Things to Say Instead of “I Don’t Know”…

Teaching students to specify what they need help with is one of our goals through out the school year. You would think that by the time a students reaches high school that this would not be an issue, but it is.

As a teacher, it is extremely difficult to help students when they don’t specify which part of the process they need help with.  By teaching students to ask for specific help, we are better able to help them and also enable their learning in the process. For instance, when students gets confused on a certain step in a math problem that we are solving in class,   many students will answer ‘I don’t know’ to every question we ever ask and think nothing of it. At that point, we don’t know which part they don’t understand.  Is it putting in the calculator, how to set it up, the algebra, or something else.  We need our students to think on their own and be accountable for their thinking and ultimately their learning.  So what is the solution?


Our students can no longer say, “I don’t know.” It’s fine if they don’t know, but they now have to follow that with one of these phrases to pinpoint where they are struggling

Here are some phrases that we have used that seem to work well with our students.

What to Say Instead of I DON’T KNOW:

  • “May I have more information?”
  • “I know how to do _________, but I don’t understand ________.
  •  “Could you please repeat/rephrase the question?”
  •  “May I have more time to think?”
  •  “Where can I find more information?”
  •  “I remember that __, but I am confused as to what they question is asking can you rephrase it?

While we are always willing to help our students, we believe they need to learn to help themselves first.  To encourage them to be responsible for their own learning, we expect them to have tried one or more of the following options before they ask us for help.

  • Search in your notebook for any references to the topic.
  • Work with another student at your table.
  • Search the Physics Classroom website for a different explanation.
  • Go to Schoology (or your class webpage) and look for any tutorial videos or notes that have been provided already.
  • Look in your textbook.
  • Google a tutorial video.
  • Come to tutorials.

We are not going to lie. At the beginning of the year, this process is a struggle! However, as the year progresses, it really is amazing to see our students really start to take ownership of their learning.  Over time, they become less dependent on us and isn’t that our ultimate goal to get students to become independent thinkers and learners.


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