Student questions

What do I do when a student asks a question related to the lesson and I don’t know the answer? I don’t have a strong background in science, and as a beginning teacher this makes me nervous. —C., Massachusetts

Virtually every teacher has been in this situation, with curious students or those who want more in-depth information. (I’ve studied paleontology, but my 6-year-old grandnephew has a passion for dinosaurs beyond my knowledge base!)

If a student asks a question and you don’t know the answer, the worst responses are to dismiss the question or make up an answer and move on. It’s okay to say, “That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure of the answer.” What happens next depends on the nature of the question and the time you have.

If the question is pertinent to the lesson, you could ask the class, “What do you think? Does anyone have an idea?” or use a think-aloud as a teachable moment to model how to find information. Some teachers have student teams act as “checkers” who go online to find answers.

Another option is for the student to write the question on a card and post it on a bulletin board “parking lot” to be addressed later. Periodically, revisit the parking lot and either research the answers yourself, or encourage students to look up information at home or during free time and report back to the class. Remove the card when the question is addressed, thanking the student for asking it. It would be a powerful example for students to see you post your own questions, too.

No one expects you to be a walking Wikipedia, but your guidance and encouragement can create a safe place for students to ask questions and search for answers.


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  1. Roberta
    Posted July 10, 2017 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    Everyone comes up to a point in their teaching in which they cannot answer a student’s question. You tell them that you do not know the answer and then you can use it as a learning moment and look up the answer together or as a class, or you can offer extra credit to the student who finds the answer first, or just put it out there to the students to find the answer. It is all part of the learning process.

  2. Mary Bigelow
    Posted July 12, 2017 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your response–it IS a learning process for both the students and the teacher!

  3. Dawn
    Posted July 14, 2017 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    I used to teach GATE for many years, and inevitably someone would come up with a question that I didn’t know the answer to. When that happened, I would congratulate them for coming up with such a deep question. Then, I would re-pose to the group and empower someone to find an answer to the question. Then, that person was able to research and then present to the group when they found an answer. If the question was unanswerable, I would have students examine why the question is unanswerable and we would discuss how it applies to real-world professions. I would also remind students, that it wasn’t my job to know everything, but it was my job to empower them to be able to figure things out for themselves.

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