Virtual staffroom – how to help learners who don’t ask for help when they need it

I work with adults, so although you might be able to apply some of this advice to children, it’s not written with children in mind. That’s not my area of expertise, so I wouldn’t try and tell anyone how to do it!

It occurred to me though that as with my earlier post about there being different reasons for learners being quiet in class, there are also different reasons for learners not asking questions. So, as the reasons are different, the solutions will be different too. Here are some that I thought of. I’d be interested to hear your ideas if you’d like to add any to the list.

Of course, if learners aren’t asking questions because they’ve understood everything and are just getting on with the work, there’s no need to worry. This article focuses on situations in which learners do need help or clarification, but are not asking for it.

1. Language barriers

Some students find it difficult to articulate what exactly the problem is, or what part of the instructions they have not understood. In these cases it can help to break the task or the explanation down into more manageable chunks so that it’s easier for them to remember, and easier for you to identify the sticking point, or the point where the learner stopped being able to follow the instructions or explanation.

Writing things down can also help. Some learners really struggle to retain information that they have only heard verbally. Having something in front of them that they can refer back to often makes it easier to remember the information, or to keep track of the steps in a longer process.

I can also relate this specifically to the language classroom. I don’t tend to have this problem as mostly I work with German speakers, and if they don’t understand something, I let them ask in German when they don’t feel able to in English. This is particularly true of my beginners, because I want them to not only do the work, but to understand what we’re doing and why. However, if you don’t speak a student’s native language or the school has a policy of not using it for English lessons, some students may well have questions that they’d love to ask, but they don’t do it, because they don’t know how to express the idea in English.

I can’t really offer advice on this, because I don’t teach complete beginners if they don’t speak German, and I don’t have an “only English is allowed in my classroom” rule, but I think it’s something to consider if students are showing signs that they don’t understand something. I discuss this further in my article about using a learner’s native language in the classroom.

2. Not wanting you or others to know that there is a problem

Some learners feel bad if they haven’t understood something, especially if everyone else around them seems to know what they’re doing. This can even crop up in one-to-one sessions, because a learner might feel self-conscious about asking for you to go through the same thing again if you’ve already been through it once.

If you experience this problem in bigger groups, is there a way that learners can approach you privately, so it doesn’t have to be in front of the whole group?

Sometimes I find that a learner really did understand what we were doing in the lesson, but then they leave it nearly a week before doing the homework task, by which time they’ve forgotten it all. Then it’s sometimes easier to say they forgot the homework than to admit that they forgot what we were doing.

Sometimes, especially if the student sees teachers in general as unapproachable authority figures, they might not like to be seen to challenge or question you, even when doing so would give them information that they would really like to know.

I think some of this is an ongoing conversation, but I do try to set expectations at the beginning by making it clear that questions are good, and I’d much rather someone asked a question or asked for clarification if they don’t understand something. It helps them to learn faster, and it helps me because I can’t fix problems if I don’t know they exist.

3. Bad experiences in the past

I remember being at school one day and a teacher actually asked a boy in my class whether he was an idiot. He wasn’t. He wasn’t messing about at the time, but he obviously hadn’t understood the question. I don’t think I ever heard that boy ask a question in those lessons after that. After all, who wants to have to justify in front of the whole class why you’re not an idiot?

Even if you don’t do things like this in your classroom, others may have. Learners may lack confidence about seeking clarification or asking questions if they’ve had to deal with unprofessional behaviour like this in the past.

4. Not wanting to be the centre of attention

Some people really don’t like it when all the attention is on them, whether it’s because it’s their turn to speak or because they want to know something. Making yourself available to answer questions individually can help with this. It’s less inhibiting than having everyone watching or listening and possibly making judgments about how good or bad the question was.

In reality, when questions are asked, there are often several people who were thinking the same thing and wanting to know.

5. Wanting to get away as quickly as possible

Sometimes people have already shut down. It’s usually when they are in the class because they have to be there, and not because they want to be. They don’t want to spend any longer than is absolutely necessary thinking or talking about the subject.

Sometimes this can be more deep-rooted. A learner is unlikely to ask questions about what they are doing today if they haven’t understood what you’ve been doing in the last few lessons, It’s like a snowball. If they start asking questions now, you might just discover what else they don’t know.

Often learners in this position need a bit of extra help to go back to basics and find out where things went wrong, or what they didn’t understand. Then you can help them build up the knowledge to understand the current materials. But to really do that, they need to know it’s ok to mention it, and not a sign of weakness or failure.

6. Resignation to the task being too difficult

Once someone believes that they can’t do something, a kind of negativity and lack of self-belief can really take a hold, and it’s hard to break through it. If a learner is feeling like this, they might also feel that it’s pointless to ask questions, because the material or the subject is too hard anyway. Sometimes it’s as much about working on a learner’s belief in themselves and their abilities as it is about a specific question.

7. Not wanting to speak

We’ve already spoken about learners who need explanations in writing, but some find it far easier to express themselves in writing too. They need time to collect their thoughts and get the question clear in their head, or on the computer screen, before they feel comfortable about asking it.

Or of course, there’s the student who just thinks of something after the lesson, but before you’re due to see them again.

I encourage my students to make notes of things that they want to know, because chances are they will have forgotten them by the time I next see them. Some genuinely also benefit from being able to write out the question, maybe with some examples.

Especially with adult learners, I find it’s good to have multiple avenues of contact. You can negotiate what those are, but ways of asking questions are not limited to verbal questions in the lesson. Of course there is also a need to manage expectations about the time you have available, and how quickly learners can expect a response.

8. Issues with the instructions

If all learners in a group are struggling with something – be it an explanation or a set of instructions – chances are you might need to look at how you’re communicating your message. Sometimes you’ll have no idea how a task will go down when used for the first time with real people. Sometimes in a group, nobody wants to be the first to ask, even though there may be more than one person in the room with no idea what’s going on!

Sometimes asking whether people have understood will result in everyone nodding in agreement, but if you ask for a volunteer to sumarise what has to be done, and nobody can, you know you have some work to do!

9. Passive learning styles

Some people are used to a learning environment where they are encouraged to absorb information, rather than to assess it analytically, ask questions, challenge assumptions, or point out flaws in the arguments. In such cases, learning to do these things is a skill that may need some development, in addition to developing language skills, and you as a teacher have a role to play in encouraging this if you want to see this type of behaviour being exhibited in your classroom.

Summing up

Making mistakes and asking questions are both essential for learning. If you have learners in either groups or one-to-one lessons who feel inhibited when it comes to asking questions, this is likely to have an impact on their progress. It’s true that if a question isn’t asked, you as a teacher can’t answer it, but equally if there is a reason why students are reluctant to ask questions, you can play an important role in addressing those issues.

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