More Learning, Less IDK


More Learning, Less IDK

Do you get the nonchalant shrug of the shoulders and cocking of the head when you ask certain students questions?  Do they reply “I don’t know” after a half second of what can only be the most cursory of considerations?  If this is your student or students, don’t worry, it’s completely normal. Completely irritating perhaps, but normal. The good news is there are things you can do about it!

Studies have shown that wait time can be a powerful way to increase student engagement.  It takes less instructional time than you might think. Simply waiting three to five seconds is enough to see measurable gains in student responses and the accuracy of those responses.  That may seem too short of a time to make a big difference, but considering the average teacher gives their students less than one second to respond to a question before rephrasing, asking another student, or moving on to another question, it’s actually a vast improvement in most classrooms. According to Eric Digest’s Using “Think-Time” and “Wait-Time” Skillfully in the Classroom, when students do respond, teachers jump right back in and answer back in .9 seconds, cutting off students’ opportunity to expand upon their thinking.  Many children learn this early on and strategically wait, knowing that as busy educators with a pacing guide to follow, most of us will move on quickly from the awkward silence. However, waiting the awkwardness out is worth it when you consider that using the 3 second wait time threshold leads to:

  • Increase in the length and correctness of responses.
  • Decrease in the number of “I don’t know” and no answer responses.
  • Increase in the number of students who volunteer appropriate responses.
  • Increase in students’ scores on academic achievement tests.

When you ask an English Learner a question they have to translate the question, formulate an answer, and then translate that answer back. This simply takes time- EVEN MORE time, than for native English speakers. These students may need twice the wait time or more as their peers, depending on their level of proficiency.  If you consistently practice the discipline of wait time, students will learn that you expect thoughtful answers. Consider incorporating wait time after you ask the question, but before you call on a student as a normal part of your routine. This can eliminate some of the pressure put on an individual student whose classmates are waiting for a response.  Then you can always give the student you call on more time, should they need it.

If you want your students to participate fully in classroom discussions, another strategy is to make every time a child raises his or her hand a positive experience. If students know they will not be embarrassed, you’ve reduced the amount of risk it takes for them to raise their hand. You as the teacher, have the ability to cultivate a classroom culture where every child is a learner.  When a child raises his or her hand and doesn’t know the answer, consider these responses:

  1. Offer a hint: “The answer starts with a “c.” or “We just talked about this in our morning warm up.”
  2. Give choices: “It’s either… or …, which do you think?”
  3. Give them more time to think: “I’ll come back to you in a minute.”
  4.  Allow the use of notes or text book: “Why don’t you look back through the section we just read and I’ll come back to you in a moment.”  
  5. Allow them to conference with a classmate: “Conference with your neighbor and see if he can help you out.”

Note: Unlike “phone a friend” (where the child calls on a classmate to answer, the friend answers the question and the teacher moves on), conferencing means they work together to find an answer and the original student shares out their mutual understanding.  If you do use “phone a friend,” it’s imperative you come back to the original student and ask him or her to put the answer in their own words.  Calling on a friend to answer may allow the student to escape the pressure of the moment, but it doesn’t hold them accountable for their learning.

For students, model and explicitly teach them the language to use when they aren’t sure and need additional resources. We want them to be able to advocate for themselves. Teach responses such as:

  1. Make your best guess: “I’m not sure, but I think…and here’s why…”
  2. Request more time to think: “Can you come back to me in a minute?”
  3. Ask a clarifying question: “When you say… are you asking…”
  4. Ask for a hint: “Can you give me a clue?”
  5. Conference with a neighbor: “Let me conference with my neighbor.”
  6. Use your notes or text book: “Can you give me a minute to look at my notes?”

When You Don't Know the Answer Elementary

Download this Anchor Chart Here: When You Don’t Know the Answer Elementary

Options for When You Don’t Know

Download this Anchor Charts Here: Options for When You Don’t Know Adolescent

If you have a student who is painfully shy that you want to participate, reduce risk further by prepping them ahead of time.  As you’re monitoring student work, quickly stop by their desk and say, “I see you got number seven right.  I’m going to call on you to answer that one. Are you comfortable with that?” Sometimes students don’t want to risk being wrong or just need time to prepare. Confirming the student has the right answer and discussing what they will say beforehand will boost their confidence and lower the risk.

You can create an environment where kids willing participate if you are strategic and thoughtful in the way that you interact with students and the expectations that you set.  Teach students specific strategies for approaching questions and asking for help when needed and you can get less IDK responses and increase student learning!


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