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Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

Am I the Only One Who’s Confused? How to Help Students Raise a Hand

Teachers can start by revealing when they don’t know something
By Tenelle Porter — October 25, 2023 2 min read
How do I help students who are afraid to ask questions?
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How do I help students who are afraid to ask questions?

Raising a hand in class is hard. Here’s what you can do to make it easier—I wrote a piece about the topic for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:

“Look at the results. What should our alpha level be to correct for multiple comparisons?”

I stared at the statistics problem on the whiteboard and saw a cornucopia of symbols and numbers but nothing that looked remotely like an “a,” let alone an “alpha.” All around me, pencils scratched out calculations as my classmates got to work. I pretended to start my own calculations as my heart thudded and my face flushed hot.

“If I don’t know the answer to this question,” I thought, “I don’t belong in this class.”

It turns out I’m not alone. In a study of over 1,000 high school students recruited by Character Lab Research Network, about 40 percent said they regularly hesitated to admit if they didn’t know something or were confused in class. The struggles were especially strong among girls and were most common in math.

Why? We tend to believe that you can’t be good at math unless you’re really, really smart. The more we think we need to be “brilliant” to succeed (or at least look successful), the harder it is to reveal what we don’t know to others.

But if students don’t feel comfortable voicing their questions in school, they will miss opportunities to learn from peers and teachers—the very opportunities that can make them brilliant. As they begin to equate not knowing with incompetence, they may stop asking questions altogether.

To help teens overcome this resistance, you can validate their feelings by sharing times you have felt reluctant to ask—like my story about statistics class.

I wound up sticking it out in stats—with a little help from my classmate Liz. Still in a panic, I glanced up from my paper and saw a hand shoot into the air. “What do you mean by alpha level?” Liz asked.

“Good question,” the teacher said. Now the learning could begin.

Don’t hide what you don’t know. The more you conceal your questions, the scarier it becomes to ask for help.

Do be brave and share your questions with the world. Try this experiment with your students for a week: When someone uses a word or makes an unfamiliar reference, admit it instead of pretending to know. Then talk about your experiences with one another at the end of each class. You may be surprised at how much you learn and how much braver you become.

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The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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