How to Answer Difficult Questions

Every faculty member has a different way of responding to students’ questions and our responses are informed by our teaching philosophies, and our own experiences of being both student and teacher. The answers below are offered as food for thought, and in the spirit of being of service to the student.

Helping students make best choices for them

How we help students depends on the ways in which students answer our first response: “Why? What is making that feel like a good choice?” At this point our answers are also inflected by the implications of the pandemic.

Sometimes students need to be connected to IC resources, including our colleagues in other departments. Sometimes they need us to serve as academic or professional references so they can make necessary changes in their lives. Frequently, they need to be taught self-advocacy skills. But sometimes they simply need to be heard, and to hear alternative points of view from someone who is not invested in the outcome the way family and friends may be.


Be understanding and ask probing questions. Help the student consider if there other ways of achieving that goal or addressing whatever is leading to this decision.

Suggested Answers to Hard Questions

  • Have you spoken to the professor? That is the first step. I can help you think about how to present the issue. 
  • Key: what do you want as a result of the encounter? (Assess if this is reasonable.)
  • Using "I" statements and neutral, non-judgmental language, what has been your experience.
  • Are any classmates having an issue? You can meet with the prof with a classmate to get clarification.
  • If your efforts to talk directly with the teacher fall flat, the next step can be to talk to the department chair.
  • Is this course required for the major?
  • Are you making satisfactory progress and can you pass the course?
  • If yes: is conflict discussion or resolution to your advantage?
  • If no: should you withdraw (take a strategic W and take the course with another professor in a coming semester)?
  • Why? Can you help me understand why you’re thinking of this option?
  • What will you do with your time away?
    • Taking courses elsewhere – how to make sure the credits will transfer to IC
    • Working on my physical and/or mental health – legitimate and praiseworthy. I support you.
    • Earning money – in order to come back or instead of returning to college?
      • To support your family? If family: understood. But put your oxygen mask on first. You cannot help others if you do not care for and cultivate yourself. Some of us have to defy our family’s expectation in order to maximize our potential – both to become our true selves and to provide for the ones we love down the line.
    • Completing an apprenticeship, mission or community service – how might this shape your professional aspirations? Is this possible during the pandemic?
    • Caring for others – legitimate and important, but put your oxygen mask on first. You cannot help others if you do not care for and cultivate yourself.
  • Will your family support your taking a leave of absence?
  • How will this affect your graduation plans?
  • Why?
  • My roommate/ friend is transferring. My friend from home is having a better experience at their school.
    • Ever heard of transfer fever? It makes you second guess yourself.
    • There’s a line in a John Butler Trio song: “The grass is greener but just as hard to mow.”
  • I need a city/major metropolitan area.
    • Can you tell me more about how you came to this discovery about yourself? What about a city is compelling you?
    • What about a “geographical cure” might be limiting? One student moved to Boston, then back, because she learned, “Where ever you go there YOU are.” What will this change of location get/cost you?
  • I need to be closer to/further from home.
    • I understand. Can or have you spoken to your family about this? Do they think it would be good or bad for you?
    • Do you need me to serve as a reference for a transfer application?
  • I hate my roommate. / I want to get away from my ex. / Something bad happened here at IC.
    • Would it help to change your living quarters? Have you spoken to your RA or residence life?
    • I do not want to pry about what happened but I want to help you. If you were assaulted, I have to report that to our title IX office. But I can connect you to CAPs, which protects your privacy. Want me to put you in touch with someone who can help? Want me to call or walk you to CAPS?
  • IC does not have the major I want.
    • Can you share why this is your dream major, and how you know this is The One?
    • Can we help you create it by combining majors /minors?
    • Can we help you create it through an Integrative Studies major?
    • Do you need me to serve as a reference for a transfer application? (if appropriate)
  • Before you take any course with the intention of transferring, you need to:
    • confirm with the Registrar that the institution is accredited and with the department whether IC will accept the course as equivalent to one at IC.
    • get permission from the course’s IC department in advance that it will count as an IC course.
  • For major? How many credits, if any, are allowed to be transferred in. See the catalog.
  • For ICC? There are restrictions on theme courses, but you can bring in diversity, writing and quantitative literacy courses with advance permission.
  • Is it a prerequisite, like taking calculus at a community college in summer in order to be take advanced chemistry or physics during the school year? That can be a really good move.
  • Be aware of rules about how much of your senior year must be completed at IC.
  • While IC summer schedule is not yet posted, we are building it this spring. Did you look to see if it was offered last summer?
  • This course can/cannot be transferred into the major/minor/ICC.
    • ICC theme courses cannot be transferred in unless they are study abroad (must petition)
    • Quantitative literacy, diversity and writing intensive attributes usually can, with advance permission.
  • How are you managing the current workload?
  • How will you make time for an additional 9 hours of work a week? (2-3 hours of work outside for every hour in class)
  • Have you considered winter, May or summer session to take extra courses so you do not have to overload yourself during the semester, potentially compromising your performance?
  • Are you prepared to trade off the social and professional opportunities—and time for personal maturation—that graduating early could bring? Can you maintain intellectual depth and interest across more simultaneous courses?
  • The only way to know this is to create a map of your remaining time at IC using the What If and Degree Planner tools in Degree Works. You slot every remaining course into your remaining semesters at IC to see if they will fit.
    • That includes both majors, any concentration or minor, and your ICC courses.
    • Bearing in mind that some courses are only offered in one semester, fall OR spring.
  • Some majors are more credit intensive (larger) than others. They are better candidates for a major and minor or double minor.
  • It is to your advantage to choose two BA or two BS degrees, not to mix them (see next question) if you are trying to graduate in four years.
  • Do you have the ability to stay for a fifth year?
  • Do you have the ability to take winter, May and summer courses to tackle some of those additional credits?
  • By NY State Education Department law, you will need 150 credits, which is the equivalent of a fifth year.
  • Do you have AP, IB, dual enrollment or transfer credits?
  • Do you have the ability to stay for a fifth year?
  • Do you have the ability to take Winter, May and Summer courses to tackle some of those additional credits?
  • Alternatively, does either program have an alternative BA/BS version?
  • What’s your goal?  Why is this major compelling?
  • Have you taken courses in that department? 
  • Have you spoken to a professor or the department chair to learn more?
  • Have you used the What If and Degree Planner tools in Degree Works to see if you can graduate on time? (for advanced students or those seeking to change to credit dense or strictly sequenced majors).
  • I understand. Let’s be strategic:  What’s their priority/goal?
  • Can you find a logic justifying your choice that is aligned with their concerns/goals?
  • Can you help them better understand why this choice is important to you?
  • Have to been to Career Services or their website to gather evidence for the benefits of your choice?
  • In some majors, you must earn a minimum grade for credit toward the major. This is listed in Degree Works and in the catalog. Will you make the minimum for your major?
  • Some courses can be retaken if you earn a grade of D+ or lower. The first grade still appears on the transcript, but the second goes into your GPA.
  • Are you getting all the help you can to pass? Is tutoring available? Peer-learning?

  • What is preventing you from succeeding in this course?
    Have you explored other/related degree options. Sometimes, students end up in a degree because it is what they knew about when they applied to college, but there are other options available that better fit their interests.

  • Have you considered withdrawing and taking the course in a coming semester, or winter, May or summer term (if offered)?
  • How do you structure your days?
  • Try different methods for time management. One size does not fit all, and there are many models out there. See Skill Building Tools document.
  • Are you building in self-care? What counts as that for you? 
  • What kinds of distractions or interruptions are you dealing with? Do you need to negotiate boundaries with family or house mates? 
  • Which are your high priority courses?
  • Having tech issues? 
  • What is your study space? 
  • Need to curb work hours? 
  • Are you connecting to friends and/or student organizations?