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Questions About Questions

The way you ask a question has a lot to do with the answer you get.  For a group to work together effectively, everyone's ideas must be heard.  Effective questioning is a necessary skill for facilitating a training seminar.  To get everyone involved and learning, you have to know what to ask, how, and of whom.  You have to know how to give every learner a chance to come up with her or his own solutions.

Questions are one of your most valuable tools--for making points, for assessing understanding, for arousing interest, and for testing understanding.  Most trainers would agree.  Still, many are uncomfortable using questions as a means of converting lectures to dialogues.  Here are the answers to some of the most common questions about questions.

  • Is it better to call on participants by name or ask "overhead questions" and hope for volunteers?
    If you are trying to create a free flow of conversation and dialogue between learners and instructor, then it's better not to call on individuals by name.  Naming a respondent in advance can have several negative effects.
    -The person may be embarrassed.
    -Someone else may be better qualified to answer and thus be of greater benefit to the group.
    -Others may feel that they are "off the hook" and may not think through their own answers.
    -The climate may become one of classroom recitation, a "parent-to-child" series of transactions in which the instructor plays the role of judge.

    An effective teacher can call on participants by name without encountering any of those negative side effects.  One way is to let a person know why you're calling on her or him in particular.  Example:  Sandy, I know you've had some experience with this problem at your location.  What do you think about this?

    The danger of hoping for volunteers, of course, is that you may get none--or the same people will respond, leaving the silent majority behind, not contributing and perhaps even resentful.

  • How do you get learners involved who never volunteer?  What about that silent majority who see learning as a passive activity--a spectator sport?
    The much-cited 20/80 ratio probably applies to classroom behavior as well as to so many other phenomena.  Namely, 80 percent of volunteered responses come from 20 percent of the learners.  In a class of twenty people, the same three or four people may be answering all the time.  Since people learn best by being actively involved, you want everyone to respond.  How can you accomplish that?

    There are many ways.  After you've posed a question, have people turn to their neighbors and respond to them.  On short answers, have each person write his or her response on notepaper, then discuss the responses.  On polarized issues (on which the responses are yes/no, more/less, and so forth), ask for a show of hands for each response.  Once you've broken the ice with such techniques, learners will be more willing to volunteer.

  • It is a good idea to repeat participants' questions to make sure everybody understood?
    In general, yes, although repeating every question can become tiresome.  Most question shouldn't need repeating.  But if the question was not worded clearly, was spoken too softly for everyone to hear, or came "out of the blue," then it may be a good idea to repeat it.

  • How should I deal with someone who has just given me a wrong answer especially if the person has rank or status in the group?  I'm thinking of the regional manager attending a local management seminar, or someone who's the in-house expert on the topic.
    There are two issues here.  First, those with rank or status have no corner on the market when it comes to intelligence or understanding.  Everyone in your class is entitled to make mistakes and have misconceptions.  By the same token, everyone is entitled to respect; it is the instructor's job to "save face" for everyone.

    If someone provides a wrong answer, it may be an indication that others are having difficulty.  It's not likely that you picked the only person who did not understand.  You may want to turn to the group after a wrong answer and ask, "How do the rest of you feel about Jackie's response?  Is you own similar?  Such neutral wording will let you know how widespread the problem is, and may get another person who has an acceptable answer to explain the reasoning behind it to Jackie and anyone else who is having trouble.  That relieves you from always being the one to correct wrong answers and gets your trainees to view one another as resources.

  • Sometimes I just don't understand an answer enough to know whether it's right.  What should I do in such cases?
    You have several options.
    -Tell the respondent that you don't understand what she or he is saying; ask the person to word it differently.
    -If you think you understand some of what the trainee is saying, try restating it.  The respondent will step in with clarification as needed.
    -Ask the rest of the group for help: "Do all of you understand Thomas's response?  I'm not sure I do.  Can someone interpret it for me?"

  • What if someone takes forever to answer, is repetitive, rambling, or has trouble organizing his or her thoughts?
    Allow a reasonable time to organize an answer.  If you see that the person is in trouble and that you're wasting group time, you may want to interrupt and summarize:  "Let me see, Chris, if I understand what you're saying.  You feel that ..."  If you are at a loss to understand Chris well enough to attempt a summary, you may want to ask the group, "Can someone summarize Chris's response?" Or, you might simply interrupt, thank Chris, and say, "I'd like to get answers from several people on this question, since it's a difficult one."

  • What if no one answers my question?
    Let's examine some of the possible reasons.
    -The question may have been so obvious or simple that no one wants to look like the class idiot by answering it.
    -You may not have broken the ice yet, in which case you may want to try some of the techniques discussed earlier in this section.
    -It's possible that no one knows the answer, in which case the question was premature or your instruction was inadequate.
    -Perhaps no one understood the question.  You might say, "Do you understand what I'm asking?"  Ask trainees why this question seems to be giving them trouble.  Or try rephrasing the question, which gives them new wording and additional time to think through the answer.

  • How should I deal with a learner who asks irrelevant questions that interfere with the flow of my instruction?
    If a question can be answered in a sentence or so, it might be easier to deal with the question rather than with the disruptive behavior.  If the questions are making it hard for the other participants and you to keep on track, you might say, "I'm not sure how your question relates to the point we've been discussing ... Can you make the link for us?"  This gives the person a chance to explain the relevance or graciously drop the question altogether.

  • What if a learner asks a question that is irrelevant but of great interest to the group, or a question that will be addressed later in the course but that is premature at this point?
    Sometimes a learner's question may be irrelevant or disruptive to you but of interest to the group (for example, a gripe they all have or a hidden agenda that is now exposed).  At the beginning of the session, you might tape a sheet of flip-chart paper to the wall and give it the heading, "To be taken up later" or "Things to do."

    As people ask questions that you'll be dealing with in subsequent sessions, you can write reminder notes for all to see.  Sometimes participants bring up questions of a policy nature that you'll want to check with someone in authority before answering.  The chart buys you time to do so.

    If you've shared the schedule and the course objectives with the participants in advance, you're less likely to get irrelevant or premature questions.  When you do, you can simply refer to the posted schedule or to the objectives.

  • If no one else answers, is there anything wrong with me answering my own question?
    If you asked the question to test understanding or to get the group's input, you're defeating your purpose by answering it yourself.  Learners' failure to answer is a symptom, and you should try to analyze the problem underlying it.  Was your question understood?  Was it relevant?  Do they know the answer?

    Many teachers feel embarrassed if no one answers within a few seconds.  You may have to wait five to ten seconds for an answer, especially to a complex question.  Rephrase it to increase understanding of what you want.  This also gives participants more time to think through their answers.  If no one volunteers, ask trainees to turn to their neighbors and discuss their answers.  You can then circulate, listening in on a half-dozen answers to find where the group had trouble with your initial question.

  • What if I don't know the answer to a question?  Doesn't that cause a loss of credibility?
    You'll lose more credibility by trying to bluff an answer than by stating that you don't know it but will try to find out before the next class.  You might ask the group if anyone knows the answer.  It's far more important to be a good facilitator than to be the one with all the answers.

  • How should I deal with someone who asks a question that is really a statement of opinion?
    One of the most common ways a participant will try to make a point is by asking a question.  Such questions often begin with wording like, "Don't you think that the best way to ..."  When you recognize that someone is really expressing an opinion or making a point, it's a good idea to throw it back to her or him:  "That's a good question, Lee.  What do you think?"  In short, give the trainee the chance to make the point.  Don't take it away by answering the question yourself or by throwing it to the group.

  • What if some one asks a question about something I covered ten minutes earlier?  Should I take time to answer?
    That depends.  You might acknowledge for the group's benefit that you discussed the subject earlier, and reiterate the question.  Ask if anyone else is having trouble.  If no one is, you have a good reason to suggest that the learner see you during a break.  Of course, if the question can be answered in half a minute or so, it's easier to do so and not make an issue of it.

  • What if participants don't accept my answer and are fighting it?  This often happens when I'm teaching company policy or procedures.
    Don't take sides by either defending or knocking the organization.  Simply acknowledge that what you're explaining may not be popular, but that it is the way things are.  If you know in advance that you'll be facing resistance, it's good to have the responsible persons there to explain and sell the new things you're teaching.  You may jeopardize your effectiveness as an instructor if you question or defend your content.  If the answer that is being resisted is not a matter of policy or procedure, you might try asking for help from the group.  "Has anyone tried the technique I'm describing?  What's been your experience?"  Or, you may be able to relate a personal experience in which you found it useful to do what you just described in your answer.

    In certain types of courses, you may want to state at the start that some of the suggestions and answers you'll be sharing won't be appropriate or acceptable to everyone.  It is the job of each learner to select what is relevant and reject what isn't.  Once you've said that, you can easily deal with participants who are fighting you: simply point out that if your answer isn't relevant, they shouldn't act on it.

Reference: Parry, Scott.  "Questions About Questions."  Thinking and Development Journal, February 1991.

Source: Renner, Peter (1994). The Art of Teaching Adults: How to Become an Exceptional Instructor and Facilitator. Vancouver: Training Associates. (Can be found in the Emma Waters Summar Library in the Faculty Development section - LC5219.R458)



"An appetite for knowledge and beauty exists in the human mind and God makes no appetite in vain. We can therefore pursue knowledge as such and beauty as such, in the sure confidence that by doing so we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so."
-C.S. Lewis; Learning in Wartime; The Weight of Glory