3 Reasons Students Don't Ask Questions in Class

by Stephanie Klenzendorf, M.Ed., on Jan 29, 2020 11:13:10 PM

"Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand."                  ~Chinese Proverb

Many instructors strive to create an interactive atmosphere in which students can participate in thoughtful two-way discussions that challenge thinking on both sides. However, when the lecture hall is filled with students of different ages and abilities, this goal can be almost impossible to achieve. It's easy to say, "Raise your hand if you don't understand," but there are many reasons why a student might not want to do this in a room full of peers.

1. The Lecture Format

The design and the purpose of most lectures in the academic setting creates a one-way conversation where the speaker delivers highly specialized content to the audience. The professor has often organized the information in a story type format that slowly builds their argument and ties together at the end with lots of conclusions. Students who raise their hand to interrupt the speaker often disrupt the flow of the lecture and take valuable class time. Even if the speaker does pause to allow appropriate time for questioning, the students might not be able to come up with good questions at that exact moment. Teachers shouldn't expect questions to pop up if you spontaneously ask, "Are there any questions? No? OK, moving on.” Some professors wait until the end of the class to allow for student questions, which is also the time when everyone is starting to focus on packing up and leaving.

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2. Cultural Norms

While we may assume that some students who remain silent are timid or too shy to speak up, it is important to recognize that some may be from other countries or cultures who were specifically taught NOT to ask questions during class. In some countries, a student who asks questions during a lecture might imply that the teacher is not teaching well, or is challenging the teacher on a particular topic. If you'd like these students to speak up when they don't understand, they need to be given specific instructions on your cultural norms so that they know how and when to ask questions appropriately. The students may also think the teacher is like a “Sage on the Stage” and try not to disturb or interrupt their teaching. In addition, students coming from small towns or small graduating class feel intimidated by the large class sizes in the universities.

3. Peer Judgement

Another reason that students don't speak up in class could be that they don't understand the material and might feel afraid that their questions will make them appear unintelligent to their peers. Whether this is because they have not adequately prepared for the lecture or are simply not following the material despite their best efforts, it can often appear to the teacher as disinterest. It is in these moments that students should be asking the most questions, either in class or at office hours, so that they can close the knowledge gap that may keep them from being successful on the next exam. However, when you are one of 100 or more students in a class, there often isn't enough time for the professor or TA to hold one-on-one conversations with each student to get them caught up.

Knowing the reasons that a student might not advocate for themselves during class can help a professor understand why a student might be struggling, but that doesn't mean that these students should be left behind. There are specific strategies that can help a professor create an interactive atmosphere in which the student feels like a participant and not an observer. Planning for scheduled pauses in your lecture can help provide adequate opportunity, but it must be paired with proper wait time so that students can form their questions. The most effective lecturers sometimes wait a whole minute while asking students questions in a Socratic manner before moving on.

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Another great strategy is to employ technologies such as Squarecap, which can allow students to ask questions through the app that can be viewed by both the teacher and their peers in an ask and vote format. Students can view each other's items anonymously and upvote the questions that they are also not sure about. Teachers can choose to privately reveal who asked the question and can respond in-line or out loud at their discretion. Using this method can extend a life-line to struggling students and can streamline the barrage of questions that professors get after class or in the inbox. With the use of Squarecap, the students don’t have to suffer in silence. It gives them a voice.

For more insights on how to use technology to engage your students, visit us at or continue the conversation on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

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Topics:Teaching TipsActive LearningAsk&Vote

About Squarecap

Squarecap is an easy to use engagement tool created by an award-winning professor to provide the in-class or online engagement support that modern teachers and students need. 

Our interactive features have been proven to support student success by automatically tracking daily attendance, increasing lecture comprehension through live questions and personalized feedback, and facilitating a live Ask & Vote for hesitant students to address gaps in content knowledge.  More →

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