Pluralistic ignorance

This semester I am teaching an introductory course in Thermodynamics to undergraduate students using a blended learning approach [see ‘Blended learning environments‘ on November 14th, 2018].  The blend includes formal lectures, example classes, homework assignments, assessed coursework questions and an on-line course, which I delivered as a MOOC a couple of years ago [see ‘Engaging learners on-line‘ on May 25th, 2016].  It is not unusual in a large class, nearly two hundred students this year, that no one asks questions during the lecture; although, at the end of each lecture and example class, a small group of students with questions always forms.  The on-line course has extensive opportunities for asking questions and discussing issues with the instructor and fellow learners.  These opportunities  were used heavily when the course was offered as a MOOC  with 6600 comments posted or 1 every 7.7 minutes!  However, this year the undergraduates have not made any on-line comments and it was a similar situation last year.  Is this a case of pluralistic ignorance?  The term was coined by psychologists Daniel Katz and Floyd Henry Allport in 1931 to describe students who pretend to understand everything explained in class and don’t ask any questions because they believe everyone else in the class has understood everything and they don’t want to damage their reputation with their peers.  Perhaps we have all done it and been very grateful when someone has asked the question that we wanted to ask but did not dare.  Would be it ethical to pretend to be a student and post questions on-line that I know from the MOOC they are likely to want to ask?


Patterson EA, Using everyday engineering examples to engage learners on a massive open online course, IJ Mechanical Engineering Education, in press.

Katz D & Allport FH, Students’ attitude, Syracuse, NY: Craftsmann, 1931.

Origgi G, Reputation: what it is and why it matters, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018.

Image: Author speaking at National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan

8 thoughts on “Pluralistic ignorance

  1. Peter Goodhew

    I recognise the phenomenon. Perhaps you should just enroll a couple of elderly people as students. We have no inhibitions about asking questions, whether or not they might appear “silly”!

  2. Bill Shorter

    Are you going to deliver the MOOC called “Energy: Thermodynamics in Everyday Life again ” ?

  3. Beverly Johnson

    I think as an instructor you could make a post starting out like this, “Some of you may be wondering or thinking about (whatever you think they might have questions about, but are too socially constrained to ask)” and then explain it. Posing as a student, I think, would be unethical. Plus if you showed as an instructor that “wondering about” is acceptable, maybe you’d open a few students up to expressing questions. Also, I’ve watched tons of online MOOCs, some filmed from actual classes and SOME professors are a bit off-putting when students do dare to ask a question. I’ve seen this primarily in the MOOCS that are filmed in classrooms, rather than in MOOCs that use posts, and I’ve seen it particularly is some of the so called “elite” U.S. universities.

  4. Pat Campbell

    I’m wondering if allowing questions to be asked anonymously might make a difference and it you are going to pose questions, to me it seems a bit better if you are anonymous rather than pretending to be a student

  5. John Lark

    Personally thermodynamics, along side introduction to aerospace engineering, were my favourite modules this year and I felt that the MOOC, as I went through it in the Easter holidays, was really interesting and engaging. It was clear that effort and passion had been put into it. It was a shame I accessed it so late in the semester as I would of loved to of had the time to take part in the perpetual motion challenge. The course, along with this article, have made me want to engage in lectures and discussion more as previously I’ve always assumed lecturers really don’t want to be bothered.

  6. Pingback: Isolated systems in nature? | Realize Engineering

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