tudents ask all different kinds of questions. Some are on the money—good, honest queries about content that they don’t understand or want to know more about. Other student questions are more difficult to handle. It’s good to have some strategies lined up for when these sorts of questions are raised.
Questions you can’t understand
– Sometimes when the understanding is muddled, so is the question. It doesn’t make sense, even though what’s in the midst of the muddle may be a legitimate question.
Questions that are irrelevant
- Apologize: “I’m not sure I’m understanding the question. Please ask again. Maybe you can rephrase the question or talk to me a bit about what’s behind the question.” When the student tries again, listen intently.
- Take a stab: “Let me see if I’ve got the question. Here’s what I think you’re asking.”
- Enlist help: “I need help. Would someone else take a crack at asking the question?”
– These aren’t bad questions, they’re just not appropriate given the content under consideration or at this time in the course.
Questions you can’t answer
- Recognize the question’s value but decline to answer it for now: “That’s a good question, but I’m not going to answer it now because the answer will make more sense when we’re talking about. . . .”
- Say when you’ll answer it: “We’ll be taking about that [in a couple of sessions, later this on today, etc.] and I’d like to ask you to repeat the question then.”
- Don’t forget: If you said you’d answer the question later, be sure to do it.
- Say where the answer can be found: “Answering that question is going to take us away from what we’re discussing. If you’re interested in the answer, here’s where you can find it.”
- Answer briefly, as in very briefly, and explain why. “That’s a good question. It’s not really relevant to what we’re discussing now. However, I’ll give you a one sentence answer.”
– Maybe you just don’t know the answer or maybe it’s an unanswerable question.
- Celebrate the question: “That an excellent question.” “Interesting question.” “That’s one of those questions we can’t yet answer, and I love those kind of questions.”
- Be honest: “You know, that’s a question I can’t answer.”
- Defer the answer: “Before I respond, I’d like to think a bit about the answer.” “I need to check some references before I respond. I’ll answer that question online.” And then be sure you do.
- See if anyone knows the answer or can find it: “I can’t answer that. Does anyone else know or can someone look that up for us?”
- Invite the student and anyone else who’s interested to join you in the search for the answer: “I’ve got some resources on that in my office. I’d love it if some of you would stop by during office hours and we can see what we can find out about this.”
There’s no shame in not being able to answer a question. There is shame in pretending to know when you don’t. Not knowing everything makes teachers look human. Having to look up answer models how teachers go about learning when they don’t know.
– Some teachers don’t believe there is such a thing. But if a student who was in class yesterday asks a question that was answered at length during that class, then that’s not a very smart question to be asking. Or, if the question is answered in the reading that should have been completed before coming to class or if there’s information in the syllabus that clearly answers the question, those are not the kind of questions students should be encouraged to ask.
Questions that challenge your authority
- Don’t sound angry or sarcastic
- Explain when you answered the question or where the answer can be found: “Paul, we talked about that last class session. If you don’t have the answer in your notes, you might check with one of your classmates.” “Sonja, check your syllabus and you’ll find the answer there.”
- Resist answering these kinds of questions. Answering them fails to hold the student accountable for finding out what he or she should know. It also encourages other students to ask the same kind of questions.
– We encourage students to ask questions. Asking questions is legitimate—something students have the right to do. But questions can be the method used to communicate messages about power, who’s got it and who’s in control. “Why are you making the quizzes so hard in this class?” That question implies the teacher is making the quizzes hard for some reason that’s not legitimate. “Do we have to do this in groups?” That question implies there’s other ways of doing the task and that some of those ways are preferable to group work.
- Take a deep breath. Stay cool. Smile. Sound calm. Sometimes these questions are asked in the hopes of putting the teacher on the spot and making him or her defensive.
- Respond honestly using descriptive language: “I am not trying to make the quizzes harder than they need to be. I am trying to use questions on the quiz like those you will see on the exam.” “I have you do work in groups because it gives you the opportunity to practice working with others—a skill that's needed in most professions.”
- Politely decline to debate. If the student disagrees with your response, let them know that you have heard them and will consider what’s been said. You can also tell the student that you’d welcome continuing this conversation after class or during office hours.