When I was a college undergrad in design school, one of my professors had a policy of deducting points from students who “ask too many questions.” She says this teaches students independence and prepares them for the real world, where “life’s not fair.” Ironically, I don’t remember this professor’s name. I don’t remember which class this was or anything that she taught me. All I remember from her class is how her authoritative teaching environment and her preference to silence over questions made me feel as a learner. This experience has helped shape my approach to facilitation. After discussing this with several esteemed colleagues in K-12 education reform, academia, and the legal field, here’s a reflection on the philosophy of questions in a learning environment and how this impacts both learners and facilitators:

I understand the necessity of trying to prepare people for success with real-world survival skills. However, I strongly disagree with my professor’s approach of limiting questions with subjective, negative consequences for students who “ask too many questions.” There are effective methods of teaching others to trust themselves, to have confidence, to think critically, and to make independent decisions WITHOUT discouraging them from asking questions and WITHOUT presenting yourself as someone who is unwilling to be of assistance should they need help.

Questions are not a threat to the learning environment. The only potential threat is to the facilitator’s personal environment. Questions are only a threat to facilitators who try to “hide” behind a cloak of superiority in subjecting their learners to this narrow view of “independence.”

One potential scenario where silence may be comforting would be if all of the following requirements are met:

  • The facilitator expounds on theories or ideas all the time, and in great detail; and
  • The facilitator enjoys listening to themselves speak; and
  • The facilitator is used to expounding in rooms where there is a power dynamic such that other people never question what they say; and
  • Due to this power dynamic, the facilitator has never had to question any assumptions, whether their own or from others.
  • Even in those situations, questions hurt the “personal environment” only if those facilitators let them do so. Part of being effective in an instructor-led training or classroom setting is projecting confidence, even in situations where you may lack it.

For example, if someone asks a question that we cannot answer, we can always say, “I don’t know, but I will find out.” If someone continues to press on a topic where we are unsure of the credibility of our information or our competence in delivering it, we can redirect the discussion back to the learning objectives. There are always ways to do this without prohibiting questioning from our learners. Sometimes, being an effective facilitator means knowing when it is safe to admit you don’t know everything. (Likewise, a good facilitator should also know when it is more appropriate to “fake it ’til you make it.”)

Whenever you’re teaching, you stand a very good chance of learning way more from your students. However, this mutual learning opportunity only occurs if you, as a facilitator, are interested in allowing that learning. I know teachers who, when presented with challenging questions, follow up with, “Tell me more about that.” Or, “That is a wonderful idea! Gather the information you can find on that and bring it back to the class tomorrow.” With the technology available now, opportunities to explore further are exciting.

I hear the naysayers reading this article, shouting: “What about the learners who ask questions so that they don’t have to look up the answer themselves?” I hear you, and to this argument, I say: genuine questions shouldn’t be scoffed at by the facilitator. However, there are better approaches than deducting points in these situations. Instead, you could ask the person what they believe the answer is. If they aren’t sure, you could ask probing questions to help them get there on their own. If that still doesn’t work? Tell the person to look it up.

I acknowledge that some people ask questions because they want their hands held, while others ask questions with the intention of getting a conversation off-topic or drawing attention to themselves. As facilitators, coaches, and mentors, we’ve all had those learners from time to time – and it is our responsibility to learn tools for effectively handling each unique situation.

For instance, we might teach an insecure learner to have more of a growth mindset and trust themselves. We could also pair them with peers who have a better grasp on the material, so that they can learn from each other? (Social constructivism is the way.)

Social constructivism is the way

Asking questions doesn’t necessarily mean someone lacks confidence or basic knowledge of the topic being presented. Well-intended questions serve to clarify and, especially for adult learners or those with neurodiversity, anticipate the next move. When I ask someone a question about information that was just presented to me, my question is often geared toward understanding what their next expectation may be. Adult learners need to know “why” and we need to know what is expected of us.

What about the people who ask questions for their own egocentric value? Deliberately distracting or off-topic questions can be discouraged or, even better, facilitators can learn the skills to redirect these questions back to discussion that are more productive and on-topic. Regardless of which approach the facilitator might take, there are ways of doing so without penalizing everyone in the class. That said, I firmly believe that the majority of questions asked in a classroom environment are asked for the right reasons.

Now, to play devil’s advocate: typically, a professor, teacher, or other facilitator might implement this type of policy after a negative experience where a student or two may have monopolized or frequently misdirected group discussions to the point that it actually hindered intelligent discussion on the topic at hand. My colleagues in academia have asserted that this has happened to them multiple times, occasionally to the point that the other students became irritated at the student asking the questions. In those situations, where students approach the instructor and demand something be done, it puts the instructor in a very difficult spot.

I understand that sometimes you do need to shut people down to promote equity and inclusion among everyone in the room. However, the policy I’ve described here is a legalistic response to a problem that could (and should) have been handled outside the classroom, in a one-on-one discussion between instructor and student, immediately after the problem arose.

Perhaps this professor had the best intentions in mind. Or perhaps she really was insecure in her teaching abilities. It happens. Who knows? However, given my background in developing learning experiences for corporations and academic institutions, I feel her efforts were hurtful rather than helpful. If she is confident in her knowledge of the topic she is trying to present, why make her learners cautious or hesitant to ask questions? Why discourage questions and even penalize students who ask too many?

In this scenario, even students who have legitimate questions would feel penalized before ever having a chance to ask questions. They would likely remain silent and “stuck” for longer, which also sets them up for failure in their future jobs. Having worked in both corporate America and academia, one thing we are constantly battling on the corporate side is un-training some of the behavior patterns that new employees learned in college. People who enter the workforce with hesitation to question or ask for help when they need to are automatically set up for failure. It can be very difficult to break those behavior patterns and teach better skills during onboarding to a new role, and this heavy lift often falls on Learning & Development or coaches/mentors within the organization.

Ensuring successful learning is a responsibility that requires any facilitator to have a great deal of patience, classroom control & effective communication skills. As facilitators, we must be willing to answer questions. If the transfer of information is not taking place, have you really been successful in your role? When I spend time in front of a class, I always find more red flags in the silence and blank stares than I ever do in a room full of questions. That’s because blank stares are a sign of uncertainty. Questions are a way of interacting. In many group settings, the person asking the question is displaying confidence in the fact that their question is relevant to the material.

The people who sit back, don’t make eye contact, or don’t participate are the ones I worry about. These individuals may be disengaged because they do not have a firm grasp on the topic being discussed. It’s also possible that they have so many questions, they don’t even know where to start to get clarification. (Again, in these situations, it is our job as facilitators to encourage the asking of questions or, even better, to anticipate what questions our learners might have so that we can answer those questions, even if they don’t ask.)

Think about your own learning experiences. When has questioning helped you solve problems? Sometimes, it’s not so much the questioning itself as it is the thinking process involved. By asking the right questions, we can learn problem-solving and critical thinking skills that can help us become more independent. Eventually, learners who ask the right questions learn to solve common problems on their own without assistance.

The title of facilitator doesn’t really mean much if you can’t communicate the information to your learners. Even with the best curriculum, facilitation can make or break the learning experience.

Valid, on-topic, non-distracting questions are never an enemy of learning. The keep the learning flowing, and their absence creates a stagnant learning environment. Questions can indicate that our learners have an eagerness to learn, a willingness to participate, and most importantly, a desire to understand.

Of course, all of this is just my two cents. And what kind of person would I be if I didn’t ask this question: did any of this information help you? Are there any other questions you have for me? Let’s hear them in the comments below…