Society for the Teaching of Psychology: Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

Handling Hard Questions from Students

01 Sep 2022 12:00 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

With the upcoming semester starting, this corner focuses on how to handle moments in which you as an instructor are asked questions to which you do not know the answer to. This topic is particularly geared toward first-time instructors and highlights the various ways in which one can responsibly address such moments.

Authors: Skye Mendes, Morgan Franklin, Christopher Kleva, Madeline Bruce, and William Ridgway

Skye: For some educators, the instances of being stumped with a question posed by a student might be navigated without any increase in heart rate, however, for those starting out—and whose “not knowing” may possibly be perceived with bias by students based on the instructor’s age, race, gender, ethnicity, or potential disability—can interpret such a moment as a somewhat threatening. Will students think I am not competent in this area? Will they remember this during the teaching evaluations? As with all things related to teaching, I try to guide my approach with a core belief that is clearly seen and understood by each student: I care about their learning. This approach almost always includes (1) expressing appreciation for the question and acknowledging any ways it demonstrates the type of critical thinking the course aims to develop, (2) letting them know I’m uncertain of the answer but I am excited for us to figure it out, (3) making a plan to figure it out, depending on the type of question and context (e.g., modeling the process of finding information in the text or literature, facilitating class discussion and having the group generate plausible answers based on prior knowledge before we look it up, or offering to delve into the topic myself after class), and (4) following through on making sure we get to the bottom of it if it cannot be resolved during class. Again context-dependent, the last step may involve follow-up at the beginning of the next class session, the inclusion of an answer and source in a class announcement post, perhaps an office hours meeting, or even facilitating a connection to someone more expert. Even if the question is resolved one on one with a student, I aim to make sure the answer gets to the whole class, whenever possible and appropriate, to show that I value their curiosities.

Morgan: As instructors, I think it's natural for us to encounter situations in which we are uncertain or do not feel confident in our knowledge of the subject. These situations have occurred most frequently for me when lecturing over broad content (e.g., Introduction to Psychology) and when assigned to instruct courses that I feel to be outside of my research and clinical focus. In these situations, I think it's best to be as transparent as possible. I often inform my students of my own limitations in the content I am teaching, and/or communicate to them the "lens" that I am lecturing through (i.e., clinical). When my students have questions about content that I do not feel I am competent in, I have sometimes put them in contact with someone who does. I've been fortunate to make connections with many peers and professionals pursuing other specialties who are always open to discussing their areas of expertise with my students in more detail, should they have questions. If possible, it may also be helpful to students to invite guest lecturers who can provide more detail about the content. I think this is beneficial both in terms of providing students with greater depth and specificity in their learning, but also from a professional development perspective by providing students closer contact with professionals in that specific area of research. In situations in which the former options are not easily feasible, I do handle information-seeking myself and provide resources so that I may discuss what the literature shows with my students in a collaborative way. My hope is that bringing research to them and engaging in this process together will model literature review, as well as the critical assessment of research.

Chris: There’s a clear power dynamic within a classroom, which is fueled by the assumption that the professor has all the answers. I am humbled by seeing the faces of my students when they ask me a question and I respond, “That is a great question! I don’t know.” Those three words can be incredibly difficult to say because there is an inherent questioning of one’s knowledge but it’s also where learning can begin. Pre-pandemic, I would invite students to come to office hours so we could brainstorm ways of seeking out an answer or simply update the class during our next lecture. Since many courses have gone virtual, it has been easier to meet with students and share how I seek out answers to questions I don’t know. This may include how to use our library databases, skim through a journal article or reaching out to colleagues in the field of interest through email and introducing my inquisitive student. I hope my students learn two important lessons that they can carry throughout their lives: (1) it is OK to say, “I don’t know” and (2) there are a myriad of ways in which one can seek out knowledge.

Madeline: I will pass on advice that my mentor gave me: Find an “old head who earned their greys.” I believe he was playfully referring to himself, but he lived this advice and had his own go-to colleagues despite his seniority. In other words, find a mentor you trust and go to them. As we transition out of our student role, it’s easy to cling to the idea that you’re on your own, or that you should know everything and if you don’t, that somehow reflects poorly on you. This is not the case. We are all in this together. Our practice of psychology—from teaching, to research, to consulting, to clinical care—improves when we seek out others. Being open about this collaborative process with students and modeling it for them will go a long way to alleviating their nerves about needing to know everything off the top of their head and shows them how to collaborate with others regardless of their field.

William: Instructors will at some point encounter a question they cannot immediately answer. How one approaches this moment is crucial. It is a universal certainty that one does not know everything, yet there are moments or positions we find ourselves in where we tend to ignore this simple truth. Arguably, this can be quite applicable to first-time instructors who at times dread the idea that their students may view them as lacking an ideal level of competence if unable to provide an answer to each question provided to them. As a result, some may default to persuasive bullshitting to manage social impressions or increase status. One problem with this approach is that the trust between instructor and student is put at risk. In the end, it is best to be honest when asked a question to which you do not know the answer to. Doing so will allow you to maintain trust while demonstrating a quality that is often undervalued: humility. Afterall, humility is what makes us real.

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