1. 37
  1.  

  2. 13

    The description of the author’s experience encountering difficult material in college resonated with me. It’s important to be willing to take risks and learn how to not be embarrassed by asking “dumb” questions. Equally important (for me) was finding a group of students to discuss classwork and homework assignments with. You don’t really learn something until you’re able to explain it clearly to someone else.

    1. 1

      It’s a crisis of self confidence. This took me YEARS to overcome in life. Haven’t quite figured it out in academic classroom environments, even still.

      1. 1

        My mantra was ‘so what?’ and very effective. So what if they think it’s a dumb question? So what if others think I’m stupid or dumb? ‘So what’ solved most of my scary moments.

    2. 9

      As a ‘dumb’ guy - at least in math - this is a story I wish I could have shared with my younger self. I think I was a lot like the second person in the story, who silently struggled and was too afraid to ask for help with the basics. I never could end up getting though the material, and never finished my degree. The terrible thing is that I think that anxiety leads to a vicious spiral. The worse you do, the worse you feel, and the harder it is to ask for help.

      Things have turned out alright for me in the end, but I’ll always wonder “what if…?”

      1. 2

        I composed an almost identical reply. It’s interesting how apparently this is a rather common story. In my case, this experience, oft repeated during my college career, has given me an almost neurotic relationship to the classroom that haunts me to this day.

      2. 5

        Speaking as someone who was that TA…

        Firstly, we (TAs and pretty much all teachers I’ve known) always gripe about students' lack of understanding since it’s a kind of therapy. It’s like you have to say these things out loud to get rid of frustration. That’s some sort of human nature thing I don’t totally understand, but the upside is that once you hear yourself, you often realize how ridiculous you sound. That said, it is best to gripe in private.

        There is always that one student, though, that really annoys the hell out of you. The one that keeps asking the same question, more or less complains about their lack of understanding, but, crucially, never does any work.

        The reason the griping sounds ridiculous when you hear yourself say it is that you see yourself confusing the symptoms with the real problem. The symptoms are repeated questions and lack of understanding, but the real problem is the total lack of work ethic from the student. Most teachers I’ve talked with genuinely care to help someone understand something, but none of them want to do all the work so that the student can merely proclaim that they understand.

        (And there are always cases of those who genuinely try and just can’t seem to do it. Those cases always break your heart a little.)

        1. 8

          I’m a TA right now (2nd TAship, for 2nd and 3rd year courses resp.). I haven’t had to deal with the “always asks, never works” archetype, thankfully. On the other side of the classroom, I have seen many professors and especially TAs that respond to a repeated question with a repeated answer. If someone asks you the same question twice, your first answer was incoherent. Giving the same answer doesn’t help, because obviously they didn’t get what they needed from it the first time.

          1. 2

            Firstly, we (TAs and pretty much all teachers I’ve known) always gripe about students' lack of understanding since it’s a kind of therapy. It’s like you have to say these things out loud to get rid of frustration. That’s some sort of human nature thing I don’t totally understand, but the upside is that once you hear yourself, you often realize how ridiculous you sound. That said, it is best to gripe in private.

            That’s the key, right there. Feelings are tricky beasts. The classroom is a tricky emotional situation for some people to start with. Asking for help, as the article’s author outlined, feels like baring your throat to the world, practically inviting it to be ripped out.

            I recognize that this sounds dramatic, but again we’re talking about feelings here, not rational thought.

            So yeah, you REALLY need to engage in your therapy in private, where you’re not unintentionally taking a great big psychic crap all over someone who’s already struggling.

          2. 5

            How can we as a society break down these walls of embarrasent earlier in life? I would guess that a great number of high schoolers have the same exact problem, and are less “successful” as a result. Even middle schoolers…

            1. 2

              I think it’s up to parents to teach their children how to be self confident in such matters. Easier said than done, I know, but I think it’s important.

              1. 1

                Oh I agree! Parents ultimately have the responsibility here. But, of course, not all parents are created equal on these matters, as I’ve discovered (I have 2 girls under 5).

              2. 1

                We need to teach children how to handle failure. Many do not encounter truly difficult material until they hit college, where there isn’t a safety net anymore.

              3. 3

                Communication is difficult, and if your audience doesn’t understand what you’re trying to say, you might not be communicating effectively. This is doubly true with teaching–typically, we communicate with people who share a lot of context with us, but the students you’re teaching might not have any of that context. If you want to teach effectively, you need to first get a sense for what that student’s context is–ie what they know already–and then once you have that, build them up from there to get to where you want them to be.

                It’s the same when you’re trying to explain to your friends or relatives what you work on, or trying to explain a comment in a code review to a less experience engineer. It’s a hard skill, but it helps build your empathy and makes you a much more effective teacher, mentor, and communicator, which is one of the most valuable skills you can have.

                1. 3

                  In “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” the authors rail against teachers who complain “I taught that to them, but they didn’t learn it.” No, no, no. What you did was talk at them. That’s not teaching.

                2. 1

                  I’m lucky enough to be “that guy who always asks questions” in class. I justified it for two reasons: (1) it’s the instructor’s job to teach me, and (2) it’s almost disrespectful not to ask questions. Elaborating on (2), as a presenter/instructor the person asking questions is both paying attention to what you’re doing and showing that your presentation is at least somewhat intelligible.

                  I was always curious talking to my friends after class and hearing them say “I have no idea what we were just taught.” My (naive) theory is there are a few different archetypes of quiet students.

                  • I’m too lazy to be here.
                  • I was on the internet for the first 20 minutes and don’t know where we’re at.
                  • I told my peers this class was easy so I can’t ask questions.
                  • My question is stupid.
                  • I’ll just ask the question after class/in office hours

                  In my mind, it’s a problem that the “dumb” person is quiet and that many questions get asked one-on-one: the questions help everyone (including the instructor).

                  The argument that questions slow down the class and prevent material from being covered is nonsense: the question indicates the material was not thoroughly presented; if there are so many questions such that all the material cannot be presented then something needs to be changed. (This does get into a gray area as to when questions are off-topic: the instructor needs to take some discretion and discuss things offline with individuals.)

                  1. 1

                    I wished I understood this better earlier in life.

                    I was bad at college-level math. Turns out, if I got a good prof, I got an A. If not, I struggled to get a B-. I should have asked more questions and not gotten so discouraged. Those teachers should have taken it more seriously, too. I was one course away from a math minor, due to course load. I never took that class because I hated math and was convinced I was bad at it.

                    That was 12 years ago. Now I really see how math connects to programming.