Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Stupid Questions

One often hears that there is no such thing as a stupid question. But that's ridiculous. I get asked stupid questions all the time. Like when a student, during a multiple choice test, asks "I get the quantity 15, but do you want it with Joules in (a) or millijoulesin (c)?" And there are a whole slew of questions which are, at the very least, very annoying such as when they ask what chapters are on the upcoming test when I just answered the question.

But of course the expression that such stupid questions don't exist is just a cliche to encourage students to ask questions. That's a worthwhile goal, but I doubt its use has any effect.

The real problem I see concerns physics majors. I think we can turn out better physicists (and perhaps a better and more diverse group of them) if we can somehow get them to see that physics is all about asking questions (a good question mentioned previously here).

I may be a little physics-centric here, but I think physics majors face a double-whammy when it comes to overcoming fears and asking questions. The normal reticence of any college student aside, physics majors face a culture of confrontation. The physics instructors I've had made a habit of ...well, let's just say that many of them were obnoxious jerks. I don't think they meant any offense, I just think the atmosphere is one of one-up-man-ship. If my experience is at all generalizable to others, I suspect such an atmosphere would play a big role in discouraging diversity.

In any case, I've mentioned before that I find that physicists talk in this fairly confrontational style (mentioned previously here). I wonder, is there anything to be done about it?

I somehow made it through and became a physicist, and now I've got a small bit of power. Am I being obnoxious/confrontational? Can I encourage more questions? I try to acknowledge students when they ask questions which get to "the heart of the matter," but is this signaling to those who ask the other questions which don't get so rewarded that their questions are too simple? How do I get across that to be a good physicist one needs to be constantly asking questions and not taking things on faith...that their job isn't to digest the material we throw at them, but instead to process it, check whether they buy into it and whether it makes sense. They are the ones who need to see what everyone else has overlooked. Just telling them doesn't seem to do the trick. And of course, there will always be students who don't get it and who don't have what it takes, but who will, upon hearing such encouragement, dutifully ask plenty of questions of the type found in the title to this post!


Anonymous said...

Like most physicists, you think you are the center of the universe and that all your students should be paying complete attention to you all of the time. Rather than call the questions you get asked "stupid", perhaps you should take a second look at how you teach.

My experience is that any one student can be expected to understand and remember an item if it is repeated once, but with a whole classroom, the probability that all will understand and remember is zero. This is not a student problem, it is a teacher expectation problem. I solved it by repeating any truly important information three times. Try it, it works.

As far as confrontation and physics majors, I would say that you have trained your students well. I have never met with a more arrogant group of people than physicists. Physicists allow diversity only in areas where it doesn't matter, like ethnicity. They do not much allow diversity in how the foundations of physics are defined. And now they're in trouble. LOL.

"And of course, there will always be students who don't get it and who don't have what it takes, but who will, upon hearing such encouragement, dutifully ask plenty of questions of the type found in the title to this post!"

The difference between a lousy instructor and a great one is not in how much the instructor knows, which will in almost any case be more than enough, but instead in how many of the mediocre students learn the material.

"Angry physicist", my bottom. You're lucky to have a job; if you were in private industry you would have been replaced for failure to perform. For years after I left academia I got postcards from mediocre students who were amazed to find that they learned calculus from me. Try thinking about the legacy you are leaving instead of the fact that a room full of people are unable to pay complete attention to you for an hour.

Cleve said...


If the first student was close to you, so you spoke in a quiet voice, and the second student was further away, give the answer again. If that is not the case have the the second student ask the first student.

Angry said...

Anon: I'll settle for being one of the focii of the Universe :)

I'll try repeating more often. I know I'm bad at that.

I am lucky to have my job, no doubt. And I do think about my legacy. I want to be a better teacher.

I'm not sure why you're presuming I've "fail[ed] to perform."

Douglas Natelson said...

I think anonymous is being a bit harsh here. "Failure to perform"? How can one infer that angry isn't performing educationally based on the original post? Because he doesn't magically fill up the brain of every student to the brim? Because anon. infers that he doesn't repeat key points as much as anon. prefers?

My only insight here is that I think angry is spot-on in one of his passing comments. The attitude of the instructor drastically affects the number and kind of questions that are asked. If students are afraid that their peers will see them as dumb for asking something, they'll sit mum even if they're completely lost. If the instructor responds openly and really tries to come up with an alternative explanation of a point, the students generally don't feel bad about asking questions. Not every question will be great and insightful, but that's ok. Much better to have lots of questions, a few of which are real gems, than to have an "orderly" class with no "interruptions".

Anonymous said...

A question is not a statement (unless it is rhetorical); hence, how can a question be stupid, provided that it is grammatically correct? (This is a rhetorical question.) There can only be stupid answers. Usually when people say "stupid question," they actually mean that the fact the questioner cannot answer his/her own question seems stupid. So you are actually making fun of someone based on their intellectual ability. This is a general attitude one can find among physicists while they don't realize that they are not that smart in other areas in life.

Bridger Anderson said...

"if you were in private industry you would have been replaced for failure to perform."

I know this is an old post, but I just wanted to LoL. Someone being frustrated with a student that isn't paying attention, or being frustrated with one who asks "do you want the answer in Joules or milliJoules" doesn't not indicate non-performance.

At the same time, it is unreasonable for you as a teacher to expect everyone to be 100% focused on everything you say all of the time. If you are going to teach, especially in physics, be prepared to repeat yourself.

You might think the milliJoules question is stupid, I see it as a person who doesn't understand the concept of units and just plugged in a formula.

At that point, depending on the situation, I would have a bunch of questions for the student, and try and get them to understand what he / she was doing.

I say this as a person who has given out the syllabus, taken seating attendance, made sure everyone got a syllabus, and then dealt with students who were surprised when I took off points for them not doing an assignment which was due every week and on the syllabus at week 4 of class.