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Teaching Strategies for When Students Say “I Don’t Know”

Jordan Catapano

What are your teaching strategies when students say “I don’t know” in class, on an assignment, or during a test? Here are several teaching strategies to consider as you gauge what your response should be.

Teaching Strategies: Saying “I don’t know” could be a virtue.

In the classic play “Inherit the Wind,” one of the characters posits that “It takes a very smart fella to say ‘I don’t know the answer!’” One of our first reactions to students who say they don’t know something is to believe they might be avoiding giving any response. But our first consideration should be to wonder if, in fact, they genuinely don’t know. If that’s the case, then they just did a brave thing and confessed their ignorance. A student in this position can also be a student ready to replace his ignorance with knowledge.

Saying “I don’t know” could stem from a fear of failure or embarrassment.

Maybe a student does have an idea, but they are far from certain of its accuracy. To state an answer could mean they will open themselves up to criticism from the teacher or classmates. Who wants that? The more open to ideas and failure your classroom is, the easier it will become for students to respond with suppositions rather than certainties. You can consider less-exposed ways to help students respond, too, like private written responses, chats on blogs or tweets, or a group response.

Saying “I don’t know” could mean “I need help.”

A student might have a partial understanding of the topic, but not grasp it enough to articulate a response. And that’s OK, as long as you’re able to take them step-by-step through their thinking. A carefully sequenced series of follow-up questions could take this student from “I don’t know” to “Oh, I get it now.” First ascertain what they do know, and then point out information and ask questions that get them to that next level of understanding.

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Saying “I don’t know” is a chance to ask a question.

If students don’t know the answer at the moment, it is the perfect teaching opportunity to instruct them on how to obtain the answer. Normally, when students admit ignorance the burden falls on the teacher to take the next step. But perhaps you could turn the table and require students pursue this knowledge by teaching them to follow “I don’t know” with some of these question starters:

“How do I …?”

“Could you explain …?”

“Can I have more information about …?”

“Can I ask someone who might help with …?”

“Where can I …?”

Saying “I don’t know” could mean “I don’t care.”

We dread having a student who is genuinely disinterested in the content. Their lackluster response points to either their general apathy, our failure to engage, or both. Now may not be the time for a battle, but it is a time to reinforce the importance of the knowledge. Apathy and ignorance are normal in small doses, but if they persist in a student’s attitude, they could prove dangerous. You could press the student to think through the information, or divert attention to another student. Either way, make the student responsible for acquiring the information, but also reconsider topics and methods that might better stimulate that student.

It’s difficult to spontaneously assess a student’s “I don’t know,” but the right reaction is essential for helping students acquire that next level of understanding. Although they might say “I don’t know” now, our effective response could help ensure that we don’t find them repeating the same phrase later on.

How do you respond when a student says “I don’t know?” What are effective responses you’ve given that could work in this situation? Please tell us your thoughts!

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Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and currently serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website