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Helping People Find Answers

My experience with teaching online courses (and participating in various online communities) has led me to believe that there are three basic groups of people when it comes to finding answers to their questions:
  • Social learners: people who prefer finding answers by asking other people.
  • Resource learners: people who prefer finding answers on their own using any available resource.
  • Passive learners: people who prefer waiting for answers to find them.
We can be part of a different group in different settings, although usually people tend to have a preference for one of the groups. And why do I find this important? I think it’s important to be aware of how people prefer finding solutions to their problems when you’re trying to teach people or provide technical or other types of support. And be willing to accommodate differences in their favorite approach. This is especially important in an online setting, where there’s a spatial and often a time barrier when you’re interacting with your students, colleagues or clients.

What the first group, the social learners, needs the most is an easy way to ask other people their questions. Provide them with different channels, make yourself available. And if you want them to keep asking questions, you have to make sure they get their answers in a reasonable time frame and that the answers provide enough information value and that they don’t make the person feel bad or even stupid for asking the question. Thank the people when they’re asking questions, and try your best to answer them. And don’t forget that often an honest “I don’t know, I’ll have to look it up.” can be the right answer. Also, be prepared to answer the same questions all over again, but don’t be afraid to link to previous answers when you’re working in an online environment.

In a large group of people the second group, the resource learners, can also help you provide the right answers for social learners. Resource learners often like the challenge of an open question and will gladly share what they’ve learned on their own to help out their peers. Just take a look at Twitter or Yahoo! Answers. What you can do to help resource learners solve their problems more effectively, is providing a lot of different resources, which should be easily accessible and searchable.

The most difficult group to deal with are the passive learners. They tend to solve problems by following what others do, find answers that are not related to the question or simply walk away. Different circumstances can make an individual a passive learner, such as lack of time or interest, lack of confidence when using an unknown communication tool or even fear of asking the wrong questions. They often complain when they don’t achieve the expected results, but you just can’t seem to be able to convince them that asking questions when problems arise can help them solve problems.

So what can we do to help passive learners? My usual approach is to provide regular directions from different angles, sometimes provide answers to questions nobody is explicitly asking, and to keep offering help. Some people just might need some time to start feeling comfortable before they start asking questions, and I try to make sure they know it’s never too late to start.

But at the end of the day don’t forget that you probably won’t always be able to turn every passive learner into a social or resource learner. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve done something wrong or they are not successful learners. It might just not be the right time, place or circumstance for them. You can’t always help everyone, but do try to find out how you can best help each individual.

Originally published at http://ialja.blogspot.com/2009/09/helping-people-find-answers.html