Handling Questions When You Don't Know the Answer


We’ve all had it happen-the moment when a student asks you something that you don’t know. If you’re lucky, it’s one-on-one or during break time. If not, it happens in front of the class from a loud, insistent student. You begin to sweat. Your heart pounds. You manage a nervous smile while trying to reach into your brain to find the answer, hoping it’s in there hidden among the lyrics of annoying TV jingles and last week’s ESL lesson plan. You sigh inside and do your best not to utter those crushing words-I don’t know.

In today’s blog, I’m going to share some of the strategies to use and general rules to apply in order to maintain your credibility when confronted with questions on unfamiliar topics. I decided to address this specific challenge because it was one of things that my newer teachers really struggled with in their evaluations this year. I also love to share anything that can help reduce your stress-even just a little.

My first rule of thumb is to never say “I don’t know” in response to a student question. Nothing erodes your students’ faith in you faster than an indifferent claim of ignorance—especially if you are young. As the teacher, students see it as your job to know. If you don’t, they are much less likely to trust you. My second rule is to never lie or make up an answer. Your students can Google just about anything, so incorrect responses will come back to haunt you. In fact giving the wrong answer is much worse than not answering at all. My third rule is to always look relaxed and confident no matter how obscure the question may be. Don’t show even a hint of panic. Act as if the question is no big deal. Take it in stride.

In addition to the principles above, I have three main tactics for handling difficult questions. These are to toss the question back to the student, to make it a team effort, or to delay a response.

1) Toss it back to the student. This strategy works particularly well for questions about English vocabulary words, idioms, or phrases. After praising the student for his/her question, you can begin by asking the student to give you his/her thoughts. If the student doesn’t have any ideas, ask him/her to look the answer up using the most appropriate resource. The key with this approach is to engage the student with a sense of curiosity, rather than dismissiveness. Appear intrigued, and enlist the student as your colleague in investigating the response. Use “we” or “let’s” in your responses.

Examples of Specific Language

a) “That’s a fantastic question. Hmm..What do you think? ”

b) "Great question! Let’s look it up.”

c) “Interesting question- Where can we find the answer?”

2) Make it a team effort. If you have a particularly precocious class, it can help to get other students involved. You can pose the question to the entire class and see what responses you get. If no one offers a particularly good answer, then have the class find the answer together. If you make it a race, it takes the students’ focus away from the fact that you don’t know the answer.

Examples of Specific Language

a) “Joe asked a great question. Does anyone in my brilliant class know the answer?”

b) “Maria just asked a fantastic question. How about we find out the answer together? Where can we look for the answer? “

c) "Amy-what an interesting question! Everyone, we've got to find the answer. Let’s make it a race. The first person to find it gets to leave class 1 minute early.

3) Delay your response. If the question truly has you stumped, it’s in your best interest and that of the class, for you to answer it later. Difficult questions can sometimes push the class way off topic. If you have a lot to cover, you can generally cite time constraints as a reason for tabling the question for the moment. You can also say that the complexity of the question might confuse others, so it’s best for the question to be covered at a later date. In these scenarios, you should always follow through and answer the question either after class or the next day. If you don’t, students will feel ignored.

Examples of Specific Language

a) “That’s a superb question. Let me move on with the lesson for now, but I promise we will get back to it later.”

b) “Hmmm…that’s an interesting thought. We have some other things we need to do right now in class, but we can talk about it later on. “

c) “That’s a great question, but it doesn’t have a short answer. How about we talk about it before class tomorrow? Does that work for you? “

Do any of you have more strategies for dealing with complex questions? Let us know.

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