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Do you really need to ask that in class?

By Jason Herring, February 23, 2016 —

Nothing can derail a lecture faster than a student who asks bad questions in class. Most of us have our own stories about moments where someone in our lecture raises their hand to say something that makes the whole room groan. Whether it’s a student asking something that’s already been said because they weren’t paying attention or someone trying to make themselves look smart by spewing big words, it’s clear many students at the University of Calgary lack some basic lecture participation etiquette.

In many classes, especially ones that only last 50 minutes, professors and TAs need to rush through their notes to fit a concept into a single lecture block. Every second taken away by inane questions makes it more difficult for them to convey all of their material in a clear and concise way. Since time is often tight, it’s important to weigh whether your question or comment is valuable — not only to you, but to the whole class — before you speak.

A few things are obviously inappropriate. Correcting minor mistakes in the notes or on the whiteboard are perhaps the most obnoxious examples. If the person leading your class flubs up their grammar or misspells a word while preoccupied with teaching, it shouldn’t affect your learning experience. And walking into class late and then expecting the professor to give a short recap of something explained while you weren’t present is obscene.

But the worst of all is when a student’s question is nothing but a thinly-veiled attempt to make themselves look smart. There’s a number of methods these culprits use — among the most prevalent are asking a normal question but talking as if you’re a walking thesaurus, or using your question to bring up a loosely-related concept that’s out of the current class’ scope just to prove you know about it.

Don’t get me wrong — there are certainly times when it’s appropriate and valuable to ask questions in class. When a concept or a slide isn’t clear for you, there’s a good chance that other people are confused about the same thing. And in smaller, participation-based lectures where questions and remarks are encouraged, well-formed opinions help liven up the class and open discussions.

Most inquiries, though, are better suited for office hours. If something really isn’t clicking with you, nearly all professors will be happy to sit down with you and talk through these problems. Optional tutorials offer a similar environment.

Let your instructors teach. When you’re one student in a crowded lecture, there’s always a better way to be heard.

Jason Herring is a second-year computer science student. He writes a monthly column about problems facing University of Calgary students called Old Man Yells at Cloud

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