CXO

Fielding difficult questions in the classroom

Questions during class are inevitable. Our question is: Are you practicing the best techniques for handling those inquiries? Bob Potemski shares ways to keep the focus on your students' need to understand.


I witnessed something last week that I found to be, unfortunately, rather unusual. A bookstore employee was busily working on a task that seemed fairly complex. A customer approached her and said, "I'm sorry to bother you, but could you help me find a book?" What I found unusual was that the employee put down her pen and clipboard and replied, "Of course. You're my first priority; you're my customer." As they walked over toward the New Nonfiction section, I reflected on the bookseller's attitude and wondered if I, as a trainer, was that attuned to my priorities.

Whose agenda is it anyway?
People in service-oriented jobs are busy, no doubt about it. But just as it's not uncommon to pick up on an "I have other things to do" attitude from a harried service worker, we sometimes let our participants see a similar attitude in us. We short-change students by putting our own agenda for a training session above their needs: the need to learn, understand, and feel comfortable in our training room.

One area we can improve our customer service is how we handle questions. There are two types of questions you'll hear in a training session: information seeking questions and challenge questions. How you answer those questions determines your true priority: your students or you.
In Part 1 we'll talk about the best techniques for handling information seeking questions. In Part 2 we'll look at ways of dealing with the challenge questions.
What information are you seeking?
It can be easy for us to focus on our own needs, rather than those of our students. We're "subject matter experts," the ones in the front of the room, right? Or, for shame, we just want to hit our breaks right on the nose.

We are concentrating on our own needs when we:
  • Ask people to hold their questions until we're ready for them.
  • Begin answering before the question is even finished.
  • Give a non-answer, such as "That's beyond the scope of this course.”
  • Offer a disrespectful answer, such as "I'll get to that later."

Remember, you and I are in the minority: Most people would rather do anything else in the world than speak in front of a group. They hate it; we thrive on it. By asking an information seeking question, the participant is risking a great deal of exposure. If a participant has worked up the nerve to put his or her lack of knowledge on the line in front of the group, it's important for us to honor that effort and give them what they want. After all, they are our customers. And just as the bookseller said, our customers need to be our first priority.

Stepping in the right direction
Make it very clear in your introduction that you welcome questions at any time. Asking your audience to defer questions until you've come to a stopping point makes the learning process harder for them. Much of what we teach in a technical course is sequential. If your participant is not clear on information early in the sequence—and has no opportunity to clarify it—the benefit of the remainder of the section is diminished.

Let's use computer hardware as an illustration. If you're trying to teach me how the computer's processor and bus architecture work together, but I don't quite understand your explanation of the role of interrupt requests (IRQs), I'm left with an incomplete picture of how the computer processes a signal. Even if you answer any questions I have later, it becomes my responsibility as the student to go back and plug that information in to the lesson. Left on my own, I lose the benefit of your insight and teaching ability, which are the very reasons that I'm in class and not just trying to learn the subject from a book.

Tell your students that you will indeed take their questions at any point during the course of the session, and tell them your answer will fall into one of three categories:
  1. The full answer, then and there—This is the strongest choice and is by far the most common. Use it as often as you can.
  2. Short answer now, more to come later—This tactic comes in handy when a sharp participant is a little bit ahead of where you're going with your presentation.
    For example, in the formula section of an Excel class, a student might ask if it's possible to make the results of certain calculations stand out. This type of answer would be: "Yes, you can do that by using a feature called conditional formatting. We'll be covering conditional and other types of cell formatting this afternoon, just before 2 P.M." In this response you've answered the immediate question: Can it be done? You've also enriched the answer by linking it to related topics: other types of cell formatting. Finally, you've captured the student's attention and hooked him or her for your afternoon segment.
  3. Something we need to talk about over our break—Use this sparingly; it is the least helpful of the three answers. The time to use this type of answer is when the participant's question is way off the topic at hand, very user-specific, or so far out in left field that it doesn't even make sense. It's only under these conditions that you’d not impede the learning process.
    For example, let's go back to our Excel class where we're teaching formulas. If a user asks how to change the name of the registered user on his or her copy of Microsoft Office back at work, you’re well within your rights to give an answer along the lines of, "That's a pretty involved process. I'll be glad to show you how to do it over lunch." Note that there is no reference to the question being inappropriate, no mention of how specific the question is to the asker, and certainly no debate over the merits of making such a change. Instead, you presented factual information—“it's a pretty involved process”—and promised assistance beyond the call of duty.

Repeat, repeat, repeat!
I can’t stress it enough—repeat questions before you answer them. There are five reasons to do this.
  1. You ensure the entire class hears the question.
  2. Repeating the question allows you to make sure that you understand the question yourself. When you say, "Jane's question was how do we…," it allows Jane to jump in and correct you if you've misunderstood her.
  3. It forces you to wait until the student has finished the question. I can't tell you how many times I've seen a participant look upset when a trainer cut them off mid-sentence and began to answer.
  4. It buys you time to think and to formulate your answer.
  5. Most importantly, it prevents you from setting up a private channel of communication with an individual student by directing your answer toward the entire class. Any time we speak from the front of the room, we should be speaking to everyone. When we allow a question and its answer to establish a private communication channel, it's very easy for us mentally to assess the individual's level of expertise and respond to them on that level. When we do that, we begin to use jargon, forget to define terms, and in other ways tune out the rest of the audience. This diminishes the value of the time you've just spent answering. Always speak to your whole class.

Next week we’ll discuss the “challenging” questions trainers receive and the proper way to handle them.
To comment on this article, please post a comment below. If you have any suggestions for future article topics, please send us a note.

Bob Potemski, MS, CTT, is a writer and trainer transplanted from New York. He and his five dogs now make their home in the Midwest. Bob has a bachelor of science degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a master's degree in counseling from Long Island University. He has spent the last 10 years working in human development.

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