I don’t know: What if my students ask me a question and I don’t know the answer?

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I’ll let you into a secret: this happens to us all. It happened to me last week. The longer you teach, the less frequent it hopefully becomes, but no one (no matter how experienced) is completely safe from the dreaded unexpected question.

Not knowing the answer to a student’s question doesn’t make you a bad teacher. It doesn’t even (necessarily) mean you’re under-prepared for the lesson – sometimes students can throw you a massive curveball which has nothing to do with the vocabulary or grammar point being studied.

The truth of the matter is this: not knowing the answer doesn’t matter, it’s what you do when you don’t know that’s important.

Don’t:

  • 881a9f12714aea82807274b56bb761f7Panic! Not knowing the answer doesn’t make you a terrible teacher. It doesn’t mean that your students will all think you’re incompetent, and it definitely doesn’t mean that you’re about to get fired. In fact, panicking is the very worst thing you can do, as it kills your ability to think clearly and means you’re pretty much guaranteed to not be able to come up with an answer.
  • Change the subject and pretend that they never asked. Although it sounds flippant saying it here, it can be surprisingly tempting when you’re in the heat of the moment. However, sidestepping or ignoring students’ questions is a pretty good way to ensure that they are dissatisfied with their teacher. No matter how ill-timed, tricky or frustrating a question is, the fact is that if a student has asked, it at least deserves to be acknowledged.
  • Make up an answer on the spot. Again, it’s another option that can seem tempting – at least then you’ve given an answer, right?!. However, coming up with something on the spot can easily come back to bite you. A quick, not necessarily accurate answer is only likely to lead to further questions (and you becoming less and less sure of the answers) or your students memorising everything you say only for you to have to sort out any errors at a later date. Trust me: it’s not worth it.

There are a couple of maybes, although these come with disclaimers:

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Photo: Adam Klimowski
  • Ask the students to work it out for themselves. That’s what guided discovery is, right? The big ‘but’ here is that when we ask students questions in a bid to get them to figure out the answers for themselves, we need to know the right answers as well. There’s no guarantee that whatever the students will come up with will be correct (particularly if it comes to pesky grammar rules or exceptions to them) – and if you’re not sure what the right answer is yourself you’re on dangerous territory. The same goes for asking a stronger student to explain it to their classmates – unless you’re certain that their explanation is right, be wary of going with the flow simply for the sake of getting an answer.
  • Send the students away with an extra ‘homework’ task – to find out the answer. This can work well, and I have used this technique, particularly with students who like to interrupt every single lesson with an off-topic question! However it does require following up next lesson, which means that you’ll need to go away and find out the answer too! This technique also works well if the tricky question comes at the end of the class and you simply don’t have time to devote to the answer.
  • Buy yourself some time. It’s ok to tell the students that you’ll come back to their question later, or that you’d like to take a few minutes to think about the answer. Just don’t say this and then hope they forget all about it! If you promise an answer, you need to give one.

And lastly, the dos:

  • Acknowledge the question. Even if you are totally stuck for an answer, do acknowledge the question – chances are that if you don’t know the answer, it’s potentially a good one!
  • Admit that you don’t know. This takes courage to do, especially as it can feel like you’re admitting a weakness as a teacher. Think of it this way though: we’d like our students to say that they don’t know rather than either sitting there blankly or making up an incorrect answer. What better model for that than for them to have a teacher who also admits that they don’t know everything?
  • Tell them that you’ll find out. It’s fine to admit to your class that you don’t know the answer to their question – but it’s not ok to just leave it there. Admit that you don’t know, but then assure them that you will find out the answer and get back to them next lesson.
  • Follow through! You’ve said that you’ll get back to them with the answer, so make sure you do so. Ask a colleague, phone a friend, look in a grammar book or a dictionary, ask Google – and then make sure you follow it up at the beginning of the next lesson.
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Photo: Maciek Zlachta

Are you worried you won’t be able to answer your students’ questions? Don’t be. Stop, breathe, don’t panic, and relax – it’s ok to admit you don’t know. 

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12 thoughts on “I don’t know: What if my students ask me a question and I don’t know the answer?

  1. This is great advice. In my time working with kids (as a language assistant and a rec leader) I’ve had to use the “I’m not sure but I’ll find out” line quite a bit. Not once has any student or child ever been mad or disrespectful after.

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  2. This is excellent advice! If my students ask a question that I don’t know the answer to, I say, “Let’s find out together”, and answer the question. It’s a great way to generate discussion, plus students respect you more if you’re truthful with them than if you pretend to know the answer, and then they find out you’re wrong.

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  3. The longer I taught (43 years) the more I was absolutely not embarrassed about making mistakes and not knowing answers. I usually told my class that I get to make 18 mistakes a day (they loved counting them for me) and then I’d check an encyclopedia and/or the Internet. My students seemed to agree that no one has all the answers and it’s a note of intelligence if you can find the answer and share it with others. I love your ideas.

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