If I'm in class and haven't done the reading, is it better to ask questions that might seem obvious to my classmates (especially if no one else is saying anything) or to just sit back and listen?


Molly Pennington, PhD, PhD, Former Professor, Writer

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Class discussions can be nerve-racking when everyone is sitting in silence. Is the question too hard or is it just that no one did the reading? I understand that you might want to break the ice, but you should definitely sit this one out if you aren't familiar with the topic or assignment--unless you're willing to bring that up as part of your comment or question.

For instance, would it be useful to say something like, "I found it difficult to get past the first pages of the assignment. I didn't understand what the author meant in this passage." Then give an example. While you won't score any points for not finishing the reading, there's a good chance that other students may be just as confused. And your professor will probably be open to explaining and breaking down the reading if students found the concepts hard or confusing.

Questions like this can be a good way to get discussion started and to keep it substantive.

Asking "obvious" questions is not a productive mode, unless you have follow-ups that can lead the discussion in more fruitful directions--which you don't if you haven't done the reading.

I know that some readings will be missed due to various circumstances, but you should try not to make it a habit. If you're having a hard time getting through an assignment, take notes on why. It's perfectly reasonable to bring these points up to your professor or bring them up during discussion.

Joelle Renstrom, BU professor

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I appreciate this question a lot--I think most students who don't do the reading don't think that much about how to conduct themselves in class. The question also demonstrates an understanding of the room--namely, that it might be better to ask obvious questions than for everyone to sit in awkward silence. Not much is worse for a teacher than awkward silence. At the same time, obvious questions aren't all that helpful. I might ask one or two obvious or fact-based questions at the beginning of class to kick off a discussion, but I have concerns with students participating on this level. First, it's almost always obvious to a professor when students haven't done the reading. There are certain types of answers and questions that trigger our "BS" detectors. Second, by asking obvious questions, students suggest to other students that it's acceptable to either not do the reading or to read only on a superficial level. That's a dangerous suggestion that could threaten the helpfulness of a discussion group if embraced by other students. Bear in mind that teachers are pretty realistic--I know that some students won't do the reading. Of course, I hope it's a one-time thing because of a big exam or the flu or whatever. It happens. But the best answer to the question is to do the reading, period. And if you don't, you should accept the consequences of not participating, rather than potentially undermining a class session by asking obvious questions or filling the air with fluff.

Robyn Scott, Educational Consultant, TutorNerds LLC

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Once students get behind in their reading it's really hard to get back into the swing of things. The first task is to make sure that you have a strategy for keeping up with the reading for the next book. Sometimes the amount of chapters assigned can become overwhelming especially when other assignments and quizzes are around the corner.

Although the ideal situation would be to read the book chapter by chapter, students can also look at some alternatives that will help them participate in class. You could get the audio book which will read the book aloud to you while you listen. This can definitely help auditory learners and students who are fatigued. Additionally, you can read the summary for each chapter on many online study guides so you at least have an idea of what happened during that portion of the novel. Ultimately, it will be a judgment call as to whether you decide to spend the class listening to your teacher and other students to get an idea of what went on during the book or to ask a question or start a discussion that you don't 100% understand.

If you want to get some ideas going think about asking character-centered questions that focus on their development or situation rather than plot points that will be impossible to follow if you haven't read the text.

I hope this helps!

Maryann Aita, Writer, expert tutor, and creative writing MFA candidate

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I agree that, in general, it's best not to try and initiate a discussion if you haven't done the reading. Molly makes an excellent point that you should speak up if you tried to do the reading, but ran into trouble at a certain point. Attempting the reading and not being able to finish it is different than shirking the assignment entirely.

If you didn't do the reading at all, I'd advise sitting back and listening. At some point, a student will jump in or the teacher will ask another question. First, you'll get a better idea of what the reading was about by listening to other students' opinions. Secondly, you'll give students who did complete the reading a chance to really discuss instead of you just talking for the sake of saying something. Monopolizing a discussion about a topic you don't know doesn't look good for you and other students may not appreciate it.

While I would also emphasize the importance of doing the reading for every class (it only benefits YOU in the end) one option that hasn't been mentioned yet is to skim the reading if you didn't have time to read it in its entirety. Look at headings or topic sentences and get an idea of the subject matter. If you can, try to pull out a small section to read in-depth so that, in the event of a very quiet class, you can contribute one thoughtful question or comment to get the discussion going.

Anonymous, Former graduate student

While I would never recommend skipping the reading for any class, doing every reading for every class is definitely hard to keep up with many times. That being said, here are my recommendations for your questions.

From my experience, most students are timid and shy when it comes to volunteering to answer questions, especially when it's about a certain reading that many students probably did not do. So if you just sit and wait for a discussion to start based on another student asking a question, it may not happen. Worst-case scenario is that the teacher begins calling on random students. If no one is asking a question, I would go ahead and ask a question that wouldn't make it too obvious that I missed the reading. I would do this if I'm willing to ask a "dumb question" in front of the class. If the teacher is docking points to those who obviously have not ready, then I would keep silent. But if not, go ahead and give it a try! You have nothing to lose. Plus, if you take the initiative in asking the first question, you may ease up the atmosphere for other students to ask questions as well. I hope this helps you and I wish you the best of luck in your class!

Jessica Sillers, DC Freelance Writer, MFA Grad

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I second Molly's advice to start by focusing on why you got stuck on the reading.

I've got a bit of a difference of opinion from some of the other experts. I think obvious questions can have a place in learning. For one, you describe the questions as potentially obvious to your classmates. But if they're questions you're genuinely struggling with, I think you should ask. You're in this class to learn. Biting your tongue because you're afraid you'll get judged doesn't do you any favors. That said, you should be making your best effort to finish assigned readings and think through problems as far as you can.

Asking seemingly obvious questions has also been helpful for me to understand the "why" behind a concept, rather than simply memorizing it.

If there's a lively discussion going on and you can't participate because you slacked that week, it seems more polite to catch up on your own time and not derail class with basic questions. If the room's silent or you tried the reading and couldn't get a foothold anywhere, I think even a basic question can be a worthwhile starting point for you.

Anonymous, Freelance Writer

Hey there! As a fellow students who's totally been there, I get a little apprehensive about this too. Sometimes, we forget to do the reading, and it's hard to figure out what's going on in the chapter(s) we haven't read. I would recommend sitting back and listening, but in the event you are called on, just politely inform the professor you forgot to read. It's okay! Teachers and professors are more understanding than we realize.

I hope this helps! I've had some experience with this, especially the forgetting part. :)

Matthew Clemens, Physics and Math Teacher, Parent, and Tutor

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Don't try to fake it. That is really obvious. Be honest about the fact that you didn't do the readings, be responsible for it, and commit to reading for the next time. If you have a quiz, don't fake it and make up an answer. I appreciate an honest, sorry I didn't read way more than a fake answer that wastes my time and yours.

Anonymous, Response to article, I don't have a facebook account

What about the fact that 57% of college students and degree holders are women as an indication of sexism? If 57% of college students and degree holders were men, this would be cited as a symptom anti-female sexism in our culture. Why isn't it cited as a symptom of anti-male sexism? If women tended to read less than men, no one would dare say "well, that's just how women are", it would be claimed that the anti-female sexism within our culture, socializes them to be less inclined to intellectual pursuits. Why do men read less than women? Is it just because that's how they are, or are men SOCIALIZED to be non-readers- non-intellectual. If you look at human history can you find evidence that MEN are just not inclined to intellectual pursuits? If you've paid attention to commercials for the last 20 or so years, in virtually every last one of them, you can find some message that men and boys are ridiculous, incompetent fools. That FACT alone is a basis for an argument that boys in our society are being socialized to be stupid.. If I had a son I wouldn't allow him to watch tv adds. I recently heard a 19 year old boy, who's a freshman in college say "Girls are given such preferential treatment." If we were to WORK on closing the 57% /43% gender gap (and what work that would entail is an interesting question) and get just as many young men in institutions of higher learning as STUDENTS, then your arguments about the gender gap in faculties wouldn't seem like such a double-standard. And, after all, wouldn't everyone stand to gain from this outcome?

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