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Asking questions

One of my loyal readers [1] wrote the following:

I have repeatedly told my daughter to not hesitate to ask questions in class. I tell her, no matter how dumb she thinks the question is, there will be others in class who are glad she asked it. So, now I’m reading Ann Patchett’s novel State of Wonder and the character Dr. Swenson says, I didn’t keep office hours. I never believed in them. Questions are for the benefit of every student, not just the one raising his hand.

What say you?

I agree with what you tell your daughter. Almost any question one student has, many students have. So asking questions in class is good; it’s a sign of strength, rather than weakness. A few of your daughter’s less nice colleagues may chide her for asking questions, but they are below her consideration. In many cases, they probably don’t know what they don’t know. So I also encourage my children and my students to ask questions in class.

But not every student is comfortable asking questions in class, and not every student can formulate a question to ask. So I try a variety of approaches in class. At times, I’ll ask everyone to close their eyes, and then I’ll ask those who are confused to raise their hands [2]. Some times I’ll just force students to ask questions [3]. I keep a stack of cards with student names on them, and regularly pull out a name and say name, do you have any questions? I think it lowers the risk. Some times I’ll employ practices that encourage them to ask question, such as asking them questions if they have none for me [4].

On the other hand, I do not agree with Dr. Swenson. Some students really need time to sit down and ask questions, or to say I can’t formulate a question, can you please just go over it with me or something similar. And so I answer questions in office hours. If students ask questions in office hours that I think others would benefit from hearing [6], I either send a message to the class via email or talk about the question in class the next day [7]. Dr. Swenson also has a fairly limited concept of office hours; I do much, much more than answer questions about classes in my office hours [8].

Particularly when dealing with a subject as potentially intimidating as CS [9], students need multiple mechanisms for asking questions. Hence, I also answer questions via email. And, when I get questions that are of general interest, I find a way to share the questions and their answers.

But I’m not the only one students should ask. We have mentor sessions and evening tutors so that they can ask other people. Once again, mentors and tutors report on the kinds of questions people ask, and I have the opportunity to consider whether some of the answers need to be discussed via email or in class.

What do I say, dear anonymous reader [10]? I agree with you that asking questions is good. I disagree with Dr. Swenson - those brave enough to ask questions deserve to have their questions answered, wherever they ask those questions. Those not brave enough to ask questions can benefit from many of those questions, even if they are not asked in class. And, in the end, if they don’t ask questions, perhaps they don’t deserve all of the benefits that accrue to those who do ask questions.

Here’s my question: Why is that the essay that I think will be long, like this one, often end up being somewhat short, and the essays that I think will be short often end up being long?

[1] At least I think they are a loyal reader; I haven’t heard from them recently. I hope they are okay.

[2] Since students sometimes don’t want to admit that they don’t know in front of me, I’ll sometimes close my own eyes and ask a class mentor to count hands. The mentors sometimes feel safer.

[3] I even did so today.

[4] Yes, many of these approaches are somewhat aggressive. Part of my role as teacher is to encourage my students to think on their feet, as it were. Most students find that the aggressive approach is tempered by my warm personality [5].

[5] Or whatever that personality is.

[6] I’m never sure whether it’s the question that students benefit from hearing, the answer, or both.

[7] Or both.

[8] Yes, I’ll write another essay about office hours.

[9] Or perhaps a Professor as potentially intimidating as I am.

[10] I’m not sure how to invert What say you? I don’t like What say I?

Version 1.0 of 2017-02-20.