How College Instructors Should Field Students’ Questions

Techniques for Effectively Answering Students’ Classroom Questions

The 13th chapter in Barbara Gross Davis’s book, Tools for Teaching, is entitled “Fielding Students’ Questions.”  This is an area that may seem trivial, but one that can make or break an instructor.

Preparing to Answer College Students’ Questions

Davis does not cover this topic.  Her assumption is, most likely, that instructors come to class prepared. This is a topic I addressed in previous article, but not the this specific context.

Students have brought it to my attention when when an instructor was not prepared.  New faculty, particularly new adjuncts, need to devote many hours of prep time outside the classroom.  If the rule of thumb for students is 2 to 3 hours of study time for each hour in class, can it be any less for the teacher?  Instructors must study the assignments themselves.

Several years ago, a group of students came to me to complain about a math adjunct.  They alleged he did not answer their questions and when he did, he was often incorrect.  They also complained that he did not work examples for them.  I talked to the instructor and coached him, but I also scheduled a classroom observation.  Sadly, it appeared this gentleman had forgotten most of what he had learned on the way to his Ph.D. in mathematics.  He used a “crib sheet” and transposed problem solutions onto the board.  When questioned, he became befuddled.  There were two lessons to be learned.  One was mine.  Never assume that someone with a doctorate has, twenty years later, retained all he once knew.  The other was that an instructor may need to relearn the material.

Strategies for Answering College Students’ Questions

Of the 19 techniques that Davis presents, I will discuss the five I feel are most important and useful to new instructors.

“Point students toward an answer” – Davis suggests that if a design student asks whether the kitchen should be at the north or south end of the house, the instructor might respond by asking the student why he or she might want it on the north or south end.  This technique encourages the student to think.

“Avoid comments and gestures that discourage students’ questions” – Davis’s advice boils down to treat students with respect, and be mindful of your body language.  Even if you clearly explained a topic in detail, don’t dismiss a question with, “I have already covered that.”

“Admit when you don’t know the answer” – “I will have to think about that,” or “I will have an answer for you next class period,” are perfectly acceptable responses.  Students will know when you are at a loss, so don’t try to hide it.  Of course, if this happens frequently, your students will respond like the math students from four years ago.  (Did I mention that I did not rehire that adjunct?)

“Try to answer twice, then let a student try” – You may know the answer but simply have difficulty explaining it to the questioner.  Say something like, “Sorry, I can see that I am not making myself clear,” and then ask the class if someone else would like to explain it in their own words.

“When students raise complex or tangential questions, ask them to stop by after class” – If a question does not related directly to the topic at hand, and if it would require a length response, address it outside of class.

Ask Questions to Find Out How Well You are Answering Questions

It is all too easy for an instructor to assume that students are satisfied with the answers he or she provides.  And it is totally wrong to assume that one is explaining the subject matter well when students don’t ask questions.  An effective strategy for assessing oneself is the One Minute Paper I have referred to in previous articles.

Closing Thoughts about Student’s Questions

As I mentioned in an earlier article, it is not just important to be prepared, it is vital.  Teaching requires hard work and considerable preparation time, and teaching adults exposes the instructor to make-or-break challenges. In regard to student’s questions, the faculty member must do three things:

  1. Thoroughly prepare so as to present oneself as an expert;
  2. Treat all students with respect; and
  3. Question the quality of one’s answers.

If an instructor fails to properly address students’ questions, students will question the instructor.  If for any reason you are not satisfying your students with your answers, there is a question you should ask yourself.  “Do I have what it takes to be a college instructor?”

© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

Posted June 20, 2010

About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC).

My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences.

I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students.

After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.


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