Teaching Tip: Questions from Students

So far in this series on questions, I’ve focused on faculty asking questions and dealing with student responses.  There’s one more wrinkle to go — how do you handle the questions students ask YOU?   At first glance, the response may seem obvious – answer them!  While that is certainly one option, it can limit the learning to only the student who asked the question as the rest of the class tunes out.  Instead, you can use one student’s question to engage the whole class. First, you may need to clarify or paraphrase the question first (if you do, check with the student to make sure your interpretation is correct).  Then ask other students to contribute their thoughts on how to find the answer or what it might be.  In the course of answering the stated question, you also may find the opportunity to elaborate on the issue at hand or link it to other points you wish to make.

Deferring the question to the class also can work when students ask questions that have already been covered in class or in the syllabus.  This technique discourages students’ tendency to depend on the instructor to give them information they could easily get on their own.  If there isn’t time in class to have the student’s question dealt with by his or her peers, you can refer them to the syllabus, Blackboard or other relevant information and let them know that you will respond to any questions they still have AFTER they have looked over the information you’ve already provided.

What if you don’t know the answer to a student question?  Admit it and use this great learning opportunity as a chance to model how to be a life-long learner!  Just as when you deferred a question you did know, you can get the class to talk about how and where you could go to find the answer.  If it’s relevant to the topic at hand and you have time, search for the answer together in class.  If not, perhaps the class could help figure out a search strategy and then the questioner could bring in the answer next time, or post it on Blackboard.

I don’t want to imply that you never just answer the student’s question.  Some questions aren’t productive areas for discussion and sometimes time is short.  Plus, if you NEVER answer student questions directly, they may begin to feel like you are putting them off.  But do pause before you answer, and think about whether this is a good “teachable moment”.  It’s also good to think about why the question was asked to begin with. Most faculty who have been teaching even a short time have encountered situations where a question is not prompted by the desire to learn and understand the course material you are teaching.  Other motivations behind student questions include:

The student wants attention.  Sometimes the purpose of the question is just to get the class to focus on the questioner.   You can often see the student soaking up the class response. Ignoring them will only intensify their need for attention.  Once you have the sense that a student is attention seeking, you may want to try shaping their behavior.  Start calling on them when they are NOT volunteering or calling out in class, and compliment their actions when they asking appropriate questions or contributing positively to class discussion.  If the behavior continues, speak to the student individually.

The student is hostile to the instructor or the course material. Questions can be an act of aggression, a means of expressing dominance and control.  Encouraging students to ask questions cedes some classroom control to them, and some students may take advantage of the opportunity. This is a difficult situation, and is best dealt with by asking the student to meet with you privately.  Listening to their concerns (although difficult) and paraphrasing them at least can get the issues on the table.  Paraphrasing is an important part of listening, because it shows the student that you actually heard what they said.  For example, the student asks “Why do we have to learn this stupid material?  This course is a total waste of my time.”   I would invite the student to discuss their concerns with me privately after class or at a mutually convenient time.  Trying to convince this student of the worthwhile nature of your course is not likely to succeed.  If you reflect back their statement with something like “So, you’re feeling like the class is pretty worthless, right?” and get their agreement, you can go on to explore with them why they think they are required to take it, what they might be able to do to make the situation more bearable, what they are really angry or upset about , etc.   Some of you may find paraphrasing too “therapy-like” but I have successfully used it with hostile store clerks, students, faculty and others. It often helps.  If nothing else, you can assure the student that you have listened to and heard their concerns and that the class must go on.

The question is inappropriately personal.  Some students have boundary issues.  They genuinely like their professors and want to get to know them better, but they don’t understand the limits of the relationship.  They show this by asking questions about your personal life or experiences, or questions that reveal too much of their personal life and experiences.  Many of these types of questions come up in informal conversations before or after class but they also can be triggered by specific class topics and discussions.  For example, teaching Abnormal Psychology or many literature and writing courses can prompt more personal questions.

Faculty members have varying levels of comfort with sharing personal information or hearing about students’ lives, so deciding how to handle these questions is a decision each individual will make differently.  It helps to have some sense of what the questioner really is asking.  Is it a bid for connection to you?  Is it because they are struggling with a particular situation and would like to know that you understand them and can help?  While it’s appropriate to say that you’re not comfortable answering a personal question, you also can explore the meaning of the question with the student.  For example, if a student asks you if you are divorced (substitute any other personal experience here!), you could ask them to tell you what it would mean to them if you were, and what it would mean to them if you were not.  Depending on the response, you now have some idea of what the student really wants to know.  Then you can choose whether and how to respond.  Even if you ultimately decide and say that you don’t feel that answering that question would be helpful to the student, you haven’t just blown off their attempt to connect to you.   Obviously, if you have a student with a continuing pattern of boundary issues, you will need to talk to them privately.

The student has an interpersonal skills deficit. Increasingly, we have students who have difficulty reading social cues, including students with Asperger’s syndrome and non-verbal learning disabilities.  They do not understand when they are asking inappropriate questions, dominating the classroom or engaging in other disruptive activities.  And their impulse control also may be poor.  If the student appears “disabled”, I have found that the other students often are surprisingly tolerant.  When the disability is more subtle, the other students are more likely to engage in eye-rolling and other signs of annoyance.  If the student has a relationship with Disability Support Services (DSS) it’s very helpful to talk with the student AND the DSS coordinator to figure out a strategy that will work in the classroom.   You, the student and the DSS Coordinator can establish guidelines that you can refer to in class e.g. a limit on the number of questions or comments per class; a requirement that the person cannot answer more than two questions in a row, etc.  The DSS Coordinator can monitor and follow up with the student.

So – any questions?  What difficult questions have you been asked by students, and how did you respond?


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