Normally we encourage students to ask questions. We want to find out where they are confused and what they find interesting. You don’t want to dismiss a chance to hear from your students just because you might struggle to come up with a credible answer. Still, no one enjoys being put on the spot to answer questions that they are not expecting.
Questions become hard when you feel a responsibility to provide an answer but the consequence of the answer worries or confuses you. More often than not you can quite easily deflect the question without showing your inability to answer in a way that damages your academic credibility. Usual strategies for not answering involve delaying tactics like saying “That’s an interesting question. I’ll look up the answer and post it on the class web site tomorrow” or “I’d like to answer that but I don’t have enough time right now. Come and see me at the end of the class”. Another common way of not answering is to ask the questioner why they want to know or what they think about the situation? You can even invite other students to suggest answers.
Linda Nilson says that loaded questions are often designed to embarrass you. If the question is too personal, it is acceptable to flatly refuse to answer. As long as it is done politely but firmly, you can state that you won’t be answering that question because it crosses the boundaries of appropriateness or is too intimate. David van Reyk from the University of Technology Sydney is well aware of how easy that boundary can be crossed. He wants students to see that he has opinions on controversial subjects but he doesn’t want it to get in the way of students learning. He always tries to ensure that his answers to questions are non-confrontational so that the controversy is not the only thing the students remember at the end of the class.
The challenge of trying to answer tough questions is that you are thinking on your feet. Controversial or challenging topics don’t have easy right or wrong answers and you’ll often be thinking aloud as you try to work out a satisfactory answer. Reframing the question will make this process more manageable.
Pause to give yourself some thinking time. Eye contact will reassure the questioner that you are working on an answer. Bill McKeachie recommends writing atypical questions on the board to remove the necessity of answering the question right away. It also provides an opportunity to assess whether it is a genuine question or the chance for a heckler to do some grandstanding.
Clarify the question. The questioner may not have thought about their question in any detail and made the question harder by asking it in a convoluted way. Asking to have the question repeated usually results in a simpler version of the question.
Rephrase the question in your own words. Check with the questioner that you have understood the question correctly. You may want to use this opportunity to narrow the focus of the question to something you feel equipped to answer.
Answer gradually. The risk of thinking aloud is you’ll answer the question with too much or too little information. Take the part of the question you can answer most confidently and limit your answer to one point with one piece of supporting information. If you can throw in some facts it will give your answer all the more credibility.
Summarise your response. Wrap up the answer with a short summary and resist the urge to add more information.
Practice answers to potential questions. You can normally predict the kinds of difficult questions you will be asked. Brainstorm some tough questions on the topic and rehearse your responses by clarifying the focus of the question, identifying a point that addresses that focus and summarising your answer.
Nilson, L. (1998). Teaching at its best. (pp. 100-102) Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.
McKeachie, W.J. (1994). Teaching Tips. (pp. 213-216) Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath & Company.
Van Reyk, D. (2009). Teaching Matters: Lecture in Human Biology. [DVD] Sydney: Institute for Interactive Media and Learning.