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I like students' nice questions too much (sometimes much more than their nice answers). It shows that they are thinking on what I am teaching and I am successful to make them curious about the subject. Also it allows me to explain on the subject deeper. Thus I usually encourage my students to ask as much as they can and I appreciate their questions by an extra grade for the best questions at the end. But the fact is that all questions are not really good for example:

  • I explained the answer before.
  • It is not related to the current subject.
  • They didn't think on the question by their own.
  • They didn't understand the definitions correctly.
  • And almost all other reasons which makes a question silly.
  • MO and MSE criterions about an inappropriate question could be useful.

I want to find a good way for decreasing the silly questions without decreasing the number of questions or the students' motivation for asking many questions.

Question. What is a wise reaction to a silly question?

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Can you give an example of a "silly question," just to make sure we're on the same page? –  mixedmath Mar 26 at 5:32
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This post seems extraordinarily broad to me. Correct me if I am wrong, but I am reading your query as follows: "My students ask questions after I've already explained the answer, or without thinking about their question first, or because they haven't understood the definitions already covered. How should I respond?" –  Benjamin Dickman Mar 26 at 7:23
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Over time I've gotten to be a lot more tolerant of questions whose answers I've explained before. Human memory is a slippery thing, and often requires a lot of repetition. (How many times does someone's name have to be repeated to me before I retain it?) –  Mark Meckes Mar 26 at 8:01
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Also, I don't see how not understanding definitions correctly makes a question silly. It just changes what the most helpful response is. –  Mark Meckes Mar 26 at 8:03
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The question "“You are paid to answer my questions!” - how to handle silly questions?" at academia.SE has some helpful answers too: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/16265/… –  just-learning Mar 26 at 15:11

3 Answers 3

up vote 27 down vote accepted

Every student question should be treated like a gift. It gives insight into student's thinking. Even a disrepectful question is an opportunity for you to teach, except that in such a case you don't teach math. There is no such thing as a "only math" teacher. Every teacher teaches life just by standing in front of the students.

I would say it is actually wrong to qualify questions as "silly" and "not silly". To paraphrase, silliness is in the eye of the beholder. Surely the student doesn't think the question was silly, does he? Surely, you wouldn't answer with "this is a silly question", would you?

If you feel that a question is silly, you should analyze it further, as you do in your question. And the response then depends on how the question is categorized. In your cases:

  • I explained the answer before: if you have time, explain it again, otherwise just be nice and apologize for not having time. Only us teachers are crazy enough to think that people learn by hearing, seeing or trying just once. Are piano lessons repetitive? Is martial art training repetitive? How about learning a new langauge, are you told each word just once?
  • It is not related to the current subject: the thing to worry about is why the student thinks it is related to the current subject. And even if it isn't related to the current subject, so what? Only us teachers are crazy enough to think that people learn by doing one thing for a long time. That's boring as hell. So just answer the question, or be nice if you don't have time.
  • They didn't think on the question by their own. That's completely irrelevant, the thing to ask is why are they asking anyway? If they want to know, then who cares if they didn't think of the question. If they don't want to know, well maybe they're just sucking up to you, but that would be a different ME question.
  • They didn't understand the definitions correctly. That is not a silly question! You have just discovered that you failed to explain the definitions correctly. Go back and fix the damage you created.
  • And almost all other reasons which makes a question silly. There are no silly questions as far as students are concerned.
  • MO and MSE criterions about an inappropriate question could be useful. A question is only inappropriate if it is insulting, generally inappropriate, or intentionally designed to cause trouble. If a student asked me whether I believed in God, I would never say "that's inappropriate". I would use the opportunity as best as I could. For example, I would say: "Ah, but that's not something you need to believe in. Leibniz already proved God existed. Here is how ..." And we'd have an excellent lesson in logic that the students would actually enjoy and pay attention to.

There are no silly questions.

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Excellent! The first and the last sentences of this answer are convincing enough to accept it! Thanks Andrej. –  Saint Georg Mar 26 at 12:52
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This is good, except for the disparaging remarks about school teachers. I don't know what teachers you've met, but in my experience then they are way ahead of us lecturers in both theory and practice of pedagogy. I would have said "Only university lecturers are crazy enough to think that .." in both cases. –  Loop Space Mar 26 at 13:04
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@AndrewStacey: agreed, only us university teachers are crazy. –  Andrej Bauer Mar 26 at 13:27
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By "only school teachers" were you referring to all of us as educators, and our common slight delusion that things need only be said once? Or by "only school teachers" did you mean to make a negative comment about non-university-level teachers? I'd recommend editing the answer to avoid the misunderstanding; it's very distracting as is! –  Chris Cunningham Mar 26 at 15:20
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"Every student question should be treated like a gift." Beautiful. –  Michael Pershan Mar 26 at 16:29

There's already very nice answer of Andrej Bauer, but I would like to view the question from a slightly different perspective. Perhaps one should not call questions silly, but there are questions which we wouldn't want to answer, the main reason usually being that it would not be the best response. To name a few concrete examples:

  • As a teacher we have a responsibility to all of our students, not only the one who has asked a question and gained our attention.
  • Answering a question might induce bad habits (e.g. I don't need to think on my own).
  • With huge volume of questions we are resource-bound to leave some unanswered (e.g. deferred after class, mail or office hours).

To give an extreme example, one semester, during a laboratory-class, I experimented with no-easy-answers policy. It was a curious experience, because during exercise-sessions I would encourage questions, even silly ones (yes, students had asked questions which were silly in their own opinion or so it seemed). Instead, I told them where and how to look for answers and them made them search themselves. When searches were unsuccessful, I would suggest better search terms, better sources, or how to check it via some simple test, and so on. Only after a significant effort was put in, I would answer the question myself (the "significance" threshold was low at first and went up as they got better and better).

The results were marvelous. We were able to do a lot of stuff, and the students made a tremendous progress (it helped that it was a really good group and we had a good contact). It happened that students did a job so good, that I had to explain some questions to the rest of the group (and why some intuitive answers didn't work) before actually answering them. Finally, the students' opinions were positive, often along the lines of "the class was tough, but I learned a lot, I would recommend it", some even praising that approach (although "in hindsight", that is, they hinted that at first it was not pleasant).

Naturally, it did work due to specific reasons, e.g.

  • easy internet access (each student had a computer),
  • majority questions were easy to find (for example in the programming language manual),
  • I was able to motivate the students enough, so that time delays would not break the flow of the class,
  • with only a few questions, I was able to focus more on the weaker part of the group, and to keep them "online" even during difficult exercises,
  • it was a really bright group.

Unfortunately it was just a single class, so it might have been just a coincidence that it worked and some other approach could have worked even better. Nevertheless, I will try it a second time with right opportunity.

So, what do I do with a question that I don't think I should answer?

  • I answer it nevertheless.
  • Nevertheless, I answer it.
  • Did I mention that I answer it?
  • I answer it after the class. This doesn't need an explanation.
  • I let the class answer it. For example, if I fell that the particular student should put it more effort, it works wonders against some personalities.
  • I answer it partially and let the student himself finish it.
  • Rarely, but it happens, I let the student know that the question in its current form is inadequate/inappropriate. There are multiple variants, it might need a reformulation or it may be unsalvageable. Non-verbal cues are often enough.

I hope this helps $\ddot\smile$

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Well, you still addressed the questions, which is the important thing to do. You used them to teach students something (just not in a way they expected). I don't see any disagreement between your answer and mine, except perhaps in the choice of words. Certainly, sometimes the best way to answer a question is not to answer it directly. –  Andrej Bauer Mar 27 at 6:48
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@AndrejBauer You wrote phrases like "If they want to know, then who cares if they didn't think of the question" or "And even if it isn't related to the current subject, so what?" I care if they thought, I care if it is related, this way I can help them more, perhaps by choosing a different kind of action than just answering the question. –  dtldarek Mar 27 at 9:41
    
I am unsure the "getting them to look it up" method works. It requires extra motivation by the students, and although students might be interested in the answer they are going to wonder if it is really that important to them to waste so much of their time looking it up. Spoon feeding is important (but needs to be done sparingly) - teaching is essentially spoon feeding! I used to TA (I hate that phrase) for a lecturer who took this approach, and I remember thinking that it was a cop-out. It came across as "jump through all these hoops and then you can ask me". Which isn't helpful... –  user1729 Mar 27 at 10:02
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Also, I understand that looking stuff up on your own is important, but it wasn't until the final year of my PhD that I discovered that you can actually ask other people your questions and that they will often know the answer! This came as a big surprise to me at the time... Knowing that you can ask questions of others is, arguably, just as important as knowing how to look things up yourself. –  user1729 Mar 27 at 10:03
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@user1729 I don't know if this works generally, I would say that it does not. However, in specific cases it does work. Observe, that I made sure that they know they can ask questions, that they are motivated enough, and didn't cop-out of the questions (e.g. I helped them search it). Finally, in computer science, knowing how to look for an answer on your own is one of the most important skills: you need to know how to find your way in the myriad of libraries, interfaces and quirks of the framework you currently use. There's nobody who would answer such questions for you in research or work. –  dtldarek Mar 27 at 10:16

For off-topic questions or just questions that we can't devote the time to answer right away, I have a devoted 'question wall'. The students have access to post-its and use them to post any question to the wall -- silly, content-focused, it doesn't matter to me. The result is if a student interrupts with a silly question I can quickly reply "Put it on a post-it" and we're back on track with the lesson.

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When do you address the questions on the question wall? Or is it another way to say "circular file?" –  Chris Cunningham Mar 26 at 10:46
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A variant of this for the same type of question is: "please ask me again after the class" (which can also be used on context where a question-wall is not really an option). This works also as a filter; those that really want to ask will do so, and the others not. –  quid Mar 26 at 10:53
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I take 5 minutes at the start of Friday's class to address the better ones. Some stay on the wall for a while, and a few do end up being thrown away, but I try to bring even the most 'out there' questions back around to the content. –  aknauft Mar 27 at 4:18

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