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Responding Effectively to Student Questions

Responding Effectively to Student Questions," Vol. VIII, No. 2, January/February 1996

This is the second of a two-part "Teach Talk" devoted to the craft of asking and answering questions in the classroom. Last issue’s "Teach Talk" provided tips on how to frame cogent questions; this column will look at how to respond effectively to the questions students raise. (In keeping with the spirit of the subject, this "Teach Talk," as the last one, is organized in a question-and-answer format.) More information on asking and answering questions can be found in "The Torch or the Firehose. A Guide to Section Teaching" by Arthur P. Mattuck.

After I ask a question, how long should I wait for a response?

Hold out as long as possible. Many instructors, if they don’t get a response right away, immediately rephrase the question, repeat it, or even answer it themselves. (The latter is a particularly bad strategy since students will be even less inclined to make the effort to answer a question if they know the instructor will do it for them if they only wait him or her out.)

Let at least five seconds go by before you say anything. A study of college physics classrooms found that increasing wait time to five seconds had a positive effect on class participation, not only during that particular class session, but for the course as a whole. Be patient.

What should I do if a student gives a vague — or even incorrect — response to a question I’ve asked?

Try to find something that’s right about the answer. If the response is completely off base, praise the student for at least trying. However, it’s important to identify wrong answers, so that other students don’t become confused or misinformed.

What can I do to get my students to ask questions?

Professor Arthur Mattuck, who regularly watches videotapes of new instructors in the Mathematics Department, reports that "miles of videotape" show "instructors finishing an explanation, asking (or mumbling) ‘Any questions?’ and almost in the same breath continuing, ‘Well, if there are no questions, let’s go on with . . .’"

Give students a chance to frame their questions. The silence that follows your earnest, "What questions do you have?" may be uncomfortable, but it’s important. Convince students with your tone of voice and body language that you are receptive to their inquiries. (Do this from the very first class.) Don’t browbeat students for not asking questions, and be enthusiastic when they do.

How can I best manage the process of answering students’ questions?

There are several common-sense techniques to keep in mind to make sure you are answering students’ questions effectively:

  • Be sure you understand the question that’s being asked and that everyone else in the class has heard it.
    Both of these things can be easily handled by repeating the question. If you’re not sure what the student asked, rephrase the question in your own words, and check in with the student to make sure that’s what he or she wants to know. If the question was asked in hushed tones by the student sitting in the front row, ask him or her to turn around to the rest of the class and share the question with them. (This has the added benefit of giving students the opportunity to practice speaking in front of a small group.)
  • Be as direct as possible as often as possible.
    Ronald Hyman, an expert on the strategic use of questions in the classroom, makes the point that most students don’t ask questions to get attention or to be disruptive; they ask them because they’re confused or curious about something. Therefore, it’s usually not a good idea to deflect the question, either by asking another student to comment on it or by asking the student a question in return . If you do want to use either of those tactics for some strategic purpose, signal to the student that’s what you’re doing. For example, you could say, "That’s a good question, which has a range of possible answers. Let’s see if we can get some of those answers out on the table first; then I’ll give you what I think are the best ways to approach this problem."
  • Ask the student to wait for an answer to his or her question if that answer is going to lead the class away from the topic currently under discussion.
    If the question is truly out of sync with the material you are covering, ask the student if you can come back to it at a more appropriate time. Try to give the student a general sense of when he or she can expect an answer.

What happens if a student asks a question that is so elementary that everyone else in the class already knows the answer to it?

First, try to determine if, in fact, the question is one to which most other members of the class know the answer — instructors often overestimate the knowledge and competency of their students. In any case, it’s better to review material some students already know than leave many of them confused and frustrated.

If you are convinced that class time would not be utilized well by responding to the question, tell the student that because of time constraints, you would prefer to answer the question for him or her after class. Again, this is a face saving maneuver for the student. As Phillip Wankat writes in his book, Teaching Engineering, asking a question can often be "an act of bravery" for the student so be sympathetic. The way in which you react to one student sends a message to others about how welcome questions are in your classroom.

View the article in its entirety on MIT's web site: Responding Effectively to Student Questions.