Dear new student,
It's your first year at university. You may have started classes already, or maybe you still have another week or two to go. But soon, if you haven't already, you'll find yourself in a huge room of people, most of whom you don't know, with someone standing at the front who you don't know and who doesn't know you. It can be terrifying. Everyone around you is nodding their head at what the professor is saying, they're taking details notes (some people even color code them!), while you're still sitting there wondering -- what was that thing the professor wrote on the board, five minutes ago? Is it a word, or a symbol? A mistake, a smudge? Now you've been thinking about that so long, you've missed what the professor said next, and you tune back in to hear, "...and that's why this concept is going to be crucial to what we're doing for the rest of the term." What concept??.
It can be a lonely and isolating place, sitting in a room where you know no one and no one knows you and everyone seems to know everyone else and to have it altogether. But I'm here to tell you, none of it's true: No one comes to university knowing everyone and everything. Everyone is sitting there thinking "I wish I knew more people here than I do." Or "I don't understand what just happened, but I don't want to look stupid in front of everyone else by asking a question."
So here's my advice to you: Own this. Be brave -- be the one who is willing to look stupid in front of a sea of people you don't know, including your professor. Put your hand in the air and ask the questions: "What is the thing you wrote on the board?", "Can you repeat what you just said about that concept?" If you think you sort of got something, but aren't sure, try summarising what you think was said, and ask for confirmation, "Am I understanding this right?" Do it today. Do it again tomorrow. Do it every time you have a question.
Why? Because I can guarantee you that every question you have, someone else in the class is going to have it too, and they're not going to be brave enough to ask, and they will be so grateful to you that you were. They may even come up to you after class and say, "I'm so glad you asked about that concept, I didn't understand it either," and there you are -- your first step towards making friends.
And another reason: Your professor is not a mind-reader. They are not going to know if things are not being understood if no one says anything. One of the hardest parts of standing in front of a group of students -- always nameless, faceless at the beginning of term -- is having no idea if anything you're saying is making any sense. We need feedback when we're going too fast -- or too slow. An inert class who never gives us any response is terrifying.
Now, you're going to get the professor who never pauses for people to answer questions, or who gets irritated when they are interrupted. Be brave, and do it anyway. Put your hand in the air and keep it there until they address you. The purpose of a lecture is for you to learn, not for the professor to pontificate. If you aren't learning, then be stubborn until you are.
You're also going to get the professor who mocks you for your ignorance, and for that, I'm truly sorry. There is no excuse for ridiculing students who ask questions. All I can say is -- we are not all like that. Find the ones who are not, and take advantage of them. Many of us are truly here first and foremost to make sure that you understand what we are trying to teach.
Be brave. Embrace your ignorance and confusion. Be the one in the class who's willing to ask the dumb questions. Your classmates (and hopefully your professor) will thank you for it.
Best of luck,
Doctor Logic, assistant professor, Department of Philosophy, Durham University
ETA: P.S. Martin Lenz wrote an awesome follow-up to this post, with great advice on how to ask questions.