No Need to Apologize

I recently received a message from one of my students asking for a little clarification of the material we covered in class this week. No big deal, really. I rather enjoy talking (or writing) about the material in my class. As I tell my students occasionally, there’s no class I’d rather teach than psychology. In my completely biased opinion, it is easily the best class to both enroll in as a student and to teach. 

The fact that this student felt comfortable with sending me her questions is great. I try to create an environment where students are able to see their mistakes as opportunities to improve. So, a lack of understanding isn’t a bad thing. What is bad is the inability to rectify their confusion with the subject matter. I constantly tell my students they’d rather assess their learning during studying and find out they don’t understand something before they are tasked with a summative assessment on the material. If they find out on the test they don’t know the information, it’s too late. The time to discover holes in their learning is during studying, which I am more apt to call ‘assessment of learning’ than studying…wording is important. I encourage my students to ask questions. I encourage their messages; either in front of the class (virtually or in person) during instruction or one-on-one after class. If they’re questioning their understanding of the material, they are thinking about the information. That’s huge…and I don’t think they quite understand this, so I make a point to mention it several times throughout the semester. It sounds odd to say, but I don’t think many students understand how important thinking about and thinking with and using the material is to learning. As teachers, we may ‘get it’, but that doesn’t mean students do. Don’t fall prey to the curse of knowledge.

There is one aspect of this student’s message that bothered me, though. 

She apologized. Twice. 

She apologized for asking me questions about the material. Me. The teacher. She apologized for essentially asking me to do my job. Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve had students apologize before asking for clarification or further explanation, but this time it really hit home…not sure why. Maybe, since I’m teaching all virtual right now, I’m hypersensitive to my students’ experience in my class. I really don’t know. Whatever the reason, her apology really made me examine how I communicate my willingness to assist my students. I mean, I think I am an approachable person. But, perhaps, I’m not as professionally welcoming as I thought. It’s something I will reexamine and be more conscious of in the future. 

Now, is it entirely possible this student apologized out of sheer kindness? Of course. Another possibility may be that she felt bad for sending the message after our class and maybe she thought it a bit rude to ask in the late afternoon. I have mentioned several times in our class meetings to send me messages through schoology or email whenever they need to. Even if it’s late at night, it won’t bother me. I may not be able to answer until the morning, but go ahead and send me those questions. Maybe she missed that? I don’t really know and really that doesn’t matter as much to me as the bigger picture.

Students need to be empowered to take control of their learning. Yes, they need to know how to use learning strategies that assist with more effective and efficient practice. Yes, they need to know how important the environment is to learning. Yes, they need to know how important assessment is in the learning process. They also need to understand this is their education. No one can really do this for them. They need to take ownership of it. Ownership means putting in the work during class and after class. It also means to take control when they don’t know something; raise the hand in class, write the email, show up during office hours. And don’t apologize for this. Sure, be polite. Yes, realize that teachers have a life and have other priorities so they may not get to your email immediately. But, still ask; still go that extra mile to account for your education. No one else is going to do it for you. Knowledge is so powerful. The more I’m alive on this earth, the more I’m convinced it is one of the most precious gifts we can both receive from another and bestow upon oneself. Don’t apologize for claiming this gift and using it to learn more, to improve your life, and to improve the lives of others. 

I see it as my responsibility, as the teacher, to introduce my students to this perspective on education and show them what it means. I talk with my students about this a few times a semester and I always try to use language that celebrates questioning in my classroom; whether those questions are aimed at the material or my own understanding. I ask them not to apologize for asking me to do my job when they seek me after class for a little more instruction. I make a point to remind them that questioning students are thinking students and thinking students are learning students. Don’t apologize for questioning. Don’t apologize for thinking. Don’t apologize for learning. 


Feature image by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash.

3 thoughts on “No Need to Apologize

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  1. Yes, we need to remind them that it’s okay or even very good to ask us questions. Any time. The trand that spoils it is “ask your peer before you ask me” that is stressed in many classes too heavy on group work.

    Glad I discovered your blog. I teach biomedical sciences and stress cognitive sciences approach to learning all the time.

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