Improving Student Engagement
Published by Igor Koutsenok, MD,
Professor of Psychiatry
University of California, San Diego, Department of Psychiatry
For some faculty allowing for and responding to questions can be the worst nightmare. Handling
questions can be nerve wracking because of the possibility of questions that you can't or may not want
to answer. However, just as with lectures, preparation is a vital tool to help you perform with ease and
confidence. Questions from students are a welcome sign—it shows they have listened to you. Below
are some tips on handling questions, along with additional suggestions to make your next question-and-
answer session go more smoothly.
How can you prepare for something you can't control? If you think about it, you do have some ideas as to:
- What questions might be raised?
- The expected attitude of the class (i.e., hostile, friendly, curious or confused)
The best way to prepare yourself and build your confidence is to take the time to write down as many
possible questions as you can think of, and then practice answering them prior to class. It is
particularly important to practice answering what you consider the most difficult questions. Then, if
you do get that question or a similar one you will be better prepared to respond than if you received it
totally unprepared. In my experience, unless you are dealing with a very hostile audience, most
questions are much easier than you anticipate they will be. If you are prepared to answer the most
difficult questions you can think of, handling the less difficult ones will be easy to do. Try to keep
calm, even if, and especially if, the audience is hostile or upset.
- Listen to the entire question
Listen to the entire question BEFORE you begin to answer. People often respond to a question before
the entire question is even asked, which may result in providing a response which has nothing to do
with the question. Force yourself to LISTEN to the entire question and make sure you understand it.
- Give yourself time
Always take time to think BEFORE you answer, especially for those difficult questions. Do the same
for questions to which you readily know the answer. Responding too quickly to questions you are
comfortable with will only bring attention to those questions with which you are not.
- Credit the person for asking the question
You may say something like, “That was a great question” or, “Glad you asked that question” or even, “I
get asked that question by many people”. One word of caution: If you credit one person with asking a
question, be sure to consistently credit EVERYONE for asking a question. You don't want people to
feel their question was not as important.
- Repeat the question
I strongly suggest that you repeat the question loudly for the class, both to make sure you understood
the question, and so that the class knows the question to which you are responding. This has the added
benefit of avoiding dialogue with just one student and providing you with a couple of additional
seconds to think about the answer.
- Answer directly
Look directly at the person asking the question. Give simple answers to simple questions. If the
question demands a lengthy reply, agree to discuss it later with anyone interested. Whenever possible,
tie your answer to a point in your presentation. Look upon these questions as a way to reinforce and
clarify your presentation. Treat two questions from the same person as two separate questions.
- Finalize the answer
Connect to the next question by asking them a question. “Does that answer your question?” “Is that the
kind of information you were looking for?” This is critical. Once they respond affirmatively, you have
permission to go on to the next person. This also gives them one more opportunity to say, “No” and
allows them to clarify their question if desired.
Now, let me give you some more specific tips how to arrange the question-and-answer section of
your presentation and how to handle difficult questions.
- What if I don’t know the answer?
“I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said “I don’t know,” –Mark Twain, Life on
the Mississippi, 1883. It happens; you can’t be an expert in everything. Speak on the subjects you
know the most about. Honesty is the best policy; if you don't know the answer, admit it and offer to
contact the person later with an answer (be sure to follow through). Always tell the truth. If you try to
bend the truth, you almost always will be caught. Play it straight, even if your position is momentarily
weakened. Your credibility will not suffer if you say “I don’t know”. In fact, your credibility will be
strengthened. I have seen some of the world’s best researchers and teachers who did not know answers
to some questions and easily admitted it. It is much better than making attempts to mobilize your
fantasy and getting embarrassed by a silly answer. Another possibility is to ask the class if anybody else
wants to answer the question. With students who have mobile phones, you can ask them to look up the
answer and see if as a group, the question can be answered.
- “Stupid” questions
Remember it is much harder to answer a stupid question than a smart one. Well, remember also that if
your students knew the subject as much as you do, they wouldn’t be in your class. People often ask
naive and even stupid questions, not to they provoke you, but just because they don’t know, and see
you as the person who is supposed to teach them. Respect your class, don’t start laughing, and handle
the question the best you can. You can ask, “Could you tell me more about it?” thus showing your
interest, respect and willingness to answer. Don’t feel offended if someone asks you a question that you
feel you’ve already answered in your presentation or through a previous question; they may not have
heard or understood the previous reference. Be friendly and always keep your temper. A cool
presentation creates an aura of confidence. If the questioner is hostile, respond as if he or she is a
friend. Any attempt to “put down” your questioner with sarcasm will immediately draw the class’s
sympathy to the questioner.
- Some other rules
Don’t just be involved in dialogue with one or two people, neglecting the rest of the class. It might
happen you want to answer a particular question very much because you think you know the best
answer, or it strengthens a point made in your presentation. However, pay attention to the group’s
energy level and don’t let it drop irreversibly losing them for the rest of your presentation.
While a question-and-answer session can be stressful, it offers you an opportunity to clarify things your
students may not have understood and repeat things you think are important. In ending the session, you
will usually have the last word. Use it to summarize your position or stress what you think is the most
important point of your presentation. This will be your last chance to impress or inform your class, so
use it to your advantage.
With practice and preparation, you will be as professional in the “hot seat” as you are at the podium.