I’m terrified of answering 
questions in class and asking the professor for 
help. What do I do?  

March 2023 | The Learning and Wellbeing Team

Most students will tell you that asking and answering questions in class is extremely hard and often nerve-wracking. It is why most students don’t bother  to participate in class and won’t get help with something, even when the need help.  On the one hand, this is completely understandable. Asking for help can be difficult if you have never done it before. Maybe it is a stupid question.  Answering a question in class and getting it wrong, might even be worse. People will think you are stupid. 

On the other hand, it is somewhat mystifying that when you need help with something you don’t ask, even though it is the prof’s job to answer questions.  Having questions that you didn’t ask and didn’t get answered is never a good plan. Not getting those questions answered, means that you submitted a paper or wrote an exam with unanswered questions. That’s a missed opportunity that will cost you eventually, if it hasn’t already. 

None of this really happens. Professors are not going to tell you that it is a stupid question. Don’t forget that if you are asking that question, at least ten other students have the same question and didn’t ask. Professors know this. And for the very reason, people are not going to think that you are stupid. Rather, they will be grateful for asking the question that they didn’t have the courage to ask themselves. 

Asking questions, answering questions and getting your own questions answered is what learning is all about. 
 Whether you are in a large lecture or a small class, talking to a professor before or after class, or working with other students or in a large groups, mastering the ability to ask and answer questions is a critical part of your education. It is a skill that you will benefit from need for the rest of your life, and it is never too late to starting learning and mastering the skill of aksing and answering questions. 

How to ask questions in class:

When asking questions, students will often start off by saying that “this may be a simple question”, or “a stupid question” or that they “should know this but ….” As an opportunity to clarify what is being learned, no question is ever stupid, silly or a waste of time. So, just raise your hand, ask your question directly and wait for the answer and thank the professor. 

“Professor. I am not clear on _____ (e.g., the meaning of ____ , the implications of ____, how to _____, what you are expecting in question ______). I would be grateful if you could _______ (e.g., go over that one more time, clarify the meaning of ____, explain the part on _______ again.” 

Comment:  The first part tells the professor what you are needing help with. And the second part is your request. You will need to be polite.  The third part that comes after the prof’s answer is also important.

“Thank you. That is helpful.” 

Comment: If, however, the prof’s answer is not helpful and not sufficient, you will need to keep asking, which is just fine. 

“Professor _____, I am still working on understanding the material dealing with _____. Your answer in class was helpful. I do have a further question I would like to run by you.”

How to answer questions in class:

When answering questions, students will often start off by saying that “this might be wrong” or “this might not be what you are looking for.”  Getting the answer wrong is always a possibility. But you don’t need to say it; that just wastes time. Try to answer the question as directly and as efficiently as possible. Start off with “I believe that ….”

How to ask a prof, instructor or teaching assistant for help:

Professors, instructors and teaching assistants will be most helpful when you show up demonstrating that you have done something before asking for help. 

Professor, I have been ___________ (e.g., working on the paper / studying for the midterm). I have one or two questions about how to go about _______ (e.g., the discussion, analysis, etc.). I was wonderig if you could (e.g., clarify the goal of this section, clarify the meaning of _________, and give me some feedback on my analysis). I was thinking that _______. Thank you. 

Comment:  The first part of the request, indicates that you have a very specific request. If you show up and just say, I need help with my paper that is not likely to elicit very much support.  It might, but you will be far better off, if you indicate that you have tried something.  Whatever you have done (even if it is very little), reminds the professor or teaching assistant that you are working and have done something. The second part is your ask (i.e., what you want). And the third part is a statement of what you think and what you have done. This kind of approach is demonstrating that you are trying. Again, you are more like to recieve some help if you show up with something — even if it is very good or not fully developed.  

Change the way you think of asking for help

Many students at all stages of their studies will feel like asking a question will be seen as a waste of someone’s time or as evidence that you are not very smart, not being very prepared, or not being very capable (i.e., as someone who needs help).   

If you see asking a question as any one of these things, you will probably not ask for help.  Here are three different ways to view asking questions that can make it easier to ask.  

#1:  View asking questions as problem solving. 
If you see asking a question a problem solving, it will be easier. You are simply looking for the information to solve a problem — whatever that is.  

#2: View asking questions as relationship building
Helping others, in most instances, is a rewarding experience. You have probably felt good in being able to help someone out. Answering someone else’s question make you valuable to others and to your organization. In asking a question, you are giving the other person to be helpful to you and the organization. And it gives you an opportunity to remind others that you would be happy to return the favour and help out whenever you can.  Having a network of people you can reach out to when something comes up will be one of the most important assets you and everyone else at work will have. 

#3: Don’t over estimate the chance that someone will say no. 
The research on asking for help has shown the people tend to dramatically understimate the probability that someone will grant them their request. People are far more likely to grant a request, do a favour or offer help than we think. 

Why bother asking questions?

Asking questions has been an element of what university is all about ever since the very first universities were created over 1000 years ago. Asking questions is how old ideas get challenged and discussed and, very often, how new ideas emerge. If you decide to pursue a graduate degree at university, you will be required to present your ideas in an oral defence.  Asking questions (and answering them) is how ideas get discussed and challenged. The questions can range from how something works to what-if, why did something differently, to why do we think about things the way we do.  

The ability to ask questions is not just part of university; it is also a skill that you will use throughout your lifetime. You will use it to enhance your knowledge, as well as hold others to account. But, as you know, you don’t have to ask questions in class. There is always a number of students in every class who attend never, ever ask a question for a variety of reasons. 

Here are the top 10 reasons to learn how to ask and answer questions.  

#1.  Clarify what you think you know. 
The single most important reason for asking questions (or asking for help) is to clarify your understanding. Asking and answering questions is one of the most important elements of learning. It is one of the oldest methods of learning that is still with us today.  Professors set aside time in class and time after class to answer any type of question on the exam. They understand that not everyone is going to be clear on the material. Asking directly is also the fastest and most effective way of clarifying what you don’t know. 

#2. Clarify what the professor is trying to say
Asking questions is also critical to clarifying what the professor is trying to say. Not every professor is able to communicate complex ideas in a straightforward manner. At some point, most profs will deliver a lecture that just isn’t that clear. Whatever the reason for not understanding might be (i.e., you didn’t understand it well or the prof didn’t explain it well), you still have to get clear on what was meant, and that means asking questions. 

#3. Slow down the lecture

Sometimes professors get far too ahead of where the class is at. They go too fast, don’t cover the topic thoroughly enough, and lose the audience. When this happens, there’s no point continuing. You will just have to go over it again. Asking a question is one way to get the professor to slow down to give the class a chance to catch up.  

#4. Distinguish yourself
Getting good grades is one of the most important ways of distinguishing yourself, But it is not the only way to make sure that you stand out, and it may not even be enough to get into competitive programs and grad school. Increasingly, you may need to distinguish yourself so that you can get good reference letters from professors for job references and applications to grad school. Asking questions, either during class or after class, is one way (maybe even the best way) to stand out. 

Asking questions (in class or after class) shows people, most importantly the professor, that you are interested and engaged with what you are learning. Asking questions also shows that you are thinking about the material. Even though asking the question means you don’t know something, it does allow you to stand out. Chances are you would still recognize the student from early classes that was always asking questions. So does the professor. 

Tip: Don’t overdo it. You are better off asking one or two questions, at most, during class time, and make sure that other people have a chance to ask questions too. Asking one or two questions in class and then asking an additional question after class or during office hours is the best strategy to distinguish yourself and not overdo it. 

#5. Demonstrate that you are participating
In some classes, you may be awarded marks for participation marks. Asking questions is one of the easier ways to participate in class, especially since you can prepare your questions before class. 

#6. Hold people to account and influence the discussion 
Asking questions is also a strategy that can be used to influence the discussion and hold people to account. It is a very subtle and powerful strategy that everyone should have ready to use when they need to hold people to account and influence the discussion. There are two broad types of questions; one type seeks to elicit information (e.g., could you explain the theory of relativity). The other type seeks to elicit an explanation or account (e.g., how is this plan going to work). I
n the moment you ask someone a question that elicits an account (e.g., why are we doing this, how is this going to work) you make the person you ask accountable to you because they are being asked to provide you with a justification for their plan, decision or view. Asking for an account is usually much more effective than simply disagreeing with someone. If the person you are asking is unable to provide a good justification, your influence increases. And you did this; just be asking for an account or explanation. 

#7. Build a life-changing skill  [1]: Practice dealing with your doubts
One of the main hurdles to asking questions is the worry, doubt or fear, that someone may think that it is a stupid question or worse than asking the question, as all means you are stupid.  It is a common fear, that most people will experience, but it is just that, a fear. And it is getting in your way — keeping you from getting the knowledge you need; keeping you from holding people to account. University is a good time to master the skill.  

#8. Build a life-changing skill  [2]: Get comfortable being held to account
At some point, the professor may ask you a question — which you may not know the answer to or worry you may get wrong. You may feel that you have been put on the spot — it may even feel that the professor is not being fair. After you answer the question, the professor may tell you that you got it right, that it is mostly correct, or that it is flat out wrong. That may hurt. You may feel slighted or wronged. This is the hard part about answering questions — getting them wrong. It is unavoidable. You are going to get answers wrong and may make mistakes.  As hard as this is, it is the most efficient way to clarify what you know and don’t know. It is important to not take being told that you are wrong personally. If you do, then you may stop asking questions altogether. 

Keep in mind:
Even if you answer the question correctly, you are still participating in class and are far braver than all of the other students that didn’t have the courage to try. The professor knows this and now knows you a little bit better.  

#9. Participate in what university is all about
Asking questions, challenging and discussing ideas is an element of what university has been about since the very first universities were created over 1000 years ago. It is part of going to university — where you are allowed to, encouraged to and rewarded for asking questions.   

#10. Create an opportunity for others to help (and do their job).
Don’t forget that answering your questions is, in fact, part of the professor’s job description. If you ever feel like you are wasting the professor’s time, just remind yourself that it is part of their job. 

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