you just randomly sharing your thoughts in the middle of someone else's sentence? That's not a question. Do that only in discussion parts of class. But do keep in mind, there are questions that irritate me that don't make me feel less about you or not recommend you. They are just a little annoying.

But if your question is none of these, it's you genuinely seeking clarification on something you just heard and don't understand, then you're probably doing fine. You can always approach the prof after class and ask if your questions are ok. That will clear things up for you, I'm sure.

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    "Are you only counting letters as vowels for some reason?" – The Nate Jun 8 '16 at 4:17
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I find that if a student is brave enough to ask a question, there will likely be at least one other student that has the same query but lacks the confidence to ask. Also, I am not perfect, sometimes I may assume some prior knowledge that not all students have. In these instances, I always welcome questions.

If I am at a part of the lecture where I feel a question will be distracting, I simply acknowledge the raised hand and make it clear I will come back to it (I make sure I do come back to it).

The only times I would ever find questions irritating would be if the student had missed a previous session and failed to catch up (my notes are always posted on the VLE so there is never any excuse for this) or if they regularly failed to complete their prescribed reading. I would hope that a student would deal with any queries arising from their preparation before they turned up for class but there are always some who will leave it until the last minute!

If asked to provide a letter of recommendation, I consider academic performance, potential, attendance and punctuality, in that order. These are all things that a student can control. I would never base a reference on a student's personality. That would be unfair.

Incidentally, I asked tons of questions as an undergraduate and one of my lecturers gave me a job!

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    You are right! There's a saying A sensible question is half knowledge. – Sadiq Jun 8 '16 at 7:31
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Speaking as a professor, the problem may not be "stupid" questions but rather "too many" questions. When a student interrupts the flow of a lecture, it can be annoying, but when it is the same student that interrupts the flow on a frequent basis, the dismay you recognize is not because the question is stupid but rather that others do not appreciate the frequent interruptions.

So yes, ask frankly if a strong letter would be proffered.

And, perhaps, take some of your questions to office hours.

another old cranky lecturer

  • Agreed. I had a student like this who was always derailing the lectures but was very good. If he had asked me for a letter I would probably have said "I would rather not write you a letter, but if you can't find anyone else, let me know." Of course, I would not have written anything negative if I did end up having to write one. – Flounderer Jun 9 '16 at 0:30
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It is simple. Tell the professor you're thinking of applying to Ph.D and ask his opinion. If he suggesting Yes, you can go for and ask.

  • Welcome to SE! This is the beginning of a good answer, but you could elaborate a lot more, especially since you don't address the core question the OP is asking. Just asking the Prof may be good advice, but it is so general as to be unhelpful in this specific circumstance. It is rather like someone asking "How do I drive on ice?" and you answer "Very carefully. Be sure not to have accidents." Try expanding this answer to meet the specific question that is being asked, and this will likely get and upvote. – The Pompitous of Love Jun 8 '16 at 3:22
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Stupid questions exist. There is the occasional student who often asks those. Do not be that student!

Fortunately, most questions are not stupid. For most questions, a significant, silent fraction of the class appreciates that the question is asked. (How do I know? Several ways. For instance, when a question requires a long answer, before answering, I will sometimes gauge interest by inviting all interested students to show their hands. More often than not, several students will want the answer.)

Also, if the instructor is teaching the course in question for the first time, sometimes students who are not otherwise troublemakers ask questions merely to slow the lecture down, because the lecturer is inadvertently covering too much material too fast. Such questions represent valuable feedback.

Occasionally you get a student who just probably isn't smart enough to pass the course. If you politely invite that student to bring his or her questions to office, that student usually gets the hint and stops stalling the lecture with questions his or her classmates don't care about. The student may or may not then come to office, but that's for the student to decide.

The problem student is the student who asks questions because he or she likes attention. Every class of a certain size seems to have one or two of those. The classmates usually don't like that student, either.

All you can do with a student who asks questions because he or she likes attention is (a) call on other students first whenever possible, (b) give the troublemaker curt answers and smoothly move on with the lecture without inviting further discussion, or (c) in the final need, affect for a while not to see the student's raised hand. Unfortunately, most such students won't take the hint. Oh, well.

Fortunately, most questions asked are worth answering, or at least worth respectful deferral, in my experience. Moreover, depending on an instructor's lecturing style, good questions (which often arise) really help a lecture to move along. Some of the best questions come when the instructor has briefly glanced upon some point the instructor thinks is obvious but the students don't. The instructor needs to know that.

protected by ff524 Jun 8 '16 at 4:34

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