Successfully Asking Questions In Class

Do you ask questions in class at least once per week? For many students, the answer is probably “no”.  Reasons for such an answer may include one or more of:
– I don’t want to let my peers or the teacher know I don’t understand something
– I am uncertain about what to ask… I just don’t get what the teacher is talking about
– I don’t wish to appear to be the teacher’s “pet”
– I am not being called on when I raise my hand
– Someone else asked a question first, and the teacher needed to move on
– The teacher has not answered my past questions – they just said “see me after class”


A number of small preparatory steps may help get your questions answered in class, particularly if your class is a large one.  The need for such steps will vary greatly from one school to another, or one teacher to another, but they will not hurt your efforts to master the subject even if they are not necessary to get your questions answered during class time:

  • Ask questions of your teacher outside of class time on several occasions early in the semester, particularly if you have never had this teacher before.  This will help you get to know your teacher a little better, and will also help your teacher:
    – associate your name with your face
    – gain some experience with the types of questions you have
  • Sit in the front half of the class, if possible.  This will make it:
    – easier for the teacher to notice when your hand is raised
    – more likely for you to be recognized instead of someone in front of you
    – easier for you to hear the teacher and read what is on the board or screen
    – easier for the teacher to hear your question
  • Read the next section of the text before class
    – so you can focus your attention during class on what you found confusing
    – so you feel less need to take notes (why duplicate what is already in the book?)
    – so you can get as much as possible out of your time in class
  • Don’t allow note-taking to stop you from thinking about what is being presented or discussed during class. Listen actively during class, and take notes by:
    – writing down only points that interest you or questions you have
    – using the last few minutes of class to reflect on what took place during class
    after reflecting, summarizing (not repeating with full detail) the new material you learned
    – asking your un-answered questions to peers or your teacher before the next class

When and how you ask a question are as important as the question itself. Your teacher has a plan for the entire class period, so if your question helps advance that plan it will receive more attention.

Questions About Something That Was Just Said

If you have a question about something the teacher just said or did, ask it immediately, briefly, and specifically. The more brief and specific your question, the better.  Examples of such questions include:
– where did the number 12 come from in the last line on the board?
– what was done to get the “5x” term to disappear?
– what identity allows you to make the substitution in the second line?

Teachers are often happy to answer such questions because more than one student is likely to have the same question, and the answer does not take much time away from the plan for the class. If answering such a question is likely to improve everyone’s understanding of the topic at hand, the teacher is probably going to answer it immediately instead of asking you to save the question for later.

Your classmates will often be glad you asked such a question, as it will help them understand the material better too – even if they did not think of the same question.

Conceptual Questions

Conceptual question are often the best ones to ask, and can sometimes be the hardest to answer. Conceptual questions ask about the idea(s) behind a topic or procedure, and often start with “Why” or “How”. Examples include:
– Why does adding a term to both sides affect only one term on each side of an equation, but multiplying both sides by something affects all terms on both sides?
– Why does the “order of operations” require that specific order?
– Why does dividing by zero produce an answer of undefined? What does that mean?

“Why” and “How” questions are often the ones that lead to the best understanding of the material. They are often best to ask after the teacher has finished making their points, but before the class has started working on problems. For me, conceptual questions help me to understand a topic much better… while they may often be difficult to answer well, thinking about them and arriving at an answer to them will often fundamentally change how I think about the topic.

Big Questions

Big Questions are about broad topics… the entire chapter, everything discussed in class over the past two weeks, philosophical questions about the topic being studied, etc.  Examples include:
– What kinds of equations are there other than the “Linear Equations” we have studied all year?
– What is the point of learning Standard, Factored, and Vertex forms of a quadratic equation?
– Is this technique useful in solving any type of equation?

Such questions often require a longer or more thought through answer, and may not fit into the teacher’s plan for today’s class.  You will have the best chance of getting them answered if you ask them when the teacher is not in the middle of a planned activity. Once again, the more specific and brief you can make your question, the higher the probability of it being addressed to your satisfaction.

Big Questions could lead a teacher to plan a future class around the question, or do some research before getting back to you. They can also lead a teacher to recommend additional outside reading to you, or recommend that you contact another person with the question. Demonstrating that you have done some independent research on a question can improve your chances of getting your teacher to spend some time on the question with you.

Questions To Avoid

Do not expect your teacher to answer questions during class time that involve:
– repeating more than a sentence or two of what they have just said
– re-explaining the entire topic
– repeating an entire procedure that was just illustrated on the board

If you have questions like the ones above, you may not have been paying enough attention to what was taking place in class, or your knowledge may have too many gaps in it for the teacher to address your question without putting aside their plan for the day’s class.

If you feel that you “did not understand” something that was just done on the board, but cannot really pinpoint what about it you did not understand, your best options are probably one or both of the following:
1) Ask the teacher if they could review a slightly different example so you can watch the process occur a second time
2) Ask a fellow student to work through what was done on the board with you (without looking at the board or your notes if possible), then ask the teacher to help you at your desk if you get stuck


The more prepared you are for a class, the fewer questions you are likely to have, and the better your chances of getting your questions answered.

Don’t let note-taking interfere with your listening actively to what is going on in class. You should be constantly comparing what you are hearing to what you think you already know, and focusing on things that confuse you, surprise you, or seem to conflict with prior knowledge. Such items should appear in your notes, along with an end-of-class summary of key points or ideas from the class.

Try to ask questions in a way, and at a time, that respects your sense of the teacher’s plan for the day’s class.

When questions arise, pursue them until you get an answer that you understand, and which makes sense to you… either from classmates, the teacher, your parents, another teacher, etc. Some questions may take days to answer, while others may take only seconds.

By Whit Ford

Math tutor since 1992. Former math teacher, product manager, software developer, research analyst, etc.

1 comment

  1. Great post! Students should never be afraid to ask questions. Two sayings I am constantly reminded of: “there’s no such thing as a dumb question,” and “if you were wondering about it, someone else was probably wondering about it as well.”

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