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Classroom Management: What Students Shouldn’t Ask

Jordan Catapano

We all agree that classrooms should be inquisitive, vibrant places full of questions. We frequently tell our students, “There are no stupid questions,” and we use classroom management to encourage their curiosity. But at the same time, we have to acknowledge that there are a few questions that seem – well – just a little frustrating to hear over and over again. These few questions indicate that students might not be focusing on the right thing. While we furrow our brows and scold students for bringing up the same unwelcome questions again and again, we can’t necessarily fault the students for asking them. We should examine what these questions are, why students ask them, and how we can use classroom management to guide students to a better way of thinking about their learning.

Classroom Management: “Is this on the Test?”

When students ask this, it indicates that the test assigns value to certain content. If it’s on the test, then it’s just valuable enough to learn (for the test). If it’s not on the test, then there’s no point in paying attention to it at all. This question makes it seem as though the test is the only thing that matters.

  • Why they ask this: Students ask this question because the test, in many ways, IS what assigns worth to learning. We reward students for getting good grades, and they get good grades by doing well on tests. Our system sets them up to focus most on what they’ll be tested on.
  • How to address it: Consider what holds the most weight in your classroom. If tests matter more than everything else, they will focus on the test. But how can you help students to redirect their focus to learning, goal-setting, and authentic experience?
  • A better question to ask: “What makes this worth learning?” or “How can this be applied?”

“Is this Good Enough?”

As an English teacher, I was wrought with detailed questions like “How long does this essay have to be?” and “How many sentences do I need to get a good grade?” I irked them by responding with “As many as it takes to make it great!” Students hate that response.

But it’s equally frustrating to teachers when students are obviously doing the minimum to earn whatever grade they’ve settled for achieving. “Is this good enough?” is really asking, “Have I achieved the minimum?” Instead of students pushing themselves to excel regardless of the letter grade, they are playing the game of school.

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  • Why they ask this: In my opinion, this is students being lazy. And this laziness is fueled by a lack of engagement and the understanding that it’s the grade, not the effort or learning that really matters.
  • How to address this: In addition to giving the predictable teacherly answers to this question (“It’s good enough if it represents your best work and effort …”), student attention should be directed towards the overall learning and goal-achieving their work represents. This question, ideally, should never cross their mind if they are truly committed to the knowledge and skill acquisition of your course.
  • A better question to ask: “What do I need to do next to make this great?” Good enough is the enemy of great.

“What are We Doing Today?”

Teachers are frequently asked this question at the start of class. Then they sigh, turn towards the student, and offer a snarky response: “Picking our noses!” When students walk into a classroom, they are justified in wanting to know how their time is going to be spent, but when this question pops up from student after student, day after day, it is indicative of a larger problem: Students have no clue what’s going on!

  • Why they ask this: In students’ defense, they ask because they don’t know, but they want to! For whatever reason, they aren’t informed beforehand what they’ll be studying or doing, or what’s expected of them.
  • How to address it: Tell students in advance what they’ll be doing and what’s expected. You can achieve this with giving a printed calendar, texting Remind messages, posting to an online website or forum, and projecting a Daily Agenda in your room. And once you do these things, train your students to pay attention to them.
  • A better question to ask: “How can I best prepare for the activity I know we’ll be doing tomorrow?”

“Do I Have to Show My Work?”

This question is more popular in some subjects than others. Math teachers, for example, are plagued with this question even though the answer is a perpetual “Yes!” Asking this question in math is like asking, “Do I have to use verbs in my paragraph?” in English. Of course you do.

  • Why they ask this: It would be a lot easier if students didn’t have to endure the laborious task of drafting, processing, and crunching through each step. Not showing work means taking shortcuts (which may or may not lead to the best result). It’s also worth considering that standardized tests – which often dictate what’s important – do not require students to show their work.
  • How to address this: Consistency is the first step. Don’t change the rules or expectations, or else students will get confused and definitely ask what rules are being applied in each given situation. This question also indicates a focus on result rather than process. Consider how you can reward students for their process as much as their outcome.
  • A better question to ask: “Can you give me feedback on the work you see leading up to my answer?”

“Am I Allowed to Use the Internet?”

In the world outside the classroom, this question doesn’t come up. Isn’t that interesting? The Internet is always an option for gaining information elsewhere. But suddenly we enter the classroom and this obvious resource is called into question.

  • Why they ask this: Well-meaning teachers ask students to use their minds, their notes, and their teacher-provided materials to accomplish the learning. This, they hope, will yield better results when students who are forced to rely on themselves. Students ask to use the Internet because it is an obvious wealth of information and insight, and leveraging it for their studies can, they feel, lead to better outcomes.
  • How to address this: Don’t restrict Internet use. Instead, make teaching students how to properly research, curate, process, and cite information a strong component of your instruction. Knowing how to use the Internet, not when to use the Internet, will better serve students beyond the classroom.
  • A better question to ask: “Can you help me better research and process through the Internet information related to this topic?”

“Is this Going to be Graded?”

Like other questions above, this question exposes the students’ belief that the grade is the end-all-be-all of learning. If a task doesn’t earn a grade, then it doesn’t feel like it’s worth it. Have you ever not graded a given task and seen disappointment written on students’ expressions? “But I actually worked hard on this!” they cry. Without being assigned a grade, it can feel like the effort put into it was a waste.

  • Why they ask this: This question comes up when there’s something lopsided to the learning. The grade, the grade, the grade is what assigns value to a task. Learning for learning’s sake does not exist.
  • How to address this: While grades might not go away, consider how you talk about learning and work. Not everything needs a grade, and perhaps more emphasis can be placed on the process and effort that goes into a product rather than the end result.
  • A better question: “What will I learn from doing this task?”

Rooting Out the Bad Questions

These questions almost all stem from the same common problem theme. The tasks of the classroom are centered far more around grades and scores rather than around authentic learning. Students have every right to be preoccupied with test results and what-gets-graded-vs-what-doesn’t when the entire system of reward and punishment revolves around these elements.

Every bad question has its root. If a question is gnawing at a student’s mind, there’s a reason for it. What systems are impacting your students’ curiosity, for better or worse? What is rewarded in your classroom? What gets attention and priority? How is learning talked about? How is feedback processed?

In the end, we might not eliminate these bad questions entirely, but we definitely need to consider to what extent we fuel the very environment that breeds these questions. When students’ curiosity extends only so far as the requirements for the grades they want, then we ultimately are doing them a disservice.

How do you respond to “Bad” questions when they come up in your class? Share your classroom management thoughts on this article with our teaching community by leaving a comment below!


Jordan Catapano taught English for 12 years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an Assistant Principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.