When students won’t ask questions

This photo from Lovemeow hangs prominently in my room as a visual aid to inspire transparency in learning.  catI hold family meetings before school begins to explain the importance of learning math in today’s economy.  Often parents quietly mention to me that their student won’t ask questions.  Some parents are concerned and looking for answers; others are tipping me off that I need to figure out what to do about it.  Either way, this problem has huge, long-term ramifications and stems from a variety of issues. Not only does it affect a student’s ability to learn efficiently, it can continue into college where they might refuse to use various learning labs or take advantage of professors’ office hours. Being able to ask questions is also an important part of being a valued employee.  Consider the nurse that doesn’t ask questions before injecting an unfamiliar vial.  Asking questions is not just about “college and career readiness,” rather it’s a survival skill in life.

There are many reasons why a student might be unwilling to ask questions, but here are a few and possible antidotes follow.

  1.  Discouragement from prior learning experiences.  Teachers don’t always get excited about students’ questions.  There may be a time crunch and questions slow the teaching process, especially with direct instruction when the instructional strategy is aimed toward efficiency as opposed to processing and depth.  Sometimes teachers become impatient when a student asks about something that was just explained.  Was the student not paying attention?  Why can’t they understand that?  Teachers work so hard, and to have a student imply that they didn’t do a good job explaining can make a teacher feel defensive.  The perception that questions are not always welcome can discourage a student from ever trying again.
  2. Pride.  Sometimes students associate asking questions with ignorance.
  3. Effort.  If a student does not see the value of what they are supposed to learn, brain science tells us they are less likely to learn it.  They may believe the effort needed to master the content is not worth it. Well cared for students often believe that if something is really important, someone will make them learn it.
  4. Inaccessibility.  Not all students have a parent that is proficient with math.  Some are unable to come in early or stay after school.

Retraining students such that they “reach” for understanding can be a daunting task, but it is as essential trait for life-long learners.  No matter how dense my content (and I teach math), I believe teaching my students how to learn it is even more important than the content itself.  When students know how to learn, there are few limitations for the deep they can go.  I argue that when they understand how to learn, they are more easily inspired to learn beyond the minimum.

  1. I am blessed to be in a district that is cautiously moving toward guided, inquiry-based learning (IBL).  In classes that have already adopted IBL, observing administrators are reporting seeing a “day and night” difference in the engagement levels of students.  We were getting fairly good engagement before by using games and activities, but the level of curiosity is significantly increased when students analyze a scenario and begin mapping out insights for themselves.   The move toward IBL can be terrifying for a teacher who has always taught using direct instruction, though.  Those traditional teachers can intentionally or inadvertently sabotage any non-traditional resources if they cannot envision themselves using them well  For those math teachers in grades 7-10, I recommend wading in slowly rather than trying to force them into using a textbook they don’t buy into.
  2. Organizing students in teams with assigned roles can not only change students’ own minds about what constitutes intelligence, but they can develop social emotional learning skills in each other.
  3. While many are calling for teachers to ditch homework entirely, I discovered individualized homework can be an opportunity to replace privilege with equitable advantages.  The textbooks I use for most homework are interleaved*, so there is continuous review.  As I informally assess students in class, scan work turned in, and grade tests, I keep Khan Academy open on my desktop.  As I assign remedial sessions to students, some of their parents have signed up as well so they can make sure the students use Khan assignments to pull those skills up to grade level.  The parents don’t have to understand the math, rather, they just help build students’ study skills by encouraging them to reach for learning with videos and text hints when Khan tells them they need help.  Students and parents understand that the Khan sessions are not “punishment” or “extra work,” rather each provides an opportunity to fill a gap.  When students put quality effort into their homework, they are getting spaced practice over time and are unlikely to need Khan.  So they are learning to take each day’s homework more seriously. Students are less likely to copy during Khan because each session has different questions for each student.   I also use a homework grading method based on random sampling that gets about 95% of my students turning in 95% of the homework. For those students who do not complete almost all assignments, I try to inspire them as I build their trust.
  4. Online help systems such as Khan Academy help make learning more accessible for a wide variety of content.  But when nothing else is resolving an issue, I can work with a student online with Google Drawing.  With so many options available to help students, the only thing that should stand between a student and learning is time.  In order to get students comfortable asking for help with any online intervention system, they have to be confident reaching out in a timely manner.  For that reason, the first assignment my algebra students get is to send me an email telling me about themselves, asking questions, and giving me feedback about their feelings toward the class.  In this way, they immediately understand email is “a thing,” and it’s not too difficult to make use of it.

Inability to ask questions should never be treated as trivial or quaint.  Asking questions is a survival skill.  Without that skill, students are automatically “at risk.” It makes sense for parents, counselors, and  teachers work diligently to develop that skill in every student.


*Works supporting the benefits of interleaving:

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. ., McDaniel, M. A. (2014).  Make It Stick.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Carey, B. (2015).  How We Learn.  New York, NY:  Random House.

Willingham, D. T. (2009).  Why Students Don’t Like School.  San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.

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