Are Students Still Taught to Raise Hands to Ask/Answer Questions?

This weekend I was watching the movie Moonfall, and there’s a moment in it where a scientist raises their hand in an important meeting. The person running the meeting says something to the effect of, “This isn’t grade school–you don’t need to raise your hand.”

While I think there are circumstances in adult life where it’s appropriate to raise your hand (like in a Q&A session), there are far more situations where the standard method of participation is simply to speak up.

Yet when I was growing up, throughout every level of education (until college), if a student wanted to speak in class, they had to raise their hand. That’s how we were taught that participation works. But why? This seems like an opportunity to teach a real-world skill (reading pauses and having the confidence to speak); instead, it creates a default we actively need to unlearn in the real world.

I know it’s not as clear-cut as what I’m saying here–after all, this is only my experience, and I’m 41, so I haven’t been in a classroom in a long time. Maybe it’s different now. And perhaps it’s necessary to control the chaos in elementary school. But middle school and high school seem like a great time to learn this life skill.

What was your experience with hand-raising in the classroom? Have you had to fight that engrained instinct in meetings or group discussions as an adult? Do you think it has a place up until a certain level of education?

12 thoughts on “Are Students Still Taught to Raise Hands to Ask/Answer Questions?”

  1. Jamey,

    Interesting article. I find the notion that as people gets older there is a general reticence to even ask questions, so I’m not exactly sure why that happens but I have my suspicions. As to raising one’s hand, I find that my team of linguists still raise their hands in a professional setting, such as during a staff meeting. I’m intrigued by the notion, and will have to take greater care when observing groups of people, especially those inside of and outside training environments.


    • Joe: That’s an interesting point about reticence to asking questions and how hand raising might help with that.

  2. Where I teach (a science class once a week at our elementary homeschool co-op) we require hand raising. These kids have no problem generally speaking out about what they want (not being in a typical school setting), and we need to rein in the chaos, as you noted was a possibility. I think at elementary age, in any type of school setting, this usually prevents one kid from being a runaway talker/answerer. Some kids are naturally more shy, and while they might know the right answer, they will rarely volunteer it in an unstructured setting. Requiring hands allows the quieter kids to have a chance, and it gives the teacher time to assess who has and hasn’t answered yet. Now, I agree that this could be phased out as kids get older, more as a responsibility and honor than a right. It could be earned in a classroom where respect and maturity are aimed at (if not always achieved).

    • Susannah: That makes sense about reining in the chaos. 🙂 I think part of my perspective comes from being shy about speaking up when I was a kid, but as a result I think I depended too much on hand raising, even after it was less relevant in the adult world.

  3. “Hands up” as a teaching strategy is definitely strongly discouraged in Australia (we were all shown that “anyone, anyone?” teacher bit from Ferris Bueller while we were at university learning how to be teachers – and how not to be); however, it is still certainly expected if you have a question to ask. Heck, even in our own staff meetings you’re expected to put your hand up if you have something to ask. It’s just common courtesy not to just blurt things out over the top of others.

    Of course, this doesn’t necessarily translate into practice in the actual classroom. A lot of it depends on what the home life of the specific student is like. If they live in a large boisterous household filled with big personalities, then shouting out whenever a stray thought enters the mind is natural and is very, very hard to untrain.

    • Mike: Thanks for sharing! I agree that it’s a common courtesy not to blurt things out over the top of others; rather, I think it’s a skill to learn to recognize pauses/lulls in group conversation as the time to speak up.

  4. My first thought for kids was along the lines of reining in the chaos, and to a degree teaching kids to realize how many others may want to speak at the same time you do…some kids need to realize that theirs isn’t the only voice and to learn patience.
    Interestingly, I find that in virtual meetings and classes with enough participants, virtual hand raising still happens and is still encouraged by facilitators. I find it useful in larger groups become it’s difficult to read the room and avoid talking over one another. In smaller groups, I actively encourage participants not to raise their hand to draw out more free-flowing conversation when there is less likelihood of everyone speaking at once.

    • “some kids need to realize that theirs isn’t the only voice and to learn patience.” I really like that!

      That’s a great point about how the size of the group matters. I wonder what the tipping point is. At my old job, there were always around 12-15 people in meetings, and at the start of every year, an intern would inevitably raise their hand instead of just speaking up at the right moment (and someone would later let them know they can just speak).

  5. In my high school science class I use a mixture of calling out and hands up. If I am asking the class a question, if possible I will try to ask one that has a single correct answer (“How many atoms are bonded to this central carbon atom?”). Then I expect everyone in the class to answer. If I use a hands up method here, I will find out what exactly 1 person knows. Instead by listening for a choral answer, I will have a much better feel for the entire class. I will often also employ “show me with your fingers how many…” when relevant. If the questioning is more in depth, then students will raise their hands or if they have eye contact with me and no one else is answering, they will go ahead and answer. Sometimes, we need the order brought about by hand raising and sometimes we need the spontaneity of just answering. The trick is finding the balance that allows ALL students the opportunities to participate in the manner that works best for them. In our Staff Meetings, if we (teachers) want to speak, we must raise our hands and be granted the opportunity to speak/question. As mentioned previously, group size also has a great impact on what manner of interaction between “teacher” and “student” is practical.

    • Thanks for sharing, Mike! That’s an interesting way to see how many people know the answer (and the finger method is clever).

      How do you feel about the use of raising hands in your staff meetings? I can partially see the value if the group is big enough, but doesn’t it also necessitate the need for a moderator to select who gets called on? The implications of having one person in charge of who is allowed to talk seems to have some downsides.

      • Our staff meetings have approximately 80 teachers/staff and the meeting is led by Administration. Usually the Admin who is running the meeting also moderates who gets called on. Like a teacher, they will usually try to do some combination of first hand up and urgent relevancy to new information. I think it is a very unwieldy system (but of course I also think that most staff meetings could be replaced by a brief email).

        • Oh yeah, that’s a lot of people! I agree that moderation works best for that size. And I very much agree that most staff meetings can be replaced by quick emails. 🙂


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