Five Types of Student Questions and Sample Responses

Group of University students in lecture hall
Students 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.
  • 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?”
Questions that are irrelevant – These aren’t bad questions, they’re just not appropriate given the content under consideration or at this time in the course.
  • 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.”

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Students 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 – 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 – Maybe you just don’t know the answer or maybe it’s an unanswerable question. 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. Stupid questions – 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 – 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.