10 ways to deal with 'I don't know' answers in the classroom

With so much focus on constructing good questions to maximise Retrieval Practice these days, how then do we deal with students who simply reply with “I don’t know”? InnerDrive teamed up with Assistant Principal and author Michael Chiles to explore this question in this blog…

When students offer a non-explanatory response like “I don’t know” it may be that they genuinely don’t know the answer. But for many, it is often because they are embarrassed to talk. Others use it as a free pass to avoid thinking. Regardless, your students will grow as learners if you can help reduce the number of “I don’t know” answers in your class.

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10 tips to get rid of “I don’t know” answers in your classroom

  1. Distinguish between “I don’t know” and “I don’t know”

When students respond with “I don’t know” to your question, it may be because they genuinely don’t know the answer. Or it may be because they simply want to opt out of the class discussion.

It is important that we shape our classroom culture to ensure this isn’t the go-to response. Recent research has found that teachers with supportive and friendly characteristics promote quality student engagement. You can display this through affirmations and show open-mindedness with nonverbal behaviour, such as giving smiles and nodding when students are answering your questions. This should encourage your students to participate with more meaningful responses as time goes on.

  1. Reduce fear of failure

Many students resort to “I don’t know” because they lack confidence and worry about giving the wrong answer. A way to reduce this fear of failure is to create a psychologically safe classroom, which is one where students believe they can make mistakes without being humiliated by their teachers and peers.

Research has found that a psychologically safe environment improves students’ confidence, making them more comfortable giving answers without worrying about whether they are correct or not. You can create a psychologically safe classroom by openly valuing every student, building a learning-focused environment and promoting good behaviour.

  1. Increase wait times

Wait time is the term used to describe how long a teacher waits after asking a question before soliciting an answer.

Extending your wait times can help ensure you get high quality answers from a wider range of students, as opposed to just from the quickest and/or loudest. Some worry that doing so might demotivate those who have already got the answer, but evidence suggest that simply extending wait time for a few small seconds can make a wealth of difference.

  1. Ask “What do you think?”

Some students respond to a question with “I don’t know” because they are worried that they have to give a firm, fully committed answer, often under pressure.

Research suggests that when students generate an answer to a question (i.e., carrying out Retrieval Practice) with high stakes, it can negatively affect their learning. This makes it more difficult for them to recall the relevant information they need to form their response, increasing their chances of saying “I don’t know”.

Try following up with “What do you think?” when you ask a question to lower the stakes. This insinuates that you are looking for the student's perspective, alleviating the pressure put on them to give correct answers. It also helps reduce their fear of failure.

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  1. Comment on someone else’s answers

You can promote student participation by getting them to comment on their peers’ answers. For example, if student A does not know the answer, ask the same question to student B, and then get student A to comment on student B’s answer. Student B’s answer provides a hook to instigate student A’s retrieval, which aids the formation of student A’s response.

  1. Ask someone else a different question

In a situation where student A does not know the answer to your question, you can ask an alternative question to student B and then go back to student A for their response to the original question. The alternative question, however, must be similar to the original question so student B’s response can activate student A’s retrieval of relevant information.

An added benefit of this strategy is that it prevents the repetition of questions and promotes variation in student responses.

  1. Front loading

It can help for teachers to communicate early on that they value engagement through asking questions. A way to do this is to give your students a brief on what they should expect for the upcoming school year in the first few weeks of term.

Narrate to your students that you plan to ask a lot of questions in class, and that you do this because you want them to practice retrieval and engage with lesson material more deeply. This mentally prepares students to be called on, removing the element of surprise, ultimately reducing their chances of resorting to “I don’t know”.

  1. Clear question structure

The phrasing and clarity of words you use to form a question significantly influence its effectiveness. Try to avoid ambiguous questions as it can confound students’ response.

Research suggests that teachers may want to consider limiting the number of action verbs to one per question to keep it simple. A well-phrased question allows students to effectively understand its nature and scope, making them more likely to give good answers.

  1. Don't ask multiple questions at once

If we ask multiple questions at once, it can increase cognitive load. This can lead to confusion, doubt and stress. Ultimately, this can culminate in students simply saying “I don’t know”. Instead, asking one question at a time and then building up through subsequent follow-up questions may lead to a higher engagement rate.

  1. Know your students

There are numerous reasons why students answer with “I don’t know”, from not hearing the question to not understanding it. As teachers, this makes it difficult to know what the best reaction will be. For example, if a student responds with “I don’t know” to a question that they did not hear, then telling them to think about it for a few more moments is unlikely to lead to optimal results.

This makes it important that we really get to know our students. Doing so means we can tailor any of the above strategies to each individual.

Final Thoughts

There is no magic cure to helping ensure all students are cognitively active in your classroom. But creating a culture of participation, alongside a range of tailored strategies can help improve their confidence in participating and accelerate their learning.


This blog was a joint InnerDrive and Michael Chiles production. You can read his book in the near future with release TBC, follow him on twitter @m_chiles, and watch him discussing questions with InnerDrive’s psychologist Bradley Busch here.

"Powerful Questioning" by Michael Chiles is coming soon, published by Crownhouse.

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