During and after the talks and seminars in our dept. (~80 people, ~10 groups, ~40 postdocs+PhD+Master students), it is extremely rare to see postdocs or students asking questions. 90-95% of the questions are asked by senior people (mainly PIs or experienced permanent researchers).

This probably reflects an old culture of distance between the young and the senior, I believe it is a national (if not European) issue which is much less seen in the Anglo Saxon culture. Breaking this distance will surely increase the quality of our work globally.

The ambiance is generally relaxed in the entire lab, and nobody is blamed for stupid questions. Still, their silence is striking. And worse, it brings down the few (mainly international) students who sometime do ask questions: after a while they feel this "negative peer pressure" and stop asking.

We want to find a way out of it. One possibility under discussion is to force, right at the end of the talk, the first couple of questions from them. But it's not accepted yet. Do you think this could be a good idea?

Do you have suggestions about other strategies, both for the short (getting them to ask more questions) and long term (how can we remove this cultural barrier?)

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    I don't know - I have an "aggressive" discussion policy in my lab, where everyone argues, and discusses, minor points, bigger points, and, when the discussion is open (i.e. not topical), really everything goes. Debate is king. Consequence: my students/postdocs are often the first ones to ask and the ones to ask the most questions also in the large seminars, because they are not afraid of anything. And no, they do not ask nonsensical questions. You cannot really force other groups' people to ask away, but you can cultivate your own groups' attitude in the hope it infects the others. – Captain Emacs Jan 25 '17 at 21:03
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    My department has required weekly seminars for all new grad students. There's a rule that they inform everyone of the first week of the seminar: no one leaves until 5 questions minimum are asked. It works fairly well, and after a few weeks the stigma is gone. Plus, it usually helps if someone breaks the initial ice with a question -- someone like you? ;) – tonysdg Jan 25 '17 at 21:29
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    I'm looking forward to answers to this question. My experience, too, is that question asking breaks down in larger groups: at 20 or so, there is no problem, but at 80-100 there are few questions. On the peer pressure side, I've noticed that timing matters a lot: if you have a 1 hour seminar, there seems to be a lot of peer pressure to end questions at the 60:00 mark: I am in a very interdisciplinary group and people might feel that their question isn't worth everyone else's time. Encouraging speakers to leave time within the scheduled time at the end seems to produce more questions. – Bryan Krause Jan 25 '17 at 21:49
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    You say that you are interested in changing the culture. Are you sure other faculty agree? In my department, one of the faculty lamented the lack of graduate student questions. She does not realize that another faculty member had previously gone on a diatribe about students asking TOO many questions and "not knowing their place". – Dawn Jan 25 '17 at 22:43
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    Have you actually talked to the students why they don't ask questions? Maybe they are intimidated by the apparently large crowd, but maybe the talks are also just not interesting to the students. – xLeitix Jan 26 '17 at 8:20

11 Answers 11

During and after the talks and seminars in our dept. (~80 people, ~10 groups, ~40 postdocs+PhD+Master students), it is extremely rare to see postdocs or students asking questions. 90-95% of the questions are asked by senior people (mainly PIs or experienced permanent researchers).

My first thought is that this a large group -- maybe too large. In my department (mathematics, at a big US research university) if you count tenure track faculty plus postdocs plus graduate students you get about 100. For this group of 100 people we don't have one research seminar, we have 8-10 different seminars. (We do have a departmental colloquium, but not so often -- in part, I think, because the people who want to go to see talks already have plenty of talks to go to.) I am a number theorist, and I feel a very high degree of "mineness" about our number theory seminar: I spoke in it today, as I do once a semester. I gave a ridiculously long talk (90 minutes -- hey, that's what we're scheduled for) and most of the core audience stayed until the end. When I miss a single week of the seminar, people ask after my whereabouts and well-being. There are several other seminars in my department of interest to me, and I attend when I can -- but they're not mine in the same way. And by the way, I am a tenured, full professor who has spent 20 years cultivating a broad, shallow knowledge of many different areas of mathematics, but for almost half of my department's seminars I would be too lost to want to attend regularly and too lost to ask good questions. Math is indeed hard, but so are other academic fields: I am really skeptical that all 80 people are equally invested in any one talk.

I would suggest scheduling more and smaller seminars, both dividing by research area and also by seniority. Can a talk really be pitched equally at senior faculty and students? This seems very unlikely. In the talk I gave today, I decided to pitch part of it at the students much more honestly than I often do. So perhaps the first 15 minutes (of 90) were truly aimed at them. The rest was aimed at faculty (including postdocs) and indeed the largest number of questions came from the most senior person in the room. More or less we are expecting that to happen by collecting that audience. Students are still there and still getting things out of the talks -- for instance, one of my PhD students attends the number theory seminar as faithfully as I do. Only very rarely does she ask questions on the spot -- but we often discuss the talks afterwards. She is also active in organizing the Graduate Student Seminar in my department, in which faculty are allowed but not encouraged to attend and usually do not. In fact, I had a period of about one year where I often attended the Graduate Student Seminar, but I stopped going when I realized the extent to which my presence there was warping the proceedings in a negative way.

In fact, here is a parable from when I was a graduate student. One of our seminars, the Basic Notions Seminar, had once upon a time been the "Graduate Student Seminar." But it was the kind of graduate student seminar where the faculty would give talks -- nice talks, which other faculty members would attend. After a while the students realized they needed their own "Graduate Student Seminar." They gave it a name -- the Trivial Notions Seminar -- which made it clear and obvious that faculty were not wanted as speakers or audience members. Both seminars have coexisted for many years.

We want to find a way out of it. One possibility under discussion is to force, right at the end of the talk, the first couple of questions from them. But it's not accepted yet. Do you think this could be a good idea?

It could be a good idea, but I don't recommend it. There are probably many reasons why young people are not asking questions. As you made clear, young people who do have questions do not feel fully comfortable asking them. If you want to address the issue, then actually address the issue by creating an environment that makes them more comfortable. Forcing them to ask questions seems willfully dismissive of the reality that they are uncomfortable, which they probably actually are. As I said above, one of my students faithfully attends my seminar and rarely asks questions. If it were my choice, I suppose I would rather she ask more questions. But it obviously is not my choice: she is a thoroughly intelligent, competent, professional adult person, and one whom I know well enough to understand and respect why she behaves as she does.

Rather, I think that if you want students to ask questions, you need to actually create a seminar environment in which this is what they'll naturally do. I gave some suggestions for this above in terms of who is in the room. There are many other things you can do, if it is important to you. One big one is to get speakers for whom interacting with the young audience is something they want to do. When I teach graduate courses I get lots of interaction from the students, even though some are not so comfortable asking questions. How do I do this? By saturating the lecture itself with questions and interactions with the students. I will literally ask for students to complete my sentences. If I need to make a definition, I will say "Someone must know this" and ask a student to supply it. If the student gives the definition in exactly the form I want, I write it down quickly and we go on. Any discrepancy gets incorporated into the lecture on the spot (and is not necessarily bad or problematic: there are many different ways of saying the same thing, and what could be a better use of class time than showing a student that the thing they have in mind is actually the same as the thing I have in mind, or should be the same except for one technical point they have missed...) When I give a seminar talk, I still try a bit of this kind of didactic Q&A...but it depends on what the audience wants. Sometimes every single question will get snapped up by the people who know everything. Sometimes people will say nothing and not look me in the eye, trying to pretend they know the answer. Sometimes they will say nothing and look me in the eye, trying to get me to get on with things. In my home seminar, the senior people will play along with me if they clearly understand the game we're playing...but in part because they know I'm mostly pitching things at them.

One final idea: you can keep the seminars entirely as they are now -- again, please understand that the senior people are probably largely happy with them -- and add an additional component afterwards which is just for the junior people. Or talk to your junior colleagues, find out what they want and what environment would make them more interactive, and see if you can create that environment. But don't force the issue, and don't assume that everyone will feel the same way about it that you do.

I'm not sure if it's really possible to determine the cause just from your question, so I will give a few scenarios.

Maybe your seminars are boring. Senior people are only asking questions to be polite. Try to get better speakers.

Maybe senior people are being too pushy. Ask them to wait for junior people to ask questions at the end of the talk before they ask their own question.

Maybe senior people are asking dumb questions. I think this discourages question asking. It's hard to fix though.

A common strategy is to arrange a separate meeting between the students and the speaker. Often there is lunch.

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    +1 for separate meeting between the students and the speaker. My undergrad did this frequently for big speakers (they'd host a lunch for a select group of students), and my department often had speakers step in for a class or two. – tonysdg Jan 26 '17 at 1:22

If possible, have postdocs rotate as Master of Ceremony (MC). This way, they get to "break the ice" by having a bit of chat with the speaker for the introduction, and also it's usually less intimidating for students.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that postdocs volunteer as MCs, rather identify at the start of the term for which speaker or for which week they will be MCing. This way, they will understand their time will come, and they can ask for peer advice on how to properly "chair" a seminar.

  • Master of Ceremony, aka chair for the seminar. – user67075 Jan 26 '17 at 3:20
  • First of all, a seminar talk need not have much of a chair. If the speaker is internal, there may be no introduction needed or she may introduce herself. (I gave a talk in my local seminar today. I stood in front of the board, wrote the title, and said something like "I guess I'll start now. Thank you for coming. I want to talk about the Hasse Principle...") – Pete L. Clark Jan 26 '17 at 3:45
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    I also am not sure I understand the connection between a junior person introducing the speaker and eliciting questions from the audience members. In my local seminar, when there is an external speaker, after the first round of applause, I or some other faculty member will ask "Are there any questions for the speaker?" At which point it's up to the speaker and the audience members to interact as they choose. Does picking the right person to do this really help to get questions from junior people? – Pete L. Clark Jan 26 '17 at 3:48
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    FWIW: the convention at my local seminar is that an outside speaker is introduced by the person who has the closest connection with them: the one who invited them / is spending the day/week/whatever with them / collaborating with them, etc. This seems natural and organic. Moreover, I think it's pretty easy to introduce a speaker with whom you have such a relationship, and it could be awkward to introduce a speaker that you know nothing about. – Pete L. Clark Jan 26 '17 at 3:52
  • Yes you describe the most common way. I saw the suggestion I describe happened once to me (as a speaker). It was just they way they did thing there. I was introduced to the "chair" via email about a week ahead, had to supply him with bio elements etc, met the postdoc at the coffee/cookie before the talk, he did what he had to do, and somehow this is the seminar where students asked the largest number of questions. I think the students/postdocs felt more engaged by chairing seminars in turn. Turned out well: BTW less ackward than some conference talks. – user67075 Jan 26 '17 at 6:56

I struggle at asking questions myself and I do understand peer pressure concerns. There are valid "environmental" answer (like reduce size of seminars) but I'd like to suggest instead an approach dealing with students.

Question making is an important skill with windfalls on everything going on in the department. Go to your students during your weekly meeting with them, or in class or in a meeting scheduled for this purpose and tell them this. If they want to be research they have to ask questions and they have to try hard at it. It is not less important than studying for a test or working on their thesis or paper. It is a skill and it can be honed by practice. Questions shouldn't be forced++, but you can teach them good habits to end the seminars with worthy questions. And you can do so by assigning "seminars homeworks". Tell them that during next seminar they should jot down on paper things like:

  1. What is the main result presented? Or what are the key equations discussed?
  2. What was one or more thing that they felt they missed or couldn't fully understand during the talk?
  3. Write down at least three things you never heard before

This has many advantages : It puts them into active listening mode and helps focusing which is beneficial to them. They shouldn't fall in the trap that they can "look at the paper later", they can't because there is no times and the point of the seminars is precisely to avoid having to put lots of effort in understanding (and finding) a paper.

It makes them notice interesting spot/angles and stirs the question engine. Furthermore, questions are coming up in the safe space of their paper, they can ask them or not, and after a little while they will start asking them. Keep reminding them for a while, and things might get better. Let us know how it works in case.

I learned this from this page from a math professor giving suggestions on how to do research, very valuable research insights contained in here!

++ If the issue lies with the student being for some reason concerned with asking questions, as I implicitly assume in this answer, then forcing them is not the optimal solution. While it might provide motivation to some, I see a couple of downside:

  • If students cannot think of a question by the end of the seminar this might play into their concerns and might distract them from the content.
  • It might lead to forced/not useful questions, taking time from people who would like to ask one.

Personally, If I think I HAVE to ask a question (eg because the speaker is important to me/is in my specialty etc.) I freak out, stop thinking about content and start thinking about consequences instead, eventually freezing and feeling bad. Instead, I stick with the content, jot down and usually something interesting comes up that I'd like to ask. Surely I am panicking more than the average student, but many probably feel the same way to a lesser extent.

  • I think it's important to note that the policy proposed by the OP does not have to instill fear at all because not all students are required to ask a question. In a group of 40 postdocs and grad students just a few need to step up each week. If someone in that group as social anxiety, they need not be the one to do that. OP's proposal is not fixing fear with fear. – kindredChords Jan 26 '17 at 17:55
  • You are right, and my wording was too strong and oversimplifying the matter. Updated to express more clearly what I meant. – Three Diag Jan 27 '17 at 18:31

When the next speaker is related to your group's work, you could take the chance to encourage (in advance) the members of the group to ask questions. You would also need to encourage them to have a good look at the talk's abstract. Some members may be ideal for specific prompts ("If they don't mention X you could ask about it, they know a lot about it and it might help you")

You can ask something basic (not stupid, but something like "why did you use approach X?" even if you have a good idea it's because they didn't have the tools for anything else. This is epsecially true if you're chairing the session or introducing the speaker, when you should have a question or two ready to get things going.

If you're the speaker, relaxing into the questions may help. This may mean sitting down (though probably not with such a big group) or comiong out from behind the lectern, for example. But more importantly if you have a formal presenting style, soften your approach for the questions, and appreciate even the basic ones. Encourage everyone to chip in with more discussion on questions like "Have you thought about doing it like...?"/"How does this relate to problem ?"

  • I ran out of time while answering, but if the speaker is a friend (or you're the speaker and being introduced by a friend) you can team up on some of these approaches. – Chris H Jan 26 '17 at 19:16

Great question and I look forward to reading what others have to say about this.

Me too! A student's POV

I am in the same boat struggling with this issue, but I am on the other side of this boat... I am a PhD student who often feels like I'm shrinking myself so that I won't be "that guy." Even in my seminar style classes, the silence is deafening. It is so frustrating because this lack of intellectual curiosity is denying me the full academic experience I want. Sometimes I find myself actively turning down my excitement/curiosity, and in those moments I despair. I came here to pursue the life of the mind, not to stifle it!

With that said, I really appreciate this question (hopefully you're from my department)... Do not underestimate the insidious nature of this cultural trend (for lack of better words). After all, what can a graduate education offer if asking questions is the weird or awkward thing to do?

[Should we] force, right at the end of the talk, the first couple of questions from them[?] ...Do you think this could be a good idea?

Yes, I 100% think that it is reasonable to tell your graduate students that the first few questions have to come from them.

It's reasonable...

I know, I know, "but students get nervous." It doesn't matter. The policy the OP proposed does not place a burden on every student to ask a question every week. Instead, as a group, at least 2 or 3 students needs to kick off Q & A. All of the "risk" or burden involved is shared among the cohort of students. Thus, as my dad would say, no buts! It's time to embolden the students who are stifling their thoughts rather than cater to the students that never will engage.

It effectively eliminates significant hurdle...

A policy such as the one suggested by the OP is not only reasonable, but it would help eliminate the that guy problem. That is, it would un-silence the curious and thoughtful ideas of some of your students who are otherwise concerned with the social cost of being that guy.

This probably reflects an old culture of distance between the young and the senior

I'm in the US at an R1 institution and it happens here, so I am not convinced that the distance between the faculty and students can explain this. I think it has more to do with the way these students (my peers) were reared in the education system.

Beware of the excellent sheep!

There is a book by Bill Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep, that explores some of these ideas, and I highly recommend it for any academic. He argues that our education system (he focuses on elite education) manufactures smart and talented students who are excellent "at what they're doing but with no idea why they're doing it." In other words, students who lack intellectual curiosity. This is, IMO, the cause of the problem. Even if you had boring speakers or bad questions by PIs, the intellectually curious student could still find some joy in it, some curiosity in it worth asking a question about.

So how can we foster intellectual curiosity rather than excellent sheeping?

That goes beyond my current experience, I'm afraid... I am just doing my best not to let my light be dimmed by people who would rather get straight As than ask a good theoretically driven question. The fact that this question was asked is reassuring. I am glad that you and your colleagues are thinking about this issue. I bet there are many flamingos in your flock of sheep who are just waiting for the climate to change.

  • I have a lot of respect and sympathy for your situation. I am a bit alarmed by how you equate no questions asked by students in seminars with "lack of intellectual curiosity." As I said in my answer, I know many quiet students who are replete with intellectual curiosity...but that doesn't mean you're wrong; it just means that if you're right then your academic environment truly does seem stiflingly poor.... – Pete L. Clark Jan 26 '17 at 8:13
  • I respectfully disagree with the idea of forcing students to ask questions. "Thus, as my dad would say, no buts!" But I'm not my students' dad. To treat adults like adults seems important. "It's time to embolden the students who are stifling their thoughts rather than cater to the students that never will engage." I didn't quite catch all of that -- how do we know there are students who will never engage? -- but I don't understand why it has to be so unilateral: is it really the students who don't want to ask questions who are preventing the other students from asking questions? – Pete L. Clark Jan 26 '17 at 8:18
  • @PeteL.Clark Yes, treating students like adults is important, and I didn't mean to imply I look to be parented by anyone in my program... But, "is it really the students who don't want to ask questions who are preventing the other students from asking questions?" ...that is the crux of my post and the answer is yes. Unequivocally, yes (in my department). It creates a departmental culture and going against that has social consequences (or feels like it will). So if a policy can remove that hurdle, then why not do it? – kindredChords Jan 26 '17 at 17:48
  • I've taught and supervised graduate students for a while now. In my experience, intellectual curiosity can be kindled but not forced. And when you try to enforce professional proactivity you risk having the opposite effect. "It creates a departmental culture and going against that has social consequences (or feels like it will)." Please understand that I am sympathetic to your situation, but: you're not in a social club, you're receiving training for a highly challenging career. Isn't your investment in that high enough to override worries about what some of your classmates may think? – Pete L. Clark Jan 26 '17 at 18:02
  • That's an excellent point and a conversation I have with myself often. But I wish it didn't have to be. I wish I was with a cohort of students who wanted to stay later so we could continue interesting discussions. But, wishing aside, it is not reasonable to assume that my ambitions are enough to outweigh the social consequences. It's idealistic but not pragmatic, we are a social species. Still, I think asking a group of 40 ppl to have at least 2-3 questions come from them is not an unreasonable way of fostering the curiosity, it does not seem like forcing it. Respectfully, IMO. – kindredChords Jan 26 '17 at 18:11

It is hard to get the students to ask questions. When I was a student I remember I didn't ask questions at seminars because I rarely understood what the speaker talked about. I don't think it was the peer pressure, but my colleagues rarely asked questions themselves.

Later, when I became a postdoc, I realized my younger colleagues never asked me anything during small presentations I would give at group meetings. So, I decided to put them on the spot. In other words, test if they get the details. I would directly ask one of the students about a detail I had just covered and then ask the others to help if that student didn't follow for some reason. If none of them understood, I would go back and explain again. This transforms the talk into a discussion, but I was able to get their input and see where they were.

I'm not sure how this kind of approach would work on a large group of people. Singling out people might get them to avoid seminars. In one of my former departments, I've seen a different approach. The speaker would be asked to sign up for a special seminar in which they would communicate (as usual) their research results, then it would have a second part in which they would discuss details with the people who were directly interested. The faculty could encourage their students and postdocs to ask questions during that specialized part of the seminar. Addressing students directly would be feasible in such case, and if the faculty have the time and patience, it could work out. The condition is that the students/postdocs do research in the same field as the speaker and use similar methods.

I've also seen older faculty with teaching experience stopping the speaker during seminars and asking the questions a beginner student should have asked. I tried that approach myself at my current institution and the speaker told me to shut up.

Ice breakers; a professor or a person higher in hierarchy can ask a question that is obviously stupid; lowering the benchmark.

Short presentations; if it goes for too long, many tend to lose concentration. If you loose concentration, you cannot know if the thing you want answered was told. An ice breaker can be a question that was indeed answered in the presentation.

Same level audience; Master student and a post-doc has a huge difference in the skill level. You cannot really consider them peers. A master student level things are indeed something that a post-doc must know by heart.

Those are all for a short term, but Top-Down approach is here a must. Lower ones in hierarchy really cannot do and should not do anything about it. Ice breaker professors are a long-term thing. They need to be approachable and push the bar lower. It is the professors that decide what seminars are held, and how. The professors need to acknowledge this thing when designing a seminar. The seminar you explained was almost a certain failure; you cannot really put in on any specific culture. It involved so many people of different skill level. With that many person you need to talk really loud, which disregarding any culture does not really help at all. You need some confidence to even speak that loud, unprepared, in front of a hundred people.

I will give you two proposals. The first is based on an experience I had as a music student:

My teacher held several workshops per year. When you had a piece ready, she would schedule you to play it in the next workshop. At each workshop, 3 to 5 students performed. There were 12-15 students in the room, all sitting in an almost closed circle in a large faculty office. The way she ran the workshop, after someone performed, everyone had to make a comment. The rule was, you had to find something specific and positive to say, you couldn't just say something negative, even if it was constructive (e.g. "I'd like to hear more dynamic contrast in the development section"). We found that we got better at making positive comments with practice.

By learning these skills in a small setting first, it became easier to apply them in larger settings.

Based on that experience, here is my first proposal for your department:

If there isn't already a structure of various types of seminars in your department, create them. When I was studying computer science, there was a small student seminar for our area that met once a week. One faculty member was sort of an advisor to the group, but it was essentially student run. We met once a week unless there was a special event on the same day. Sometimes, a student would read a paper he was interested in, and give a short talk about it. (This is a generic "he." It was actually a mixed gender group.) Sometimes, a student would describe a project he had been involved in.

It was much easier to practice our question asking skills in this setting than in a big room with lots of professors present.

But a small student group like this probably isn't enough. Each professor who is interested in helping change the question culture in your department could do a handful of workshops each year, similar to what my teacher did in my music degree. The professor should set it up in a similar way, letting students know at the outset that after the presentation, everyone is encouraged to ask a question. The professor can give some pointers. If a particular student has difficulty with English or shyness or whatever, the professor can work things out individually with that student ahead of time, making an exception if necessary, or providing extra assistance with preparation, or allowing for index card submission of the question.

The second proposal is to invite the audience to submit index card and online submission of questions during department seminars. Anonymous submission should be permitted.

Let's roll back to our childhood. You will notice that the little guy will keep asking endless "stupid" questions.

Why?

Because the child is curious and has the passion to figure out what's going on. He or She has no social pressure to pretend to know something. Gaining knowledge is just as fun as playing games.

But why most of us lose such instinct and stop exploring the world when growing up? Reinforcement learning, a special type of machine learning models, can give us some hints on this. Basically, a person take actions to maximize the accumulation of his value. He would try a lot at first because he doesn't know which action will benefit him most. But gradually, he try less and less because he thought he already knew the best move. If he stop trying something new and stick to the best move of his knowledge, this is called a "greedy" algorithm. And this is actually the most adults behaves. Because losing is no fun and asking a "stupid" question is no fun, either.

However, in academia, scholars are supposed to ask questions, right? The fact is most students and PhDs are just like majority of adults, they can be easily attracted by many more interesting things: movies, games, beauty body, etc. These things are more tangible. By millions of generations of evolution, human genes are hard-wired to that. Statistically, less than 1% of the population will stay at academia, simply because intellectual exploration doesn' t directly make money. The long-term benefit is invisible by most individual, and is only seen by policy-maker and highly dependent on the society allowance. A starving society simply can't support systematical and in-depth thinking.

That's the big picture. Now let's focus on the question: why doesn't students and postdocs ask questions? The reason is they don't know what is the right question to ask. There are several factors:

  1. Asking the right question requires critical and creative thinking skills. Current education systems are good at teaching the existing knowledge, and students pass exams by correctly answering questions, not asking the correct questions. And the way we teach is to divide knowledge to different subjects and subfields, as tiny piece as possible. Critical thinking is not taught across STEM but only limited to philosophy or cognitive psychology classes. By the way, my major is engineering physics and don't have a chance to enroll these classes. Anyway, I find these books are helpful: Beyond Feelings: A Guide to Critical Thinking, The Big Questions: A Short Introduction to Philosophy,Asking the Right Questions (11th Edition)
  2. Curse of knowledge. If you know something, it's difficult for you to imagine not knowing it. On one hand, the teacher may skip something that is obvious to him; on the other hand, the student may use his imagination to bridge the gap between knowledge points. There are just too many gaps in the world that human may not even notice it. After all, only Einstein noticed the knowledge gap between space and time.
  3. Compared to regular class, seminars introduce very obscure concepts and deal with lots of boring details. The senior researchers are better at catching the gap the lecturers are trying to bridge; the junior researchers lack such sense, or may be too slow to follow the pace.

So the suggestion is to let both lecturer and students be aware of the knowledge gaps. Ask lectures to list some fundamental questions and present them in a more appealing way to attract student's attention. Ask students to practice their critical thinking skills and they will be addicted to think in a more thorough way. What's more, a seminar about critical thinking may be very helpful.

One note is that 10 groups have very diverse research topics. Students may not have enough background knowledge to join the play. Students simply don't have enough time for the warm-up activity. It is more a knowledge barrier rather than culture barrier. Where's the "activation energy"?

I can certainly tell you what not to do for starters - don't force questions from individuals. This has the consequence of making students nervous at the end of each session or feeling inadequate and ridiculed if they cannot answer. When the call for questions inevitably comes up at the end of talks I have attended, I have often remained silent because no question naturally occurs to me. But if the tutor were to force questions from me it would take me back to bad memories of primary school and being unable to answer things because I hadn't understood the topic, making me feel idiotic as a result. Nobody wants that. The other possibility is you end up forcing the student to ask a nonsensical question which they feel embarrassed about. No, the idea has too many pitfalls.

The best thing to do is, if the class falls silent, remind them of the various things you discussed and coax questions out of them that way. Maybe try asking: did everyone understand theory X or experiment Y, was everyone clear about the workings behind Z, do you think N would work if done this way etc etc. That way you may reignite questions that may have naturally occurred during the course of the talk but which got overtaken and forgotten as it progressed.

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    I'm guessing from the question that the OP is asking about seminars (talks by faculty/students/staff on their research), not classes. I could be interpreting it wrong though. – tonysdg Jan 25 '17 at 21:30
  • yes, actually the problem I describe is after research talks and seminars where either external or internal speakers talk (even when an internal postdoc talks, this gives little questions from ... his friends ). – scrx2 Jan 25 '17 at 21:35
  • One thing that might add to the confusion is that there can be course credit for seminar attendance in some cases, and both presentation and participation in the audience might be expected components. I think the opinions in this answer with regards to forced questions are applicable in both cases, though disagreement is certainly possible. – Bryan Krause Jan 25 '17 at 21:54

protected by ff524 Jan 29 '17 at 22:54

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