Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Why do students ask questions in class that challenge my authority?

International teaching assistant, CMU-Pittsburgh

I have been a TA in Economics for two years. In my first semester teaching recitation sections, I was offended when students asked questions in class like “I don’t see how you got that answer. Don’t you have to calculate X and Y?” and “But wouldn’t it be simpler just to do X and Z?” In my country, if students are confused, they either ask the professor outside of class or figure the answer out on their own. It’s considered impertinent to ask questions in class because it implies that the instructor isn’t sufficiently knowledgeable or that he hasn’t explained the concept well. When students in the U.S. asked me questions in class, it felt like they were challenging my expertise. At first, I wondered if they doubted me because I was a TA, not faculty. Then I wondered if they questioned my abilities because I’m a foreigner. But I realized that they asked U.S. TAs and faculty the same kinds of questions. And nobody seemed bothered at all!

I understand my students’ behavior better after going to classes at the Intercultural Communication Center in Pittsburgh. The staff there explained that students in the U.S. are encouraged throughout their schooling to ask questions. It isn’t intended to be disrespectful; in fact, it’s the opposite, since asking questions indicates that students are engaged and curious. I hadn’t thought about it that way. I still have a gut-level negative reaction when students ask questions in class. That sort of thing doesn’t disappear overnight. But I remind myself that students mean no disrespect and I answer cheerfully. There are times now when I even like it.

Other strategies 

  • Address the cultural differences directly in a way that compliments students and encourages them to engage in questioning, while also explaining your own reaction, e.g., “Students here ask such good questions in class. In my country, students tend not to participate, so I appreciate that you do, even if it sometimes catches me off guard. Keep up the questioning; it will help me see what you do and don’t understand, and help you learn the material more deeply.”
  • When planning for class, ask yourself: “What might students struggle with? What might be unclear to them?” This will help you focus extra attention on potentially difficult material and to better anticipate student questions.
  • Ask students to write their questions on index cards and pass them to the front of the class. Review student questions briefly (during a short break or when students are engaged in an activity) and identify shared areas of confusion, then spend some time clarifying, giving examples, etc. This way, you will have time to consider student questions and will feel more in control of the situation.

For help brainstorming or adapting strategies to your own teaching context, contact the Eberly Center in Pittsburgh, the Eberly Center in Qatar, or the Intercultural Communication Center in Pittsburgh.