Five Things to Never Say in Class

Published on March 5, 2018 by David Beutel  


How many times have I, as a student, heard the phrase "there is no such thing as a stupid question" from a professor begging for student participation in class? Answer: too many. Students can have different reasons for asking a question or remaining silent. Some "stupid" questions from students reflect a genuine desire to learn a confusing concept, but others indeed reflect lack of effort or even chronic laziness.

On a broader level, what students say in class directly reflects their effort invested in learning the class material. Here are five things I've heard other students say that I think reflect badly on their academic habits and assumptions. Each phrase is paired with a strategy for finding a replacement.

1. Instead of saying "Maybe I'm wrong, but...", humbly speak with confidence.

If you think something is worth presenting to your professor and classmates, you should be willing to persuade them that what you are saying has merit. Don't undermine yourself; if your personal research says something is a fact, state it as a fact and cite your source. Expressing your views as a student is a valuable part of class discussion, and professors like to see student participation. However, if you (and your source) are incorrect or incomplete, be willing to be corrected or challenged. If you are unsure about the truth of your statement, change the statement to a question. It is always a good idea to ask questions that show your familiarity with a concept in the material and how that concept interacts with other concepts.

Example: Instead of “Maybe I’m wrong, but global warming is true,” try “Some research I saw said the earth was warming between 1970 and 2000. Has anybody else seen the same research?”

2. When saying "I think it's interesting that...", say why.

When a professor opens the floor for discussion on an assigned text, describing something in the text as "interesting" and stopping there actually says nothing substantial about the topic other than the fact that the student has not yet thought enough about the topic to form an opinion. Again, it is the stopping after that sentence that shows lack of preparation, not necessarily the phrase itself. This phrase can be useful if it is the only way a student can introduce a thought that is indeed substantial. In general, to be “good,” a comment must show awareness of deeper significance. For example, when reacting to a text, comparing different ideas in the text is a good strategy.

Example: Instead of “I think it’s interesting that Martin Luther King Jr. wrote this letter from his jail cell,” try “I think it’s interesting that Martin Luther King Jr. wrote this letter from jail because that means he had to draw upon the other thinkers and arguments he uses from memory, not from looking at their works. He was very well educated!” (An even better contribution might be “How does King’s perspective on racism compare with what we read about racism in Gandhi’s writings?”)

3.  Instead of saying "You're wrong", focus on ideas.

If a student is in a class discussion about a reading assignment, the point of the discussion is just that: to come to a consensus about what the reading material says and why. If the discussion moves to how the reading assignment relates to personal views, being fair to all views requires that discussion be held in a civil way. This means that a person should never be labeled "wrong": their views may not agree with the text, but the student must be separated from the student's views. It is the statement that can be incorrect, not the person, so comment on statements, not people.

Example: Instead of “You’re wrong,” try “Help me understand where you see that in the text.”

4. Instead of asking "Will this be on the test?", take initiative.

Don’t even consider saying this. Asking this question indicates to your professor that you care less about the material and more about your grade. The answer to this question may be important for your grade, but are you taking the class just for the grade? Education's primary purpose is not the granting of a grade but the increase of knowledge. (Yes, grades are super important, but they are a secondary purpose.) Humble yourself and see class material from the professor's point of view: "If I took the time to plan to teach it, the least students can do is try to appreciate it." Then it’s your job to determine what material is ultimately the most important for your own learning and for the test. You can ask the professor for studying advice, but make sure you clarify that you are willing to put in all the effort necessary to succeed.

Example: Instead of “Should we study today’s notes for the test?”, try “How do the most successful students prepare for your exams?”

5. Instead of asking "When will we use this?", find value.

This question similarly shows a lack of respect for the teaching profession and also shows the inexperience of the student. The professor is the expert and has a more complete picture of how knowledge from various fields works together to advance education. Even if the information is not needed for the class, it may prove useful to know later. While you are in college, it is your responsibility to pursue learning even if you may not see the full benefit until much later. In fact, studying theory-based fields like the humanities may guarantee that you won’t see their full benefit while you are still in college. However, don’t let yourself work from low motivation. The more you value a class initially, the more you will be motivated to complete its assignments. (In my experience, this also works the opposite way: your motivation for learning in a class will help determine the value you give the class’s material later on.) To value your classes more, look for ways the concepts you are learning apply to the issues you care about.

Example: Instead of “When will we need philosophy after college?”, try “How have you seen the benefit of studying philosophical concepts in your own life?”

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