Don't Take "I Don't Know" for An Answer

In classrooms around the world, a common response from students when faced with a question is often a sheepish, "I don't know." Sometimes when students answer with IDK, they actually mean it, but the majority of the time the IDK answer stems from something else. Being able to identify the reasons behind this response and implementing strategies to create a supportive learning environment, you can empower students to overcome their hesitation and actively participate in the learning process.

When faced with a difficult question, students have many options in answering. Unless a student is absolutely sure of their answer, the default is "I don't know." What are the underlying reasons behind this and how can we turn this hesitation into active participation? 

To some students, "I don't know" seems like the perfection deflection strategy. Answering this way will surely make the teacher move onto a different student. One of the main reasons students deflect a question away with IDK is because they are afraid of being wrong. We are so often focused on right and wrong answers, when a student is unconfident in their answer they simply won't want to share for fear of being wrong. Connie Hamilton in Hacking Questions suggest using the power of "might". Take away the fear of being wrong and the pressure to be correct by rephrasing the question or asking, "What might be the answer to the question?" Allow the student to give an answer and instead of calling on another student to give a different answer, build to the correct answer using the student's response.

As teachers, we know the answers to most of the questions we ask. When we ask a question to the class some students believe that they must know the answer right away. Of course they don't! No teacher expects their students to have an answer immediately, but students, for some reason, expect that of themselves. More often than not, students will need time to think. If a student doesn't have an answer to the question off the top of their head, they may fire off the classic "I don't know." Tell your students it is okay to have time to think. Before or after you ask a question tell your students to take time to find an answer if they need to. Repeating the question can also help jog students' thinking process. 

There are often times that students will look at you confused and answer "I don't know" because they did not understand the question. This goes back to the pressure of being correct. Instead of getting embarrassed and asking for further explanation, some students hit you with the IDK deflection hoping you will choose a different student. Make the question answerable for your student. This does not mean dumb the question down or give them a piece of the answer. Find a way to ask your question so that your student will understand what you are asking. For example, if your question was "What strategy did you uses to solve the problem?" and the student answered with IDK or nothing, you could first ask, "Do you know what I mean when I ask for a strategy?. If the student is still confused you can ask the same question with just different wording. For instance, you may ask, "How did you solve the problem?"

When we ask our students a question, we put all of the focus on them. This pressure, lack of confidence, or confusion can make students want to hit you with the IDK and move on, but it is important that we keep the answering baton in their hand. To keep students from running away from your question use encouraging prompts to organize their thinking. Ask things like:

  • What would you say if you did know the answer?
  • What can you rule out? 
  • What are your initial thoughts? 
  • Think out loud if you want. Let us hear how you are processing the question.
  • What part has you stuck?

These prompts will let students know you are with them as they are answering the question. 

Overcoming the "I don't know" barrier requires a multifaceted approach that addresses the underlying fears and insecurities of students. By using these skills and others from Hacking Questions you can empower students to take risks and actively participate in the learning process.

Main post image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

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