Student Questions: The Good, the Bad, and the Interesting

How to respond to questions--even bad ones.

Posted Aug 26, 2015

I’ve argued elsewhere that professors should not answer students’ questions when the answer is easily available on the course syllabus, and when students would learn more from answering the questions themselves.  They are “bad” questions in this sense, but certainly not stupid.  And they’re not even that bad, because they do give professors good information about what students are thinking.

Of course, students ask lots of good questions:  Sincere attempts to get information that the professor can and should share.  I’ve talked with my wise colleague Carl Pletsch, whom you’ve met before, about other types of questions.  Here’s a distinction he makes between two types of questions that should be answered:

Here’s a little gimmick that I use to create a thread of continuity and to check whether students are really heads-up: 

Early in the semester when a student asks a big, soft, cloudy question that might not even lend itself to an answer, or even a question about a part of the whole course we had not come to yet and would be hard to answer neatly, I say, “That’s a very interesting question!” And then after a pause, “By the way, do you know the difference between a good question and an interesting question?” I love to see the curious looks on their faces before I continue:  “A good question is one that I can answer!” I pause to see if students are smiling; most of them understand that an interesting question was one that I couldn’t answer!  I underscore the fact that there are questions I can’t answer for various reasons, including my own ignorance, but point out in some cases that I know how to get an answer or that I’ll answer it later. Or I might give a very brief answer and explain that I (or we) will develop a fuller answer later in the semester. 

Photo Courtesy of Carl Pletsch
Carl Pletsch, Ph.D.
Source: Photo Courtesy of Carl Pletsch

Periodically throughout the semester I label other questions as either good or interesting. And when it is an interesting question, I write the question down (with students watching me) and appoint the student who asked it to check on me publicly at the next class period to see if I had an answer.  This creates a slightly different give-and-take relationship between me and the class—students are now giving me assignments rather than the other way around.  It also illustrates that I’m a learner too, and that I have research skills as well as disciplinary expertise and presentation skills. I can model what it means to be an engaged learner.

OK.  Got it.  I like this approach because it also gives us (professors) permission to admit when we don’t know an answer, and have it be an opportunity rather than a sign of failure or weakness.

Here are some of the judgments we need to make when encountering student questions:

  • Do I know the answer?
  • Should I answer the question, or will students learn more by answering it themselves (either by looking at the syllabus or engaging in some learning).
  • Might there be parts of the question I can answer right away and leave other parts for later in the semester or for students to answer themselves?
  • Do I have the time this week to find the answer?
  • If I assign a student to answer their question, am I just shirking my responsibility?
  • If I answer the question myself, am I just being lazy and missing an opportunity to help students “learn how to fish”?

We’d love to hear from you about questions you’ve asked, answered, or refused to answer in your college classrooms!


Carl Pletsch is professor emeritus of history at the University of Colorado Denver.  In addition to conducting research on intellectual history (he wrote Young Nietzsche, Becoming a Genius), he taught modern European and ancient Greek history.  He’s also done a ton of work on technology and faculty development. 

Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver.  With Samuel Knapp and Michael Gottlieb, he is the co-author of Ethical Dilemmas in Psychotherapy: Positive Approaches to Decision Making  (American Psychological Association, 2015). Mitch is also the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), and an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2012).  But here’s what he’s most proud of:  He collaborated with pioneering musician Charlie Burrell on Burrell’s autobiography.  

© 2015 by Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved