Member feedback was overwhelming for my recent article, “What to do when you don’t have the answer.” TechRepublic readers interpreted my suggestions in varying ways, and as always, they gave really interesting, enlightening comments.

Overwhelmingly, the decision to be honest was number one on the list. We got some great comments from all sides, though, and here are a few examples.

Don’t avoid the issue
Some readers were dismayed that “be honest” was at the end of my list of suggestions. Many people indicated that trainers will lose the respect of their students if they try to bluff their way through an uncomfortable situation.

Rasmus W. said that when a student has a question that you don’t have the answer to, tell them right away, and you can both benefit by looking for the solution.

“If you try to be dishonest about your inability to answer a question, most people will see right through you (unless you are an extremely good actor), and they will feel that they can no longer trust you to tell them the right things.”

Kris K. agreed that trainers risk a lot by not being up-front with students.

“If you make a practice of just dodging questions you don’t know the answers to, you lose your credibility as a teacher, the respect of your students, and the opportunity to impart any knowledge at all. Students are not stupid; they will quickly catch on to the fact that not only do you not know the answer—which is not a crime—but that you are a dishonest person.”

Paul M. said that the “quietly turn off the overhead projector and look up the answer” idea wasn’t very realistic.

“Unless you are as slick as Houdini, your students are going to know what you’re doing when you turn off the projector lamp.”

Booner got the impression from the article’s suggestions that ego was more important than education.

“It seems that most of the techniques discussed in this article are aimed at protecting the ego of a trainer who doesn’t know the answer to a question…. The last point made is the best one: Be honest; then follow through at a later time.”

Honesty really is the best policy
Even though some training managers may not ever want to hear the phrase, “I don’t know,” MCT1 said that is the best thing you can tell students, if that is, in fact, the case.

“I’ve found that the most effective answer in this situation is, ‘I don’t know, but I will find out.’ We’re all human and can’t be expected to know all of the answers. The second key is follow up. Research the question during a break or lunch and present the solution to the class.”

Bill B. said that students are not stupid, and they will see right through trickery.

“Honesty is best. You make a mistake in class; so what! You’re human; you are allowed. Trying to cover up the error is just going to look like a tap dance, and it is. All you accomplish is looking worse than when you started. If you do not know the answer to a particular question, look it up. Do not bluff. It will come back to haunt you.”

Trekker picked up this advice while teaching computer classes at a state college.

“The first night during introductions, I told them that because computer technology changes so quickly it is difficult to keep up on the cutting edge and also know all there is to know. I also said that if I were asked a question that I did not know, I would do my best to answer it by the next class. I firmly believe that the students respected and appreciated my honesty, and it made for a better class.”

Other approaches to take in the classroom
J.Fullerton liked the approach one of her MCSE instructors used to deal with off-topic questions.

“Any time a student asked a question that was not totally on-topic or required some research, he wrote down the question in an area of the whiteboard he called the ‘parking lot.’ I think this is a good strategy because it shows the instructor is interested in providing the answers to students and also encourages the students to research answers themselves.”

Laurie wrote: “… As trainers, we should understand that we are ‘expert learners.’ An appropriate way to manage questions is to announce at the beginning of class that questions are welcomed and encouraged (within reason, of course) and to commit to finding an answer if one is not known. Keep an area of the flip chart or whiteboard reserved for questions that require more than a simple, direct answer. Record the question along with the recipient’s name, and follow up with that person. This method honors the recipient’s right to learn and demonstrates that teaching has an element of perpetual learning. We are all teachers, and we are all students.”

Dr. Idomeneas M., of Greece, said that during three years spent teaching math and physics at a university, this method never failed when a student had a difficult question:

“I smiled and said, ’Hey guys, I don’t have a clue. Can somebody help me?’ The response was impressive. Most students stopped listening to ‘another math lecture’ and started coming up with ideas. About a minute later, the answer came to me, and I was able to help them figure out what was wrong with their answers and guide them to the correct solution, while teaching them how to think.

“Most students felt creative, and this drove their interest. From then on, I used this method many times, even when I knew the answer. A difficult question means two things: The first is that somebody smart and interested asked it. The second is that if he cannot figure the answer, then most of the others cannot, including yourself. So, it is a good point to introduce creative thinking and guide your students (and maybe yourself) to the answer.”

Howard said that he eagerly anticipates getting his first tough question.

“I teach mostly intro to technology classes, and look forward to not having an answer early on in the course. Beginning students in most Introductory classes are intimidated by all that they don’t know. When I don’t have an answer, especially early in the class, I create a ‘space’ for students to loosen up and realize that it’s okay not to have the answers and that there are ways to find answers.”

Thanks to all our readers for their excellent suggestions!
Do you find that encouraging students to explore the answers has good results? What is the best thing a student has ever taught you? Send us a note so we can share the wisdom with other TechRepublic members.

Marsha Glick is the owner of Cybergators, a computer business that includes everything from training to Web design to networking and computer repair. She has worked in both home and institutional training settings, as well as with special-needs computer equipment for the hearing impaired, visually impaired, and physically disabled.