So I got into the habit of saying "I don't understand". Inevitably, there would be quite a number of other people who also didn't understand, but were afraid to ask, so I'd just ask first. That stuck with me throughout my career and served me well. If you don't understand, ask.
Also, contrary to common sentiment, there is no minimum competency level that grants you the privilege of saying "I don't understand." Ignorance is not a monopoly of the elite.
It's not about plain ignorance, but conscious incompetence. That can be a great deal of work to attain in a given domain, getting to that "I know what I don't know" place so you can actually make pointed questions. You have to have a fairly good map of the territory already to begin filling in the gaps.
Many of those people furiously writing probably didn't even know where to begin to ask... just write the stuff down now, understand later. Asking "I don't understand" doesn't make you look stupid, it's the follow-up "what don't you understand?", and then showing you can't even get into a proper discussion about your ignorance.
I'm a teacher and I like students who ask me to re-explain or re-present a step in an argument. In fact, I use techniques designed to find out how much my students know and 'how they know it'. I teach fairly basic Maths, and different students learn the basics in different ways.
I'd like a student who could articulate which step in a complex argument is the issue even more! I usually ask follow up questions to find out where the issue is without putting the questioner on the spot.
This sounds interesting. Could you talk more about it?
A longer example is at
Even if you aren't sure what you don't understand, narrowing your questions or explaining your reasoning on things you do understand (or think you understand, sometimes we all are wrong on some key assumption that changes everything) can help your tutor fill in the bits that help explanation. Further, this sort of exercise is an example of metacognition, which teaching theory suggests is a very vital part of directed learning.
I think that it is the explainer's responsibility to explain it in a way that will be 1) understood by others 2) not intimidating, so if it's not understood, people will still feel they can ask.
Crafting an explanation in a way that others can follow is one of the most powerful and useful skills a developer or manager can strive to achieve, not just the ability to understand others who don't have this skill.
E.g. if I hear "I don't understand" I don't think "ok, this person is not getting it", but rather "my explanation should be better"
On the other side of the equation, I had one amazing EE professor who would write something on the board, and before he turned around would say to the class "You don't understand this", erase it, and take a better approach. He was able to tell when the class didn't get his explanation and would improve it real-time.
A lot of times when I'm building something in a problem space I don't know very well, I like to keep guidelines loose, because I know that I'll be taking some leaps in development, and I know I'll be working in areas where I'm not fully competent.
For those reasons, it's hard for me to envision the project start to finish -- I'll know the general steps, but each implementation detail is a variably sized black hole that I can't peer into until I get deeper into it.
For things I'm more familiar with, I'm able to ask better questions, and more easily identify when something isn't going to work, or at least not work as expected. To the lay person, I appear dumber on the things I know better because I'm able to ask more specific questions, so I ask more of them until I'm 100% confident that I do understand, and generally, at that point I can just do what I'm supposed to. Where I'm less competent, I ask fewer questions up front, but then way more as I'm doing to make sure that what I've ended up with is going to meet expectations.
From the other side I find it incredibly useful to get questions while speaking and I wish I was better at encouraging them. When writing a talk you have to write for some imaginary audience who won't ever quite match your actual one. But if you can get them to start asking questions then immediately you have the opportunity to tailor what you're doing for the audience in front of you. It's a very satisfying feeling :)
Any tips from anyone here for making people feel more inclined to ask questions? Often the ones who could most benefit (and create the most benefit for others) are the the ones least likely to have the confidence to do it.
Become more of an asshole.
There are probably more eloquent ways of phrasing that, but I want something that will stick in your mind when you're actually on the spot, and that works.
The idea here is to stop caring quite so much about what others want and what others will think of you.
If you constantly worry that you're interrupting the flow and that you'll be bogging everyone else down, don't. Embrace the asshole side of you to ask the question and damn the consequences.
If you worry that the people around you will think you're dense, fuck them. They don't have the first clue about you, and you're in that class for you, not for them.
I believe this sums up the way people should behave when in a class.