You might assume college exists to help students learn things. Learning, college, the two words are kind of connected. Yet somehow, inevitably, certain problems crop up within the classroom environment that keep everyone from learning more.

Most of the students don’t care about learning as much as they possibly can. You probably don’t either, some of the time. But that attitude leads to a poor learning environment that you’ll probably regret once we all get drop-kicked into the competitive world of wage-earning and panel interviews. And the attitude isn’t just in huge core classes, but shows up in smaller courses where your professor expects people to interact by responding to questions.

The bad news is that you can never avoid these problems behind trying to answer your professor’s questions. But if you’re aware of them, you might be able to fight them.

Social Loafing

This is the technical term for the fact that everyone slacks off more when they’re in a group. Think about any class you’ve ever been in. When the teacher asks a question, even one with an obvious answer, you think to yourself “I can’t answer it too quickly” at first and then “I can’t answer it after no one else has answered it for so long or I’ll look dumb” after ten seconds. Everyone else thinks the same, and no one speaks up. It’s a game of chicken, and the loser is academic excellence.

What to do: Try answering a few questions just a few seconds after they’re asked. Or even if you’re breaking a long silence. Much like Medusa, the only way to beat the awkwardness is to avoid facing it.

Brown-nosing is Expected

It’s easy to forget about this problem, since it’s so common. But have you noticed that most professors expect enthusiasm from their students? Sure, students should be attentive in class, but when they answer a question, they shouldn’t feel the need to say “Definitely, sir, I’m so happy to be in class informing you about the life cycle of the pill bug.” A dull, emotionless voice is really the most accurate way to discuss pill bugs.

What to do: There’s not a lot you can do here. Just try smiling more. The line between brown-nosing and civility is thin, and it’s better to err on overdoing it.

Vague Questions

It’s rare when professors can ask questions specific enough to let people know what answer to look for without being so specific they tell people exactly what the answer is. “What was special about the 50s?” a communications professor might ask. Well, lots of things. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Korean war. Poodle skirts. The fact that your professor wants to hear “television became the main medium for molding public opinion in that decade” is hardly obvious.

What to do: Ask them to clarify. That, or listen closer so that you know what the question’s context is and can give an educated guess, but we know that’s not happening. You’re too busy socially loafing.