In academia, we get asked a lot of questions whether we are teaching, giving research presentations, interviewing, or mentoring. This is exciting but can also be scary. The questions are often the most stressful part of teaching and presenting because we cannot truly predict or control the questions we are asked. While questions are scary, we believe inviting questions during both our teaching and our presentations will allow us to optimize the teaching and learning context. It is important to first note that our experiences as teachers and presenters impact the experiences of our audiences, such that when we are more engaged, they are more engaged and learn better from us (Saucier, 2019a; Saucier, Miller, Martens, & Jones, in press). We may also enhance engagement in our classes and presentations through our teaching personas. For example, by bringing PEACE to our classes in the form of our Preparation, Expertise, Authenticity, Caring, and Engagement (Saucier, 2019b; Saucier & Jones, 2020), we can intentionally create class environments that promote learning. Questions provide us the opportunity to demonstrate PEACE, to build community, and to demonstrate how knowledgeable and thoughtful we are. In the following, we discuss five simple strategies to enhance our engagement as teachers and presenters that, in doing so, will make the experience of answering questions better for us and our audience.
We should use the four-step process of Smile-Breathe-Think-Talk when answering questions. When asked a question, it is normal to get anxious and excited at the same time (an emotion we call “excite-nerve”; Engage the Sage, 2019). To help manage the anxiety and to reconsider our emotional experience as excitement, we begin by smiling. The smile is not really for the audience (although it may help us connect to them), but allows us to calm down, experience more positive emotions, and to view the question-and-answer interaction more positively. We recommend smiling for the benefits smiling provides us, even if the person asking the question cannot see us (e.g., answering questions remotely). We then breathe. Our breathing allows us to further regulate our emotions and provides a pause so that we do not rush into an answer to the question. During this pause we think about the answer to our question. After more calmly considering our answer, we finally talk and relay our more carefully considered answer to the audience. If we wait to talk until after thinking, it is less likely we will think of a better answer while we are delivering a hastier answer. The Smile-Breathe-Think-Talk process is a simple way to regulate the excite-nerve we experience when answering questions and to allow us to better craft our answers.
2. Validate and thank your questioners
When we teach and present, because we are so focused on our own experience, it is easy to forget that the people asking us questions may be anxious about doing so. It is intimidating to speak in front of an audience and the person asking a question is doing just that. It is important to validate them for using their voice and taking the social risk of asking their question in front of us and the rest of the audience. We should genuinely thank them for their question and validate their question as interesting and important. This will let the questioner and the rest of the audience know that we want to hear their thoughts and we invite their questions. Validating and thanking our questioners provides us with the opportunity to create connections with our audience and relieve their (and our) anxiety about asking questions.
3. Be aware of your body language
When we answer questions, our body language matters. By being aware of our body language, we can make the experience better for everyone. For example, making eye contact with the person who asked the question, turning our body toward them (“giving them our shoulders”), taking a small step toward them, and/or smiling can let the questioner know that we are listening to them and respect their question. If we break eye contact, cross our arms, turn or walk away, and/or frown, we may convey that we are uncomfortable with the question. Our body language can signal to our audience (and ourselves!) that we are comfortable being asked and answering questions. While body language is often a more automatic response, with forethought and practice, we can regulate how we respond with our bodies when we are asked questions while teaching and presenting.
4. Say “I Don’t Know” in productive ways
When asked questions while teaching or presenting, we are often concerned with not knowing the answers and looking like we do not know the content we are teaching or presenting. In reality, if our audience has good questions, we may often not know the answers. Even when we do not know the answers to their questions, we can demonstrate our thoughtfulness and knowledge to the audience. If someone asks a question that has a factual answer, we can tell our audience that while we do not know the answer in that moment, we will find and relay the answer to them later (and then do that). Taking a moment to write the question down conveys that the question is important to us and helps us remember to find and follow up with the answer later. Finding and relaying these answers often becomes a regular part of our classes where, at the beginning of each class, we go over answers to questions we did not know in the previous class. This shows our students that we care about their voices and their questions. This is usually a fun part of the class in which we answer their questions, or at least offer interesting information that relates to their questions and our class content when we cannot find the actual answer in the literature.
Another strategy we use when asked a question we do not know the answer to is to brainstorm and crowdsource the answer with our audience. For instance, in class, we may discuss how to find the answer, such as by using library resources to research literature or by designing the research study to find the answer. These strategies empower our students to critically think about the course content or our research topics and to apply course- or research-relevant methods in acquiring knowledge. Even when we do not know the answers to the questions we are asked, we can create opportunities to build connections and community with our audience by demonstrating our respect for their questions, as well as our knowledge and thoughtfulness.
5. Embrace and love questions
Questions create opportunities for better communication in our teaching and presenting that promotes better learning and experiences for both our audience and ourselves. If we are asked questions while we are teaching and presenting, our audience is using their voice in an anxiety-provoking situation to gather more information about our content. They are showing us that they trust us and care about what we are teaching or presenting. They are showing investment in our content and paying us a compliment in trusting us with their questions. These questions allow us to teach better by allowing us to fill in gaps in our content, re-explain confusing content, or extend the content in ways that are interesting and personally relevant to our audience.
Answering questions is a wonderful process for both our audience and ourselves. While questions are scary and invoke feelings of excite-nerve, we should invite and encourage questions when we teach and present. These five strategies will increase our engagement and our audience’s engagement, and make the experience of answering questions more positive for both ourselves and our audience.
Donald A. Saucier, PhD, (2001, University of Vermont) is a university distinguished teaching scholar and professor of psychological sciences at Kansas State University. Saucier has published more than 80 peer-reviewed journal articles and is a fellow of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, the Society for Experimental Social Psychology, and the Midwestern Psychological Association. His awards and honors include the University Distinguished Faculty Award for Mentoring of Undergraduate Students in Research, the Presidential Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, and the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues Teaching Resource Prize. Saucier is also the faculty associate director of the Teaching and Learning Center at Kansas State University and offers a YouTube channel called “Engage the Sage” that describes his teaching philosophy, practices, and experiences.
Noah D. Renken is a doctoral student in the department of psychological sciences at Kansas State University. His research interests center on individual difference factors related to expressions of prejudice. Noah’s recent work has examined masculine honor ideology and the manifestation of attitudes towards stigmatized events (e.g., sexual violence, trauma). Noah also works in the Teaching and Learning Center at Kansas State University, where he collaborates with Saucier on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) projects.
Ashley A. Schiffer is also a doctoral student in the department of psychological sciences at Kansas State University. Her research often pertains to morality in relation to masculine honor ideology and/or military settings. She also works at Kansas State’s Teaching and Learning Center with Saucier and Renken to promote teaching excellence and contribute to the scholarship of teaching and learning.
Engage the Sage. (2019). Engage the sage: Excite-nerve [Video]. YouTube.
Saucier, D. A. (2019a). “Having the time of my life”: The trickle-down model of self and student engagement. ACUECommunity. https://community.acue.org/blog/having-the-time-of-my-life-the-trickle-down-model-of-self-and-student-engagement/
Saucier, D. A. (2019b). Bringing PEACE to the classroom. Faculty Focus: Effective Teaching Strategies, Philosophy of Teaching. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/bringing-peace-to-the-classroom/
Saucier, D. A., & Jones, T. L. (2020). Leading our classes through times of crisis with engagement and PEACE. Faculty Focus: Online Education, Philosophy of Teaching. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/philosophy-of-teaching/leading-our-classes-through-times-of-crisis-with-engagement-and-peace/
Saucier, D. A., Miller, S. S., Martens, A. L., & Jones, T. L. (in press). Trickle down engagement: Effects of perceived teacher and student engagement on learning outcomes. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.