Student Questions Matrix, Part 3

This is Part 3 of a series on Student Questions. See Part 1 (intro) and Part 2 (the axes)

In this post, I’m going to look in more detail at the three action steps I outlined for handling student questions.

The Graphic (click to enlarge)


Answer Now… And You Might Still Get Derailed

It’s possible that an important and relevant question can still take over your whole lesson. In my opinion that’s OK, assuming the question is indeed both important and relevant.

I was recently talking to an EAP teacher much more experienced than I am, and she had just come from teaching a class session in which she’d had to chuck her entire lesson plan. What happened was simple: the students didn’t have the prerequisite skills she’d thought they had.

You can’t teach adjective clauses if they don’t know what an adjective is, or what a clause is. You can’t have them evaluate and edit thesis statements if they don’t know what a thesis statement is. I don’t know what topic her class was on that day, but she realized she had to back up, and she did so.

Adhering to your lesson plan in the face of students being utterly unprepared to succeed at it is not a badge of honor. It’s a waste of time. Let the important and relevant questions inform and guide you.

On the other hand, tossing aside a well-considered lesson plan because one student decided to ask a series of inconsequential questions important only to his/herself is not being a responsive teacher. It’s letting the whims of the boldest determine what everyone else experiences.

I like that this matrix helps me quickly evaluate when it’s legitimately time to set aside my lesson plan, and when it’s best to set aside the question of the moment.

The Parking Lot

I’m a big fan of having a Parking Lot in the classroom. It’s just a place to write down “not today” questions so you can process them when you’re not on the spot. I feel that an important part of lesson planning is checking on Parking Lot questions to make sure I address whichever ones are within the scope of my class.

That said, there is no rule that every question that finds its way to the Parking Lot has to end up as part of a future lesson. Especially when there’s an academic syllabus and predetermined course objectives involved, some questions are just not going to be a part of any lesson that semester. 

I do think it’s important to acknowledge the Parking Lot questions specifically in class. Parking Lot should not become “the place for stupid questions.” If you’re now addressing a question of Yasmine’s from last month’s Parking Lot, say so! If you’ve decided not to address Ranya’s question during class because that very topic will be introduced in the next level next semester, say so! 

Also, if the Parking Lot in your syllabus-based class keeps getting filled up with questions that are important but not relevant to the pre-defined course objectives, or important and relevant questions that you don’t have time to address, that’s concrete data for course planning. If the course is mostly in your hands, you can get to work planning what comes next and how to change the current unit next time around. If it’s an EAP class, you can bring the data back to your department. It might bring about adjusting the scope of that particular class, offering additional department-supported tutoring, etc.

After Class

Since not every question is germane or even appropriate for every class, it’s kind to offer to discuss with students outside of class. Personally, I offer students limited time after class to ask me questions. Keep in mind I’m an adjunct, I teach night classes, and am a bit of a night owl by nature. Here are three big reasons talking after class works well for me:

  1. traffic for the full two hours before my night classes start is miserable and students and I just can’t predict how early we’ll arrive;
  2. my children are quite young, and it’s easier for my family if I’m out more when they’re in bed than when they’re awake, and
  3. since night classes end so late, the only in-person questions I receive are genuinely important to the students, and the students are generally as efficient as possible so they can go home and get some sleep.

And there’s always email and the phone if they can’t stay late.

Next Week

Part 4 is coming up next week, with a discussion of using this little matrix in your direct instruction to promote metacognition, and also some strategies for fielding the Green Zone questions.


You’re reading Student Questions, Part 3, originally posted at

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