Stop Asking IF Your Students Have Questions!

I asked one of the worst questions of my students last week after I explained an assignment to them: “Does anyone have questions?” How do I know it was a bad question? Because no one answered it. I gave my usual ten seconds of silence before speaking again, and when I did speak, this is what I said: “What can I clarify?” Instead of silence, this time I was greeted with SIX requests for clarification.

While the two questions may appear to be very similar, the dramatic difference in reception indicates that they are actually not that similar at all. Here are some of the differences:

  1. “Does anyone have questions?” is a closed question with only two acceptable answers: yes or no. In contrast, “What can I clarify?” is open-ended, inviting a range of responses.
  2. Because the only acceptable answers to “Does anyone have questions?” are binary, and as with all binary options, one option is privileged over the other, there is actually only one “good” answer to the question. Every student knows “no” is the correct answer. To answer yes either challenges the brilliance of the authority figure posing the question because, using the example of the assignment I had just described to the class, it implies that the assignment wasn’t written clearly, or exposes the student to being perceived as lazy, stupid, not paying attention, or some other negative descriptor. Because “What can I clarify?” is open-ended, there are no obviously privileged answers.
  3. Because the privileged answer to “Does anyone have questions?” is “no,” it silences questions while appearing to invite them. It normalizes not asking questions. “What can I clarify?” is open, so it normalized asking questions.  
  4. Because “Does anyone have questions?” silences people with questions and implies that no questions should be asked, it positions the asker as more powerful. On the other hand, because “What can I clarify?” assumes that clarification is needed, it positions the asker and the answerers as working together to make meaning.

Another terrible question that I find myself asking from time to time is “Does that make sense?” While asking that conversationally with a peer can be somewhat effective, asking it of students in a scenario similar to the one I describe above is likely to meet with the same silence as “Does anyone have questions?”

Faculty know students have questions. I hear faculty wondering sometimes why students don’t ask more questions. Perhaps it has something to do with our own questions.

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