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Instructor 101: Answering Student Questions

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I have attended a number of classes in which instructors struggle when answering student questions. The problem isn’t a lack of knowledge; the instructors generally know the answer. The problem is they don’t know how to systematically provide the answer to the class. I hope this tutorial on answering student questions helps a few instructors out there.

There are a lot of “wrong” ways to answer a question. I’ve probably seen them all – from failing to understand what the question is to picking up a tangent and talking about everything except the question for fifteen minutes. If you want to tighten up your classes, give yourself more time to teach your material, and look a little more professional, give this method of answering student questions a shot.

Answering Student Questions: The R.A.C. Method

I can’t take credit for this method at all. This is right out of the Marine Corps’ Formal Schools Instructor Course. However, I’ve yet to see a better method for answering student questions. It sounds like a lot of steps to answering a question, but each step does have value. The steps are Restate the question, Answer the question, and Confirm the question has been answered. Let’s look at each step.

R – Restate the Question

Step 1 is to restate the student’s question. I often see this step skipped, even by otherwise great instructors. I really do appreciate when an instructor takes the time to do this. It accomplishes two things.

First, it confirms the question. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard an instructor proceed to answer a misunderstood question. This often leads down a “close by not quite” path that ultimately leads eaves the question unanswered. It also wastes precious time. When I show up at an eight-hour class, I want to get as much knowledge for my buck as I possibly can, so I appreciate when instructors are efficient in answering questions.

Second, it announces the question to the rest of the class. Again, this is in the interest of efficiency. If you answer the question without restating it you’ll inevitably get a follow-on question from someone else: “I’m sorry, what was the question?” Since you want the whole class to get the benefit of the knowledge, simply restate the question.

Here’s how to Restate the question.

Student: When would you use a pressure bandage instead of a tourniquet?

Instructor: David asked when a pressure bandage is indicated instead of jumping right to the tourniquet. Was that your question?

Student: Yes.

A – Answer the Question

Next, answer the question. This is your opportunity to not only directly answer the question, but to go into some detail. You can provide nuance that may have been missing the first time you covered the material. Here is a bad example of an answer.

Instructor: Use a tourniquet when there is arterial bleeding. Otherwise use a pressure dressing.

That answer is serviceable, I suppose. It’s not wrong or technically inaccurate. On the other hand, the student is asking the question for a reason. Give the student they information they are really seeking. Here’s a better response.

Instructor: Use a tourniquet whenever there is arterial bleeding to an extremity. Arterial bleeding is bright red and it spurts with every heartbeat. If the artery is completely exposed, arterial blood can shoot several feet away. If the vessel isn’t exposed but you can see the bleeding there may still be regular spurts that coincide with the heartbeat. At this point you’ll definitely want to use a tourniquet, and fast!

A pressure dressing is more appropriate if there is venous bleeding, or bleeding that looks like it can be controlled without a tourniquet. Venous bleeding is dark red and can come out pretty fast, but it doesn’t spurt. It may take some experience to recognize the difference between “serious” bleeding and “immediately life threatening” bleeding. However, I think the material I showed you guys earlier can help you make that distinction.

You’ll probably have a lot more opportunities in life to use a pressure dressing than a tourniquet, but if you need a tourniquet, USE IT! Use a pressure dressing when it’s indicated, but keep an eye on it. If it fails to control the bleeding – i.e. it is properly applied yet the wound is still bleeding through – switch immediately to a tourniquet.

This answer takes just a bit longer. But it answers the student’s question in much more depth. This provides the student with what he or she really wants: the information to apply skills from the class, not just the bare minimum, correct answer. It also cuts off most follow-on questions.

C – Confirm

The last step an in answering student questions is to confirm the question is answered before moving on. This might sound obvious, but I see a lot of instructors skip this step. Sometimes it’s no problem. Other times it is problematic. I’ve seen instructors answer the question, get side-tracked and move on to something completely unrelated. Sometimes instructors assume they’ve answered the question, and move on, but the student still hasn’t received a clear answer.

Confirming you’ve answered the question takes two seconds to make sure you’ve answered the question to the student’s satisfaction. Here’s how:

Instructor: Does that answer your question?

Confirming also provides another really good value to the instructor: it definitively closes the question. Sometimes student questions can devolve into off-topic discussions. This simple question and an affirmative answer from the student clears the instructor to move on to the next question, put the class on a break, or dismiss for the day.

If When You Don’t Know the Answer

The reason an instructor can’t answer the question typically isn’t a lack of knowledge, but it can be. Sometimes even the best instructors are stumped by a student question. Occasionally a student will ask a question that is out of left field, and you couldn’t have reasonably been expected to anticipate.

Once in a while, a student will ask something that is deeper than the scope of what you’re teaching. You should educate yourself beyond your class, but you shouldn’t be expected to know paramedic-level stuff if you’re teaching a basic first aid class. And sometimes, well, you’ll just be asked something you flat-out don’t know.  Here’s what to do…and not do.

Don’t: BS the Student

The “what not to do” is real simple: when answering student questions, never – EVER – BS a student. I’ve seen this quite a few times. The instructor clearly doesn’t know. Instead of just admitting it, he attempts to make up an answer on the fly. There are a couple problems with this.

First, it doesn’t give your students the best possible information! It gives them potentially wrong information. Why would you strive to be an instructor if you’re willing to give out inaccurate information? If that describes you, choose another career path! Also remember that the entire class benefits or suffers from the answering of questions. Don’t screw the students to make yourself look good.

Second, you will look like you are BS’ing. It may be obvious to the entire class; it will definitely be obvious to someone. Your attempt to make yourself look good will have the reverse effect and you will lose credibility. Savvy students will begin to question everything else you’ve said in the class. Trust me – this is not a good look.

Do: Admit You Don’t Know

This seems to be very easy for some of the best instructors I’ve trained under, and very difficult for some of the worst. I don’t know why some instructors are so afraid to simply say, “I don’t know.” If you truly don’t know, that’s the only right answer. The correct answer in Marine Corps formal schools is “I don’t know but I will find out and get back to you.” Honestly, that’s not a bad answer, either, but only use it if you will actually follow through.

Closing Thoughts

I have seen some outstanding classes become totally derailed by questions. You should be paying attention to your Q&A sessions. In a perfect world you’d have some objective, outside feedback about your question-and-answer sessions. If you do feel your questions run long, or if they do run out of hand sometimes, give this method a try. It really works.

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