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Hit With an “I Don’t Know”? Fear Not!

October 6, 2021

This post is part of a series written by Paper's tutors. This week, June describes what she does when a student replies "I don't know" during a tutoring session.

“I don’t know” is probably one of the toughest messages from a student that we as tutors can respond to. Ultimately, my job as a Paper tutor isn’t to be like Google. Rather than give the answer away, my job is to guide students in the right direction until they find it on their own.

So when an “IDK” response from a student pops up on the platform, I have to pause for a second. 

Many questions go through my head: “How do I repeat my question without answering the question myself?”, “are they lacking in confidence?”, "do they just need me to explain the concept differently?", and “can I help this student before they give up on me?" 

In these moments, I can't see the student in front of me, nor the motion on their faces. When I was a piano teacher and student course assistant, it was easy to read students by their demeanor—this allowed me to adjust my approach accordingly. On online learning platforms, this is still easy to do. It just takes a few more steps! 

So here’s my battle plan to tackle those ‘IDK’ answers! 

1. I like to ask (point blank) what the student is confused about. 

This often gives students the chance to revisit your previous messages and the question itself to figure out if they actually don't know. Sometimes, in doing so, students can get closer to the answer on their own (I always love it when that lightbulb goes off!). 

2. Reassure your student that you’re here to help them until they understand. 

This shows commitment to your student and can sometimes give them the right dose of confidence to get those wheels churning! 

3. Be willing to offer a short summary of what you’ve discussed so far with your student. 

Think of this as a brief checklist where your student can respond ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ to whether they’ve understood each step. This can work wonders by recapping your previous discussions and then seamlessly prompting them to the next logical idea or step. 

Of course, these steps may not work for all students. But the satisfaction you feel when your student finally understands because of your efforts is truly indescribable. It's all worth it when you see all those exclamation marks at the end of their 'thank you!!!' message. 

Reading this, I hope this can give some ideas for how Paper tutors take ambiguous answers such as ‘I don’t know’ and use them as an opportunity to empower students a bit more in their learning. 

Tutor June

June, Paper Tutor

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