#5 tip for teachers – dealing with questions in class

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Controlling the class

If you are new teacher of nursing, you will be faced with the idea of how much interactivity you wish to have in class. Will you simply stand there and lecture while the students take notes? (like a “talking head”) Do you build in some small group activity? Do you continue talking even if nobody is paying attention? What do you do to get their attention, or do you care? Do you ask questions? how do you handle questions from the students?

The traditional lecture style in which the students sit quietly and take notes  was named the “Banking Method” by Paulo Freire (an early guru of mine) and it is still alive and well, aided by PowerPoint – you can’t stray too far from the plan when there is a PPT for the subject of the day.

What if nobody is paying attention?

To me, that indicates profound disrespect. We’ll cover getting the students attention, another time. For that matter, we’ll talk about what they are doing instead of paying attention – primarily checking FaceBook and texting – in detail in a future blog.

General principle: A student’s question is never simply a question. it is a reality-check for you. Does the student’s question follow logically from what you just said? does it indicate that the person was paying attention or failed to comprehend something?  In an undergrad program, does the question ( and answer) fit a “generalist” frame, worth spending class time on?

never actually answer a question if you can avoid it.

never actually answer a question if you can avoid it.

never actually answer a question if you can avoid it.

It’s not about what you know, it’s about what the class learns. if the student was paying enough attention to ask a good question, repeat it for the whole class, and give it time to sink in.

Here is a way to maximize student participation in questions: Pair the students up if you need to, tell them to take a minute to discuss, and then poll the whole class for possible answers.

If you are new to teaching you sometimes need to answer questions to establish the idea that yes, you do know something about this subject; but the job is to get the whole class over the fence, not just the two or three most articulate ones….. and this is a way to engage a larger number.

If the student asks a poorly-informed question, never deliver a put-down. Never use sarcasm. ever.

Here are a few “types” of students to notice.

the squirmer

The squirmer sits in the front row of the class and is constantly raising their hand to participate. If you ask the class a question, the squirmer will blurt out the answer before the rest of the class has figured out the question. The squirmer will get to class early and show you some special thing they found which was above and beyond the assigned reading for the class.

assessment of the squirmer?

probably has studied like crazy and is desperate for recognition as to the work they have done.  BUT – disrupting the class  in a subtle way – they are preventing anybody else from answering a question; they are trying to make it a one-person class. some teachers get into the habit of stating the next lecture point as a question-that-is-not-meant-to-be-answered – are you one of those? If so, you may wish to reconsider……

variation of the squirmer: the e-squirmer. This is a person who uses email, texting and IM to ask questions out-of-class, and is disappointed that you don’t answer right away ( the idea that you may be asleep at 0300 on a Sunday morning does not seem to cross their mind). Do the whole faculty a favor, and resist the urge to respond to anything immediately. there are limits to your instant e-availability! Set limits on e-communication, and stick to them

PEARL OF WISDOM – intervention with the squirmer  take them aside and tell them ” There is no question in my mind that you are the star of this class. From now on, you are forbidden to answer any question. Instead, use your right hand to pull your earlobe three times in a row. I will wink at you to acknowledge that you know the answer, but from now on the policy will be to only call on you at the end of the little mini-discussion.”

The dreamer

This one is probably along one edge of the class, near an electrical outlet. The laptop is set up, and he is probably looking at FaceBook or checking email. He is there-but-not-there. assessment: find ways to engage this person in class. call on them by name, yes it’s an old trick from sixth grade but it reinforces the need to participate. Re-arrange the chairs so that students working in groups need to face each other and interact. Consider a clear policy as to when personal computing is okay or not. (this is tricky. If you are lecturing from PowerPoint, often the students become accustomed to having their own copy in front of them). Realize that whenever students have a smartphone in class, they are texting each other, probably about your lecture style.

For me, I walk around as I talk during lecture class and I notice what’s on the screen and whether the person is paying attention.

the kibitzer

the back row of the class will often be taken up by four or five really intelligent students who sit their with their arms folded, muttering to each other as you lecture.

yes, they are laughing, and yes, they are laughing at – you.

assessment: sometimes this is a bright subgroup of students. Each of them thinks they could be more exciting than you if only they were the teacher. Don’t take it personally. If that is the case, you can often leave them alone and they will do okay.


There will be a group of students who actually are there to clarify what they read and to put it into perspective and context. This is the group to which your lecturing should be directed. When you are planning out the lecture, close your eyes and pretend that one of these students is sitting right there, and plan as if you are speaking to that specific student.


For a beginner faculty member, it is easy to direct your teaching to the brightest students in the class; it is easy to focus on those aspects of nursing care that are sophisticated and cutting-edge which you yourself learned in graduate school. In an undergraduate program, this is always a mistake new teachers make.

Final Pearl of Wisdom

Direct your teaching to the middle of the class – they are the ones who can benefit from an in-person explanation. Force yourself not to spend too much in-class time with the top students. They will do fine without your help!



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2 responses to “#5 tip for teachers – dealing with questions in class

  1. jpacklin

    Love the pearl of wisdom re: the squirmer. I suppose some might not consider that “politcally correct” but it’s a very effective teaching method. Not just for the whole class but for the squirmer as well who is forced to do a little bit of introspection (coming from a former squirmer [who didn’t sit in the front of the class–they don’t always]).

    • I am a current squirmer, who has to actively tried to not be one. And I sit in the back too, so maybe I am in that category too. I am more the person who waits until an awkward silence happens and then answers the question. Which means if the class isn’t very involved, I may talk too much. I would prefer to keep to conversation going than sit in silence.

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