Why People Don't Ask Questions

I read this great post from Jon Gjengset(https://thesquareplanet.com/blog/why-dont-people-ask-questions/) on the topic of asking questions. It made me reflect a bit on questions and why I didn’t ask more questions during my time in school. The reasons were many, but I was usually the type to go up to the Professor after class because I was afraid I’d waste everyone else’s time. For certain topics I was interested in, go to office hours instead. But yes, I wasn’t an active participant in the class many of the time.

There are couple of reasons why people don’t want to ask questions:

  1. People don’t want to look dumb. If you’re asking a question, you’re revealing to the entire group of people that you didn’t understand X. Sometimes, this could be good, sometimes this can be bad. There’s a certain sense of humility involved in asking questions, and not giving a crap about what other people think about you. People judge about what kind of questions you ask - “Ah how can this person not know this?” To blatantly ask questions without a filter, you need a huge amount of self-confidence and to some degree honesty. My take on this is that - you should just ask. People don’t even remember what they had for breakfast. They won’t remember your stupid questions. And sometimes even dumbest questions are often insightful.
  2. **** You’re afraid that you tuned out for a couple of minutes, and the lecturer already discussed what you are going to ask.**** I had this happen a lot of the times. For whatever reason, my mind likes to wonder. But maybe.. it’s just not me. Doesn’t everyone’s mind do this? Our brains are huge filters, and parallel processors. I find it hard to believe that our brains can remain concentrated on one thing for the entirety of 45 minutes of the class.
  3. People don’t care about the material. They want to pass the class and get out. This is sad, but on the other hand, I can relate. There were a couple of classes in my life where I tuned out because I just didn’t have interest. This tended to happen a lot with politics and history classes because it was a regurgitation of facts and the reasoning for why the facts came to be were not thoroughly explained nor engaging. No matter how much I tried, I just didn’t have the natural curiosity to be actively engaged.
  4. They don’t want to slow down the Prof. This is a legitimate reason. Doesn’t this underline the flaws of our education system? Why do we have to watch a lecture and participate passively for an hour? Ideally, the class should be flipped so that we don’t learn the material during lecture, but discuss the underlying assumptions and topics that we want clarified. This is also known as a flipped classroom. I had a class like this, where we would watch the Professor’s lectures during our own time, come to class one day work on an assessment, and on the following class form groups and discuss our questions with the Professor and TAs going around answering questions. At the end of the class, we would submit it to the Professor for grading and feedback. I didn’t find this particularly effective, mainly because of the free-loader problem and the tradeoff you make with this approach is that the Professor has to repeat information to multiple groups, and the interaction with the Professor is minimal.

    Hmm.. maybe one way is to have the students learn the things on their own, have them take a daily quiz to check their understanding, and have a re-take at the end of the class to correct their mistakes. Whatever it is, we need more feedback - that’s the main concept that corrects mistakes and steers learners towards the correct path.

I think asking questions is a fundamental skill that we should foster in our society. Only by asking questions, can we find new doors, prune out and deeply understand the assumptions that go in building systems, and find gaps in our understanding.

Anyhow, maybe we should do something to incentive students to ask questions and participate. Maybe extra credit for good questions. Or use technology during the lecture, so that students can anonymously ask questions in real-time! Perhaps the way we teach is all wrong - possibly the reason why we don’t have active participation in our classes is due to resource constraints. Or even psychological safety. Maybe, maybe if we have extremely groups of 4 - 5 balanced students teaching each other, won’t that improve our ability to ask questions and have very meaningful discussions? How can we design education systems so that the incentives all align so that we can maximize learning and growth?