How to Handle Difficult Questions from Students


 difficult questions


Students view tutors as a know-it-all guru. While this perception of students about us builds up our authority and credibility, it also gives us the pressure of having to put up with unrealistic expectations.


Of course, we do not know everything, so how do we properly respond when we are confronted with difficult questions from our students?


Do not fake it


As much as possible, you would like to appear knowledgeable all the time. However, when you do not know an answer to a question, it is better not to pretend. Straightforwardly admit that you do not know.


Pretending that we know the answer will actually make us more vulnerable to losing our credibility than admitting the truth. You may say, “that’s an interesting question that I don’t know the answer to, and I am willing to look for an answer.”


Turn “stupidity” to an opportunity



Just like how Schwartz asserted, we can actually turn difficult questions into a learning opportunity with our students. It is the perfect time to work our way on the stimulated interest of our student about the topic.


By being vulnerable and allowing ourselves to appear “stupid”, our students may feel more comfortable to look for the answers. This is the best moment to show our students the process of searching for answers.


Google difficult questions together


For instance, I do not know the meaning of the word “catastrophe”. I will ask my student to type “define catastrophe” in the Google search bar and have him/her read the resulting definition. From that, I will deepen his/her understanding of the word by asking him/her what part of speech does he/she think the word belong to.

Check out answers and Google together. Lead your students to some useful websites that they could always check to acquire knowledge like Khan Academy or TED-Ed Lessons.



Handling “distractor questions” from students


One of the challenges of tutoring is keeping the attention of our students on the topic. There are some questions that can keep us from tutoring, and these I call “distractor questions”.


Have you ever experienced being asked by your student a personal question that you willingly answered, then the topic completely diverted to “getting-to-know-each-other”, and you were just surprised that you lost track of time? This is the danger of entertaining distractors.


In times that my student get to ask me distractor questions, I just drive them back into the discussion by explicitly saying, “I know what you are doing, but this is not our goal at this time.” It is not that I do not want to be social with my students, it is just that I want to keep them focused on what we are learning.

Distractor questions can also be turned into an opportunity to build rapport with your student. I believe that students learn more when they feel secure with their tutor. So what I do is to set a proper time for rapport building. Usually, I devote the first 5 minutes and/or the last five minutes of the session to get to know my student more.


Importance of class management


As online tutors, we get to be paid for the value that we add to our students on an hourly basis. That is why managing your time well with the student is very important. To get the most on every session, you have to wisely manage your time by limiting distractor questions. Let the student know that during study time, you are only entitled of answering relevant questions.


Manage your classes by exerting your authority as the tutor. However, in times that you might feel your authority is questioned because on not knowing all the answers to all your student’s questions, do not worry! You can still be an incredible tutor by following the tips I have written above.


Do you have any additional tips on how to handle difficult questions? Feel free to share.

Also, watch this video where Brandi Appel and I discuss this topic.




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  1. Yes. I always tell my students “let’s work out something together or I’ll look it up and get back to you next class” I’ve always felt that the students feel more comfortable knowing that their teacher is not a “know it all” and has to work just like them.

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