A question that takes your training session off-track can be like a run-away train or like going down the rabbit hole in Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland. How can an instructor avoid this experience? Well, you may find these six instructional techniques useful:
A well designed lesson plan includes the most common questions and answers (both right and wrong), as well as tips for what to do when you’re running ahead or behind the ideal timeline. If the question is something you know will be handled later in the training, then consider covering it immediately as it could be a good transition to a future topic you’re going to cover anyway. Nice gift!
A posted agenda is a good reference for the participants and instructor, and is also a great way to handle off-topic questions. When one of those questions comes up, or a short answer turns into a long rambling one, you can refer to the agenda and say something like, “Good question! Let’s discuss it off-line since we have many other items to get through before we close.”
Most instructors outline ground rules (or logistics) at the beginning of a training session. They cover critical items like breaks, use of mobile devices, restroom locations and course materials. Encouragement to ask questions is a good way to build participation, and allows for clarification and tailoring of the content to the participant’s work environment. Discussing how out-of-scope questions will be handled in advance is also a good way to handle over-participation. That way, once the class is underway, if off-topic questions arise, you’re just following the guidelines that have already been discussed, and are expected by, the participants.
4. Parking Lot
This is probably the most common instructional technique for handling off-topic questions. Your response might be something like, “Hmmm, interesting! Let’s put it on the parking lot page and we can come back to it at the end of the day.” The parking lot lets people know that, while you’re interested in getting their questions answered, they can’t always be answered on the spot. It can also be used to hold questions that will be addressed later or take a bit of research (i.e. the instructor doesn’t have a clue!).
5. Break Time
In your housekeeping, let the participants know you’re available for one-on-one discussions during break time. You can also defer questions for further discussion during the break. This way you’re acknowledging the question, but pushing an issue that may only concern one person to a slightly later time.
When faced with an off-topic question that may be of interest to only the questioner, ask, “Is this also an issue for the rest of you?” If the response from the rest of the class is tepid, encourage using the parking lot or a break-time discussion. If a topic is of interest to the group, you may choose to bring it up for discussion. Even though it may not be in your plan for the day, the discussion may address the needs of the questioner and the rest of the group.
While the “rabbit hole” or “run-away train” question may be challenging, an instructor who can handle it smoothly and productively adds to his/her instructional credibility and enhances the learning environment in the classroom.
These are a few of the instructional techniques I rely on in my sessions. For even more great ideas, check out our Instructional Techniques for New Instructors workshop!