113

I'm an undergrad and I tend to learn better when I understand the concepts behind things instead of rote repetition. As a result of this, I often have questions.

There are times when I don't understand concepts, so I'll ask questions. If after a line of questioning, I still don't understand something, I'll just concede and say, "Oh wow! I totally get it now! Thanks!"

I do this because I:

  • want to avoid wasting class time
  • don't want the lecturer to feel like maybe they've done a poor job of explaining when perhaps I'm just not grokking an underlying principle.
  • don't want to other students to think, "Wow, what's her deal? She is not getting this, is she?"

However, this prevents me from learning. Because of my second bullet, even when I ask a professor in a one-on-one scenario and am just not understanding, I still do this "I totally get it! K thx bai!"

I feel like if I just say, "I don't get it," and ask the same thing over again, it gets circular and we don't get anywhere and I'm worried I'll frustrate my professor.

Is there a better way to handle this or is this a sign that I need to seek an additional resource for learning (ie. a different textbook, Khan Academy, etc...)? I read my book thoroughly and use alternative resources, but am hoping I can figure out:

  • Is "giving up" in order to exit a continuous loop on non-understanding fair to me? The professor will clearly think I'm fine and that I've moved on from it.
  • Is it fair to the professor who may potentially learn from it as well? For example, other students may be making similar mistakes built on a false premise the professor could easily clear up.
  • I've potentially robbed myself of a learning opportunity if there is a better way to exit the conversation. What better strategies could I use?

Perhaps if I admitted (somehow) that I'm not understanding something, the professor might say, "You know who might explain it differently! Dr. ____" or "a really great resource is ___."

But I don't know how to get to that point. I don't want to just say, "Yeah, I'm not getting it, so what now?" I feel like that would be so incredibly rude!

Edit: I don't repeat a question continuously. I try to attack a problem from various angles, but sometimes I get in these situations where I feel the back and forth isn't working out or by listening to an answer, I learn a detail that confuses me more. In this case, I can say, "Wait, so why are you using A to compute B, when earlier we used C to compute B?" But in these cases, sometimes this leads to further backpedaling and confusion.

  • 2
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Jan 25 '17 at 23:17
82

The situation is complicated so there is no simple answer. Over time you and your instructor(s) will have to work out a modus vivendi.

From my point of view as a teacher, I want you to try to continue to ask. I find more students hesitant than persistent - and it's the persistent ones who force me to be clear.

At the beginning of each semester and often again later I tell the class that any question that occurs to you has probably occurred to many of your classmates who are too shy to ask, so you will be doing yourself and them a favor by speaking up.

Students often start questions with "this is a dumb question" or "I have a short question". Often neither is true, so those are not good opening lines.

When a student seems to be in the loop you describe in your question and I sense that I am not quite helping him or her or the whole class I may say that continuing to struggle with it right now on class time isn't useful. I might cut the discussion short with "Please see me after class and we'll work this out" or "Can you come to my office hours?"

So final advice: keep asking while answers are useful, be prepared to continue the discussion one on one if necessary. Hope your instructor cooperates.

  • 8
    (+1) Students often start questions with "this is a dumb question" or "I have a short question". Often neither is true, so those are not good opening lines. There are not dumb questions – Matias Andina Jan 22 '17 at 15:47
  • 18
    @MatiasAndina: I disagree. There are "dumb" questions. These are often the important ones. – tomasz Jan 22 '17 at 20:23
  • 62
    @MatiasAndina I invite you to spend more time on Stack Exchange (or really just the internet). I can assure you, there are dumb questions. Questions so dumb that they make you less intelligent just by reading them. And, contrary to what tomasz said, these are not usually the important ones: They just show lack of effort. However, in my experience as a teacher, questions prefixed by “this is probably a dumb question” are in fact rarely dumb. – Konrad Rudolph Jan 23 '17 at 13:50
  • 15
    "(...) any question that occurs to you has probably occurred to many of your classmates who are too shy to ask, so you will be doing yourself and them a favor by speaking up." @mas You will also find students that will give you "the stare of death" or whine about how your questions are making the lecture boring. This is because they are usually not interested in the material, and just want the time to fly by with as least teacher-student interaction as possible. Ignore them. – walen Jan 24 '17 at 8:36
  • 4
    I scanned but didn't thoroughly read all the other responses, but I didn't see a point I think may be useful: What I often do in this situation is start trying to state what I think I do understand and talk through where I think that leads, so the person who understands can help me find the place where my thinking is incomplete. Me: "Ok, so if A and B, then C, therefore Y..." Prof: "Oh! Why do you say Y?" Me: "Because... oh!" – Dronz Jan 24 '17 at 21:50
61

I don't want the lecturer to feel like maybe they've done a poor job of explaining when perhaps I'm just not grokking an underlying principle.

If you're not grokking an underlying principle, the lecturer has done a poor job of explaining.*

;)

More importantly, though:

Never lie about your level of understanding.

Ever.

If you don't understand, say so. Even if you just say, "I'm still missing something, but I don't want to hold up the class. I'll have to work this out later."

It's up to the lecturer what to do about that—perhaps they'll keep trying to explain—but you've made it easy for them to say, "Okay," and continue, without getting a false idea of the clarity of their explanation.


As an aside: This whole situation illustrates the precise problem with teaching a whole group at once. Self-paced, supervised study, given a proper text (or videos/other materials) and a study supervisor who knows his/her business, is much more effective because the slow students can take the time they need to fully understand, the fast students can whiz through, and the middling students can middle along.


*Don't take this as a blanket statement. Use some judgment. If the lecture is aimed at graduate mathematics students and you never grokked exponents, yes, you are the one at fault. But my first statement is more true than it is false.

  • 36
    I'm afraid I still don't like "If you're not grokking an underlying principle, the lecturer has done a poor job of explaining." even after it was leavened with an asterisk and an emoticon. Actually your footnote makes it a little worse: you seem to assume that if a lecturer does not successfully convey a concept to a student than one of them must have done something suboptimal. I think there is a third option: the concept is rich enough so that it takes time and reflection to understand. I don't think this is the exception: rather, academia is the discovery and cultivation of such things. – Pete L. Clark Jan 22 '17 at 22:15
  • 6
    @PeteL.Clark, I don't even disagree; I like your third option. We can further limit my original statement quite a bit: If the student has successfully mastered the obvious implicit preliminary material for the class, and has understood the specifically mentioned prerequisite knowledge for this specific lecture, and if the student is confused during the lecture about a new idea presented (rather than the acceptable situation of simply not immediately noticing all ramifications and implications of a particular new idea), then the lecturer hasn't sufficiently covered and explained that idea. – Wildcard Jan 23 '17 at 5:38
  • 4
    If you don't understand an underlying concept, it's also possible that the course prerequisite knowledge is not defined accurately and that it's too early for you to take this particular course. – gerrit Jan 23 '17 at 13:36
  • 2
    @PeteL.Clark: Actually, how do you know that the students have the prerequisite mathematical foundations needed to understand your lecture? If they do and have no problems with majority of their other graduate-level classes, then you may need to consider the possibility that the way you teach is not effectively conveying what you know. I've seen a couple of lecturers teaching graduate level classes who clearly know their stuff but equally clearly cannot convey it to students who don't already know it. If you know 1 or 2 students who understood you very well, maybe ask them what they think? – user21820 Jan 24 '17 at 15:43
  • 4
    @PeteL.Clark: There's also a natural tendency to explain things in a way that we understand best, but that tends to be rather different from the way it is understood best by beginners. Especially when we can easily grasp abstract generalizations and they seem far cleaner than working with concrete instances. Mathematically it's far less satisfying to do the latter, but pedagogically it may work better unless students already have the capacity for the level of abstractness necessary. In my opinion. =) – user21820 Jan 24 '17 at 15:52
29

My impression is that you see only two ways to react to asking a question and not "getting" the answer: (a) give up, or (b) repeat the exact same question once again (you talk about "asking the same thing over again").

You are right:

I don't want to just say, "Yeah, I'm not getting it, so what now?" I feel like that would be so incredibly rude!

That would indeed be fairly rude (and ineffectual), as it would put the onus on "making you understand" squarely on the shoulders of the teacher, with no sign of you yourself trying to work it out. This seems akin to the stereotype western tourist who just keeps saying the same thing louder and louder if the natives don't understand his language.

I feel a better strategy to work out what somebody you don't "get" is talking about (in pretty much any context) is to ask again, but by rephrasing what you are asking. Of course this should go beyond just using slightly different words to ask the exact same thing. Instead, try to:

  • be more specific in what you are asking. "I don't understand, explain again" is very vague, but asking how we got from step A to step B in this proof might be more helpful.
  • build upon what your teacher was just explaining. "So you say that A is usually equal to B, but I still don't understand how this allows us to infer C."
  • explain detailedly what about the current explanation is throwing you off, and ask where you are going wrong. "I understand that under the assumption that A is equal to B, we can infer C - but why would A and B be equal?"

As a last resort, you can always ask if there are other resources that you can study to on your own. In this way, you don't need to "pretend" to have understood, and it still allows the class to move on.

  • 3
    I fear I have misworded my question to paint a situation where I repeat, "Why is the sky blue?", "I don't get it, why is the sky blue?" That isn't the case. But I love your answer as a great question asking strategy and love your comparison to the western tourist which gave me a laugh! The resources part of your question, the "last resort" may prove to be very helpful. It would show the professor I don't understand while giving me an "out" on the conversation and perhaps an additional learning tool. I'll have to think of polite ways to phrase this. Thank you! – mas Jan 22 '17 at 9:38
  • Of course I've also noticed occasionally that sometimes in order for me to grok the material I actually have to reason it out out loud. Something like, "I still don't understand: If X and Y then Z, but not P and Q? That doesn't make sense, unless R, S, and T -ohhhhh! I see now!" – Wayne Werner Jan 25 '17 at 16:40
  • 1
    @WayneWerner that reminds me of rubber duck debugging technique. – Ruslan Jan 25 '17 at 19:45
  • 1
    @Ruslan I LOVE rubber duck debugging. It's how I learn! – mas Jan 30 '17 at 21:37
11

If you get to the point where it's not productive, you can say, "Thanks," as has been suggested. If the instructor asks you if you've gotten it, you can say something like, "No, but I maybe it just needs time to sink in."

If it's a small class and there is time to spare, try to get another student to rephrase your question or rephrase the explanation.

If you go to office hours, or speak with the instructor right after class, then take the time to explain carefully what's bothering you. Go through the issue step by step, starting with what you have understood, right through to the part you don't understand, or the part that has an apparent contradiction, or that doesn't make sense. Do not hesitate to ask for the marker or the chalk.

I think the most important thing, if you're unsure in judging whether you're over-participating in class, is to find at least one buddy in class, whose opinion you trust. You can ask for feedback outside class, and you can also ask this person to give you a signal when it's about to get uncomfortable.

The best way to set something like this up is to form a study group and get to know one or more of your classmates better.

  • 3
    My go-to phrase tended to be "I think I'll need to think this through" – Gerhard May 15 '17 at 12:24
8

The professor is the moderator of the course. Depending on individual lecturing styles, some of them may be quite happy to answer the questions. Keep in mind that if you don't fully understand something after paying attention, probably most of the class doesn't too, but doesn't ask because of shyness/lazyness.

If the questions diverge (i.e. become too advanced or irrelevant for the topic presented), I believe is the job of the lecturer to moderate this (e.g. saying that this is too advanced/will be discussed in a following lecture).

Never be afraid of your weaknesses. If you don't understand a concept due to missing underlying knowledge, you should try as best as possible to figure out what is missing and fix it as soon as possible. You should be supported by the teaching staff at your university, and, from my experience, they are usually happy to help if asked politely. What I would do in situations like this is to go to office hours or figure out a time when the professor is free (i.e. has no pressing matters that would make him loose patience). Also, something which helped me a lot is reiterating what I understood after I get the answer, to make sure I got it right.

Last but not least, ask for pointers to resources. Some things simply cannot be explained easily in a way someone would get an intuitive grasp of the matter. They simply require (more) practice/deeper thought. Don't be afraid to ask for pointers to different resources.

  • This. If you're asking too many questions and bogging things down, it's the lecturer's job to reign you in. Be honest. Try to learn. If you're stuck and not getting it because you're behind the class, office hours and outside work are required. If the class isn't getting it, they all need the answers and you are helping the lecturer. – The Nate Jan 23 '17 at 17:48
6

Does your professor hold office hours? If you're worried about taking up class time with questions but if you still don't get the material, maybe say "I still don't understand this, but I don't want to take up any more class time, so let's discuss this at your office hours."

3

Your feelings are normal, especially at the beginning of your studies.

Some background: The problem is that much, much stuff must be taught and while the understanding of fundamental concepts improved, it still is an enormous amount of material to understand. Given that it is much and the time constraints is sent, we have a high velocity of learning, meaning that the stuff rapidly advances.

Therefore your feeling that you do not understand something completely, you are right and your fellow students are none the wiser. During the first time you simply try to not fall back too far, accept that some concepts and conclusions are not fully understood and continue. This still works because your brain subconsciously and continously works to integrate the concepts. The longer the studies progress, the more you get light bulb moments and recognize that your brain has now a grasp of the concept you formerly not understood.

Now to your problem:
Because time is constrained, you cannot ask the tutor too many times (It also depends on the class size and how many questions other students are asking). I recommend at maximum two questions for one concept: The first one for something which you find most difficult to understand and the second, if necessary, to clear up a specific part of the question. If time allows it, asks for several concepts.

If you do not understand, make a note and continue with the tips I give later. Do not lie about your understanding, simply stop and say "Thanks".

Once the lesson is over, you have several possibilities:

  • Books and lectures. I must admit I preferred them instead of lessons because you have time to read and reread sections and if you compare some of them, you get a view from different angles. This is also the first thing to prepare your other possibilities; try to learn as much as possible and write down the questions you want to ask.

  • Many students are learning in groups and smart peers are often very willing to explain concepts other students have trouble to understand. You must come away from the fear that other students understand something which you don't. Especially unsettling is often the experience that other students have heard the same lesson and interpreted it in a cohesive way which is different from your own understanding.

  • Many professors and tutors offer private hours to clear up questions. Use them after preparing yourselves. Even if they do not have the time to clear it up completely, they can point you in the right direction.

  • Some subjects have exercise courses. Use them to train your understanding and ask for some difficulties you experienced with solving them.

You must be also aware that you need to get rid as fast as possible of the "school attitude". Nobody cares much for social standings which were important in school, many lessons given by teachers are oversimplified, misunderstood or just plain wrong and it teached bad habits. The two most egregious habits are parrotting the teachers view (to get good grades; a really original work can result in everything, from very good to very bad, so pupils are smart enough to minimize the risk factor) and hiding yourself to avoid being judged by teacher or peers (Please-please-do-not-select-me).

2

Is lying in order to exit a continuous loop on non-understanding fair to me? The professor will clearly think I'm fine and that I've moved on from it.

Lying is always wrong. Never, ever lie about anything. If you do not want to speak the truth, then say nothing; but do not lie. This is a hard and lifelong process, not just a decision, but working on this will help your development as a person.

Is it fair to the professor who may potentially learn from it as well? For example, other students may be making similar mistakes built on a false premise the professor could easily clear up.

Depends on whether the professor is open to the thought that he did something wrong. But if he is self-critical enough, then sure, you robbed him of an opportunity.

I've potentially robbed myself of a learning opportunity if there is a better way to exit the conversation. What better strategies could I use?

"Let's stop here. I still do not quite understand it. I will have to work on it at home and see if I can make sense of it. Thanks so much for trying to help me out with it, though!"

1

I suggest you to discuss this with a group of other students without any lecturer in sight.

Just bring up your questions like "Oh, this topic comes so hard to me... I feel like I'm always the least witty needing to ask such an amount of questions." or just say straight up after the lecture "Damn, I can't wrap my had that [..], I just backed out of the question to stop spending everyones time..."

You can target some fellow student (but speak loud enough so others hear) or just proclaim it.

I believe you will find some backing into other students confirming that they didn't understand it as well and some will probably confirm that your question was helpful to you. And someone else might even help you and explain that stuff from another angle.

Usually the students asking questions are the ones who follow and think along. I approximate that there are at least a third of all students that didn't understand the thing as well. Some students that fell partially asleep or just didn't follow might even get drawn back into the lecture thanks to your question.

If you get the confirmation that other students find your questions helpful - it will be all the confirmation you need, right? From there on you should feel free to ask anything because you will know that you are representing a lot of your peers. You might become something like the designed asker :)

Or, you might get confirmation that you were the only one who didn't understand a thing and will know that you need to put in more individual work. Either ways, try to confirm with other students - are your questions helpful or disturbing and you will know what to do from that.

protected by ff524 Jan 23 '17 at 0:25

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

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