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Improving Student Engagement

Published by Igor Koutsenok, MD,
Professor of Psychiatry
University of California, San Diego, Department of Psychiatry
on 20.02.2020

Dear Colleague:

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.

  1. Preparation

    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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  1. 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.

  2. “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.

  3. 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.


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