Questions: Answering Questions


The amount a teacher says is not necessarily directly proportional to the amount of learning effected. Students need time to formulate and articulate an answer. It is important, therefore, to make a conscious effort to provide ‘wait time’, not only after asking a question but also after an answer has been volunteered, as there may be more to come.2

Teacher asks question

P A U S E (30 seconds)

Response from student

P A U S E (30 seconds)

Response from teacher

Hold it!

Don’t be the first to answer every question, especially those asked by yourself. Refrain from commenting after a response if there are others answering. Let them have their say first.

Encourage responses

Invite, verbally or non-verbally (e.g. eye contact), the others in the group to react to a question or a response made by one of them.

Acknowledge students’ answers

Reassure and encourage students by nodding, praising a good answer, building on an answer, by referring where relevant in the subsequent discussion to a point or points made in an answer.

Deal with incorrect or partially incorrect answers constructively

Criticism is discouraging but obviously an incorrect answer cannot be accepted. The ‘yes...but’ reaction may be used to some extent, especially with partially correct answers, but some restraint must be exercised in its use, or it may lead students to think that their answers are inadequate and invariably need to be rectified, qualified or definitively endorsed by the teacher.

Some possible reactions may be to:

  • wait for a few seconds; the student may wish to qualify or modify the answer, or another student might;
  • ask another student to comment on the response given and perhaps provide peer correction in the process;
  • acknowledge the acceptable part of the response—if the answer is partially incorrect—while prompting the student to rethink or modify the unacceptable part of the response;
  • ask student to explain how the answer was arrived at (if this response is not only given to unacceptable answers students will not perceive this as a negative response).

Guard against unwittingly putting down a student

In the unequal teacher-student relationship, students may be more than usually sensitive to criticism. What is perceived as a put-down may put him/her off trying again and risking further humiliation.

Restate complex or inaudible questions

Alternatively, ask another member of the group to do so. This not only clarifies but also turns an individual’s question into ‘group property’.


Put a question back to the person who asked it by a counter or prompting question, e.g. “What do you think?” or “What do you mean by...?” Or turn the question over to another student: “..., how would you answer that question?”

“I don’t know”

For many of us, however, this is perhaps one of the most difficult responses, especially when we really do not know. There are certain psychological and sociological factors—perhaps more so with the Asian inclination to ‘save face’ which contributes to our reluctance to confess to inadequate knowledge. Despite the difficulty, it is arguably better to admit that you do not know the answer. Students respect honesty and complaints are unlikely if you indicate your willingness to find the answer and get it back to them at the next meeting. You could also call on the help of another member of the group, or the group as a whole might try to work out the answer.

But even when we do know, feigning ignorance may sometimes be a good move as it may serve to encourage students to be more involved in and to take responsibility for their own learning.

To act the fool is sometimes the greatest wisdom.


Don’t answer

This is offered NOT as an endorsement of deviousness, evasiveness and irresponsibility, but as a reminder that answering questions is not always a sacred obligation and that, in some instances, more may be achieved by not answering questions, thereby redirecting the questioner to attempt finding the answer for himself or herself.

Should you be doing all the work? | Reminders

  1. Studies done by Rowe (1973), Blosser (1973) and others indicate that when teachers learnt to build in ‘wait time’, the following outcomes were observed: the length and number of student responses increased; failure to answer and “I don’t know” responses decreased; the number of questions asked by students increased, responses from ‘slow’ and ‘shy’ students increased; speculative and inductive thinking increased; responses were more considered and supported with evidence.