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.


With expanding class sizes lecturers can expect to be standing in front of several hundred students some time throughout their career. Not many of us are natural presenters and it is common to feel stress whenever we need to stand up in front of a large group of people and make a presentation. A small amount of anxiety is a normal response to any unknown situation. Once we feel anxious the body copes by releasing adrenaline which in turn increases blood pressure and puts the body into a state of heightened awareness and increased sensitivity. When the body triggers these physiological responses a person essentially begins to feel “nervous”.

An intense feeling of anxiety can be so powerful that you believe you are losing control. In its milder form appearing nervous can be distracting for an audience as well as making us less effective presenters because we find it harder to concentrate and we are less inclined to take the risks that make performance interesting. Most approaches for lessening nervousness aim to change patterns of thinking. This begins with finding the underlying cause of the anxiety so the presenter can learn to deal with problems more effectively. Then replace negative thoughts that feed nervousness with positive ones that visualize a successful presentation. Finally, deal with the physical responses of anxiety by learning muscle relaxation and controlled breathing techniques.

Feeling Prepared
The more prepared you feel before a presentation the more confident you’ll become and the stronger impact you’ll have on the audience. As well as planning what you will say you should plan your responses to tough questions you expect to get asked after your present. Familiarise yourself with the room and make sure your notes are easy to read and keep in order. Most new lecturers are over-prepared so decide what to leave out if you run out of time. If you lose your place during your presentation think of something you can adlib while you skip over what you were planning to say and go to the next point in your notes so that your audience is blissfully unaware that you ever had a problem.

Visualise success
Imagine in your mind how a successful presentation will go. Run through the presentation as if you are watching a movie but beginning with the conclusion where you explain the benefits of listening to your presentation. Then imagine how you are going to grab the interest of your audience at the start by telling them what your presentation is all about. See yourself making eye contact with the audience, how you’ll be standing at the front of the room and the kinds of gestures you will use to focus on the main points as you present. Replay this several times in your mind as a positive affirmation that the presentation will go well.

Learn to breath
Make sure you arrive at your presentation relaxed by avoiding alcohol, caffeine and tobacco which all can make nervousness worse. Schedule regular exercise and pleasant outings before you present and listen to calming music on the way to your presentation. My yoga teacher suggests spending a few minutes in a quite spot breathing deeply to relax your body and clear your mind. Breath in slowly and completely until your lungs are fully expanded. Hold it for the count of 5 and slowly exhale. Pause before repeating another 5-10 times. Also unhunch your shoulders, which is where many people store their nervous energy. Practice muscle relaxation by progressively tensing and relaxing the muscles in your body, working from your face down the body to your toes. Hold each muscle tensed for 10 seconds before relaxing. With practice this can be performed almost anywhere including during your presentation.

Further reading

Davis, M., Eshelman, E. & McKay, M. (2000). The relaxation & stress reduction workbook. Oakland, CA : New Harbinger Publications.

Benson, H. & Stuart, E. (1992). The Wellness Book. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Publishing Group.

Something is said to have changed in university classrooms over the past two decades. Long serving academics describe students they are teaching today as different from previous generations of students. Strategies that have been effective for years are no longer working with the generation of children born to the Baby Boomers. Known as Generation Y, these students were born in the 1980s and 1990s and grew up with the internet. This familiarity with digital technology is attributed with giving an entire generation of students shorter attention spans, a love of multitasking and an impatience with information that does not directly apply to them (McCrindle, 2000).

Gen-Ys tend to be positive, confident, self-focused but there are two schools of thought on how to approach teaching them as undergraduates. Some, like Mark Baurerlein, argue that many of these traits lead to poor learning strategies and should be discouraged. Others accept Gen-Ys have distinctive characteristics and suggest ways of working with their preferences.

Gen-Y want their courses to make a positive impact on the world.
Students have a strong connection to social causes and want to make a difference to the world. They want to know why they should care about your course and need to be shown how it fits into the big picture. They expect the course to cater for them, not the other way around. However, they don’t want you to pretend to know everything about their generation. Mark McCrindle says they are generally sceptical and quick spot a fake. Focus on their feelings and show that you understand and respect their perspectives.

Gen-Y students have short attention spans
Marc Prensky describes Gen-Y as “digital natives” whose minds have learned to adapt to speed and thrive on it. Living in a digital environment means being adept at processing information quickly. Information in the classroom also needs to be kept short and interesting to deal with Gen-Ys’ shorter attention spans. Repeat key messages and provide learning activities that create excitement, enthusiasm and drama for students. Gen-Y doesn’t want to sit and listen; they expect learning to be active rather than passive. Susan Eisner suggests a class game show is more likely to teach Gen-Y students  than traditional examinations.

Gen-Y insist that they can multitask
Gen Ys are accustomed to randomly accessed information and instead of linear thinking they are skilled at parallel processing. Ron Alsop says that today’s students have far greater access to information and they expect a more multimodal form of communication. Richard Sweeney says they are notoriously reluctant readers but happily sit down to podcasts, videos and computer games for hours at a time. Gen-Y students know how to use technology but not always to the best effect for their learning. They’re easily distracted by SMS or Facebook and willing miss lectures and class discussions for their social networking. There is also concern that they are developing bad habits from SMS and rely too heavily on computer spelling checkers. Don’t assume that they already have the appropriate writing skills just because they are at university.

Gen-Y embrace recognition and reward
Gen-Y is competitive and obsessed with grades more than learning. They are self-centred and over-confident and will need to be challenged so that they can weigh up their talents and capabilities against others. It is only through an accurate, realistic appraisal of their present capabilities that they will develop mature judgement and find ways of dealing with negative criticism. You also need to be vigilant to prevent the use of technology for cheating. Their competitive streak and ability to cheat more easily means classroom behaviours need to be monitored more closely than before.

Gen-Y are distant and disengaged from universities
Mark Bauerlein argues that very few Gen-Y students step up when given more responsibility for their learning. University teachers need to accept their role is to challenge students by providing them with regular work and  guidance rather than indulging students to believing they always know best. Alsop (2008) says that Gen-Y are often challenged by ambiguity and how to figure out how to fit things together. They can struggle with courses that are not mapped out for them or don’t have clear-cut right answers. In these situations Gen-Y will tend to rely excessively on their lecturers for simple decisions and expect a high level of detailed step-by-step guidance and support.

Alsop, R. (2008). The trophy kinds grow up: How the millennial generation is shaking up the workplace. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bauerlein, M.  (2008). The dumbest generation. New York: Jeremy. P. Tacherer/Penguin.

Eisner, S. (2004).  Teaching generation Y college students-three Initiatives. Journal of College Teaching and Learning, 1 (9), 69-84.

McCrindle, M. (2009). ABC of XYZ: Understanding the global generations. Sydney: UNSW Press.

Prensky, M. (2005). Engage me or enrage me. EDUCASE Review, 40, 5, September/October, 61–64.

Sweeney, R. (2007) How the New Generation of Well-Wired Multitaskers Is Changing Campus Culture. Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. 53 Issue 18, pB10-B15

Nothing unravels us more than a hurtful comment.  For many university teachers the qualitative comments collected from students are among the most constructive aspects of student feedback. Yet, from time to time, students write mean, offensive or malicious comments intentionally aimed at humiliating, undermining or threatening their lecturers. Belittling statements by students about our appearance, intelligence, racial or religious background hurt because we are surprised that some students resent our efforts to help them learn.

Senior Clinical Psychologist, Rachael Murrihy, from the UTS Health Psychology Unit suggests that a lack of inhibition arises from being anonymous. The anonymous nature of student feedback gives some students the confidence to say things they would not normally say if they could be identified. Students may be less inhibited in anonymous surveys because they do not see the hurt they inflict on the reader, reducing the likelihood that they will feel remorseful, as they might in a face-to-face interaction. Furthermore, the audience is unlikely to be the target of their comments as it is more likely that the student wants to denigrate the lecturer to their superiors.

The usual advice for this kind of written harassment is to try to ignore the comments and don’t let them get to you. If it is that easy, then this is clearly your simplest option. However, if emotional harm has been caused by something your students have written, then you need to ensure you have effective skills to respond.

You need to be relatively resilient to ignore hurtful comments. That is, you need to feel good about yourself and ensuring that you get plenty of exercise, eat healthy food, get plenty of sleep and avoid excessive alcohol can all help with your self image. Encourage positive thinking through positive self-talk rather than reinforcing self-doubt by thinking things like “They’re right, I’m ugly”. Remind yourself of your positive characteristics instead of dwelling on the negative.

It is normal to feel angry when someone attacks you personally. Whatever their underlying cause, hurtful comments are written to produce a reaction and it is best that students do not know that what they have written has hurt you. Don’t seek out students in your class to try to find out who wrote the hurtful comments or why. It is far better to express your feelings in more appropriate ways such as writing them down, listening to music or through physical activity.

Once you are over the initial shock that one of your students wants to denigrate you there are some further actions you might consider:

Decide whether you need professional counselling. If you are really upset and don’t know what to do about it, you should contact a professional counsellor.

Talk to your colleagues. Elke Stracke from the University of Canberra suggests that talking about your experiences and how you felt about receiving belittling statements can be a fruitful way of dealing with hurtful comments in student feedback.

File a complaint with the survey unit. Don’t think you have to deal with this alone. Your university requested this information from the students and needs be involved in minimising hurtful comments. Most universities have formal policies and procedures to minimise harassing and threatening comments in the workplace.

Try to short-circuit abusive behaviour in your students. Encourage good communication with your students by regularly collecting feedback from your class and showing that you take the students’ comments seriously. Don’t expect to be mistreated in student feedback and help student see their responsibility regarding giving constructive feedback.

Don’t look like an easy target. Look like a person who is physically and emotionally strong. Bullies are looking for vulnerable people to harass. If you find you are frequently attacked, take an honest look at whether you need to change anything about the way you are treating your students that might contribute to how your students are responding in their feedback surveys.

Technology has an unnerving habit of letting you down at the most critical moment. Equipment that worked perfectly well in rehearsals suddenly breaks down just at the time when it can cause the greatest embarrassment to you and your students. As classrooms become more equipped with electronic equipment the chance increases of something going wrong. Starting from the belief that technology universities should know something about educational technology, I asked the AV departments in the five Australian Technology Network (ATN) universities what they recommend lecturers do when equipment fails in the classroom.

Call for help
The commonly advertised strategy for dealing with equipment not working in the classroom is to call the AV department for help. Most ATN universities have a telephone or intercom system in their main lecture theatres with which staff can contact the help service and talk through any problem that might arise during a lecture. The key is not to go too far into trying to solve the problem yourself before you call for assistance. Far better for the technical support to be called out on a false alarm than to run out of time for your class through spending all your time on getting the technology working. Find out who is responsible for the room you are in and what the expected response time for help is likely to be. There may be only one person on-call for the whole university and it will take some time for the AV technicians to come and fix the fault so you should have an activity like revising last weeks class in reserve to fill the gap.

Prepare before hand
To minimise problems in teaching spaces ATN universities have attempted to standardise the equipment provided in each classroom. QUT provides an operating manual for all audio-visual equipment used in its teaching spaces which Gordon Howell recommends lecturers read before using lecture theatres. Teaching spaces across the University are grouped into different categories that indicate the type of audiovisual equipment available for use in the space so lecturers can be confident that what they learn about one kind of equipment applies in different rooms. A common problem occurs when lecturers do not anticipate the delay caused by equipment warming up. In this case, continually switching between equipment can extend the warm up period or mix up the signals being sent to controller circuits. Keep the instructions to the controller simple. Go through the start-up sequence one step at a time and give the computer time to do the things it needs to do. If everything freezes it is most unlikely that it is because you have broken the system. When in doubt, switch everything off and start again.

Read the user manual
Technology is continually being upgraded bringing a wide range of equipment models and formats into the classroom. This means lecturers need to know more about the equipment  they plan to use before they bring it into the classroom. For example, many models of overhead projectors have a second bulb which can be used when a lamp blows, some which simply slide into place while others need the machine opened to be changed. Morris Ewings from UniSA says that a major issue he faces when laptops are brought into a classroom is that a laptop can only project an image through its external VGA port after the port has first be made active. All laptops have a simple way of doing this but each model will have a slightly different combination depending on the operating system and keyboard. The only solution for resolving the problem of greater variety of equipment is having a better knowledge of the unique settings for your particular model. Have the equipment’s user manual on hand and familiarise yourself with its trouble-shooting guide that is usually printed in the back of most technical manuals.

Check the cables
A lot more people are bringing their own equipment into the classroom which require their own adaptors to connect to the university’s AV equipment. For example, power adaptors are likely to be purpose built for a devise and it is unlikely that a spare can be found on short notice. Morris Ewings says that after several years of experience he has seen people try to fit cables into many places they shouldn’t go resulting in other problems like bent or snapped pins on the cable and possibly pins snapped off in the port which can be rather expensive to get fixed. It is good to do a quick check of the pins on the cable before using it. If the pins are bent, do not bend them back, get a new cable. Bending them can result in connection issues so you might end up seeing only the green or red in the image. Check that all connections are made firmly. Cables in classrooms are continually pushed in and out of connectors, which tend to loosen over time, making them easier to slip out and give a poor connection.

Check the inputs
Most AV consoles allow for multiple inputs and will have some means by which the different inputs are mixed together. At RMIT a common mistake they have found with complex mixing systems is not setting the input to the device intended. For example, a VCR and a DVD might be labelled Video 1 and Video 2 on the remote control and without clear labelling it is necessary to have the video playing in order to check that the correct device has been selected. As well as checking a microphone input on the sound mixer it is important to position a radio microphone and lectern microphone to avoid the annoying squeals of feedback. If you’re showing video from a laptop the sound is likely to require its own cable that goes into an auxiliary sound input which needs to be selected during playback.

Check software compatibility
Kathy Gratten at UTS has found that the large number of different versions of software needed to run AV equipment has made software compatibility an issue. The only real solution for software incompatibility is to go into the class early and test that the software will work in the room in which you are going to use your equipment. It is not possible to assume that every computer will be set up with all the codecs you’re using on your office or home computer or that it will be possible to upgrade software before the class. Two common problems of compatibility are reference files that are linked to a particular hard drive that can’t be found on the classroom computer. Also when using Powerpoint you can’t assume that fonts you used in the design of the presentation are also installed on the classroom computer. Even links to the web need to be tested as some universities limit access to some sites, especially in YouTube.

Many cultures believe that age brings with it wisdom. This makes it easy for younger academics to feel inferior simply because of an age difference with their students. Older students may be  unaware of the effects they can have on  younger academics, who report feeling intimidated by the greater life and work experience that older students bring into the class, some of who come from running departments or senior positions in industry. Research suggests that there are solutions for those suffering self-doubt in front of older students (Gravois, 2007). Nesler, Aguinis,  Quigley &  Tedeschi found that as well as age, many people associate confidence and leadership with expert knowledge. Without the perception of authority that being older can bring, a younger university teacher might:

Promote an image of expertise. Making sure that their class knows about their formal education, relevant work experience, and significant accomplishments relevant to the subject. Command of subject matter and pedagogical content knowledge is necessary if they are to establish their expert authority as a professional educator.

Act confidently and decisively in the classroom. Students like teachers who “take charge” and appear to know how to direct a group when it is coping with a problem. They still need to listen carefully to the concerns and uncertainties of their older students, who often have to juggle home and work responsibilities, and make sure that they address their older students concerns.

Avoid threatening the self-esteem of older students. Mitchell & Spady argue that legitimacy in education is based on a teachers’ ability to encourage student learning which can only be achieved by helping students develop feelings of worth and security within their classroom. Don’t infantilise older students by lecturing to them in a condescending way or convey the impression that they are ignorant.  Value the contribution that older students can make by involving them in planning their learning activities, work together to establish  their study goals are  help them accomplish their goals.

Confront those who doubt their abilities. Some academics find it empowering to directly address those who question their presence in the classroom. Rather than fume in silence about having their right to teach questioned, they let the person know that remarks about their age are inappropriate. If unsure of how to do this, a younger academic might need to consider assertiveness training on how to stand up for themselves without being defensive or aggressive.

Gravois, J. (2007). You’re Not Fooling Anyone. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 54 (11) A1

Mitchell, D.E.; Spady, W.G. (1983). Authority, Power, and the Legitimation of Social Control. Educational Administration Quarterly, 19 (1) 5-33.

Nesler, M.S.,  Aguinis, H., Quigley, B.M. &  Tedeschi J.T. (1993). The Effect of Credibility on Perceived Power. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 23, (17),  1407-1425

Most university teachers would say that students benefit from attending their lectures. While studies show a distinct benefit in attending lectures (Stanca, 2006), results from the 2007 Australasian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE) showed that less than a quarter of students in Australia and New Zealand spend significant amounts of time on campus.

Clay & Breslow (2006) found that most American students  tried to go to every lecture basing their decision to attend on the quality and clarity of the lecture, conflicting deadlines, use of relevant examples, and the lecturer’s ability to engage and entertain the students. In a trial of podcasting, Shannon (2006) found that although 87.5% of students believed that attending lectures was important, 60% did not attend all lectures. Non-attendance was due largely to family and personal issues (including illness) and university workload.

The simple way to maintain high attendance rates is to force students to attend. Mark attendance or have in-class quizzes that cannot be accessed outside the classroom. Universities in the UK have students sign good behaviour contracts that includes a requirement to attend lectures and seminars (Meikle, 2006).

Rogers (2002) shows that while compelling students to attend makes for high attendance, it does not necessarily correspond to increased performance.  Nor does it respect of adult learning principles that students ought to choose for themselves the best way to learn.

In many cases, students make a simple, pragmatic decision whether it is worth going to a lecture. The most important factor is the expectation that they would learn something by attending class. Make sure that students leave the class knowing what they have learned. Integrate new knowledge with what students already know and explain to the students where the new bits of information fit in the overall structure.

Students are also more likely to go to highly challenging classes. Explain to students what an outstanding contribution to the subject would be so that they have a goal to aim for. It is important when setting high standard that the level of challenge is not so high that students see no chance of achieving the outcomes.

Not surprisingly, students are more likely to attend a class on a topic they are interested in than those they are not. Activities with high levels of credibility within their future profession are going to contribute to your students’ interest in the subject. Take the time to discover your students’ interests through icebreaker activities that review their background knowledge.  Survey your students about what they have heard about the subject area and what motivates their interest in the topic.


Clay, T. & Breslow, L. (2006). Why students don’t attend class. MITFaculty Newslettter.

Meikle, J. (2006) Students told: turn up or face expulsion, The Guardian

Rogers, J. (2002). Encouraging tutorial attendance at university did not improve performance.  Australian Economic Papers, 255-266.

Shannon, S. (2006). Why don’t students attend lectures and what can be done about it through using iPod nanos? A paper presented at 23rd Annual ASCILITE Conference Sydney.

Stanca, L. (2006). The effects of attendance on academic performance. Journal of Economic Education 37 (3), 251-266.