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The IDK session: What causes students to lack confidence?

August 16, 2022

Find out how tutors navigate those three tricky letters—IDK—with Quincy, a Paper tutor.

When I clock in for a tutoring shift at Paper, I can always expect one particular type of session without fail: the “I don’t know” (IDK) Live Help chat.

The ‘IDK’ session

If you were to ask any educator, I imagine they’ve had a similar experience with a student. You ask a question to probe for knowledge and understanding, and the student tells you, “I don’t know.”

You ask if this is something they’ve learned about in class. “I don’t know.”

What do you know about this subject? “I don’t know.”

What part of this assignment is the trickiest? “I don’t know.” 

When I first started tutoring with Paper, my approach with these kinds of students was to just encourage them to make an educated guess, or even just to tell me what their thought process was. This worked sometimes; certain students just need the extra encouragement to get them started. But often, that itself isn’t enough to get the student to engage and succeed.

What does IDK even mean?

A few months into my employment with Paper, I sat down with myself and asked a question that I hadn’t up until that point: What does IDK even mean in this context? What are my students trying to communicate to me with IDK?

These are the conclusions I came to:

  • The student missed the lesson this subject was about and doesn’t have enough knowledge on the topic to make an educated guess.
  • The student might struggle to pay attention and take notes in class for dozens of potential reasons. This means they did learn the material—they just can’t recall it the instant I ask or may not have fully understood it the first time. 
  • The student has become disengaged from the assignment, and they might be stalling, which means we need to figure out how to get them invested in the lesson again.

All three of these are valid and fairly common reasons for the IDK response. Yet when I really thought about it, I knew this wasn’t the whole story. In fact, there were some pretty significant elements I wasn’t thinking about.

Thinking back to when I was a kid, “IDK” was actually a pretty scary thing to admit. I was a good student with good grades, so the moment I was unsure or didn’t know something, I clammed up and didn’t contribute out of fear of no longer being the “good student.” It occurred to me that this very thing might be happening today with my students—just in a different form than I would’ve recognized.

The reason for the IDK Live Help session was quite simple, really. When writing their answers out to me, students lacked self-confidence.

An experiment with confidence

I decided that I needed to apply this perspective to my sessions to see if coming at them from this new angle might help get a student to open up. The very first session I had during that shift was with an IDK student. It was the perfect opportunity to test my hypothesis!

Near the beginning of the chat, I asked the student, “What answer do you think sounds the most correct?”

The student (as predicted) replied, “I don’t know.”

Then, I switched to my experimental response. “You know, it’s OK if you don’t know! I have trouble with things like this sometimes, too.”

The student was very quick to begin engaging with me on a more personal level after this. They admitted they were very anxious about an upcoming test on the topic and were worried about their grade needing to be above a certain letter. We briefly worked together to talk about how being anxious about tests is something lots of people experience, but that there were things we could do right now to make that better. 

The rest of the session went perfectly. The student eagerly went through some educated guesses and shared their logic, being open and honest about where they were unsure. By the time the student needed to log off for the night, they were thanking me for making them feel better about the test they had coming up. I felt the most satisfied with my job at that moment—and that satisfaction never fails to come back again and again when an IDK session turns into something super productive.

How to stop the IDK session

You may think that this newfound knowledge is the solution to all Live Help sessions we have with students in the IDK category. In truth, lack of confidence is a major contender, but there are so many other reasons these sessions happen.

I usually won’t ever know the exact reason by the time the session’s over—that’s the nature of my job. I don’t want to stop the IDK session from happening, though. Rather, I want students to be confident and brave enough to admit when they don’t know something so that educators like me can help them. We only discourage students from doing this by wanting to eliminate the IDK entirely from the classroom and tutoring sessions.

Instead of asking a student what they know, try telling them that it’s OK if they don’t know. Tell your students that no one is perfect, and that even we educators can struggle sometimes with tough questions. You may not see the immediate impact the way I did that first time, but you can rest assured that the sentiment will stick in their heads the next time they come into your physical classroom or log into a session at Paper.

Soon, IDK will stop being scary—and it’ll become the start of an enthusiastic student’s journey instead.


Quincy, Paper Tutor

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