Should We Teach Students to Say ‘I Don’t Know’?

When I began teaching, I encountered many students who didn’t know things. I had to grade papers that were filled with long, complicated narrations, written by students who clearly didn’t have a clue what they were writing about. Students continue to take this strategy, fervently hoping that the grader won’t recognize their ignorance, or will award at least a few partial credit points. How I longed for a simple “I don’t know” as an answer.

I realized, however, that the assessment structure that I (and many faculty) had created discourages “I don’t know,” and even rewards obfuscation and blather with partial credit points. When I discussed this with students, it became clear that unless the reward policy changed, they would continue to throw out unfounded guesses in hopes of a getting a few points. They were clearly learning that it is best to bluff and guess rather that confess ignorance. I felt something needed to be done.

So, in response to the philosophical argument that students really should say, “I don’t know” when that is the case, and the practical argument that it is agony to read and grade wild, speculative guesses, I have developed an “I Don’t Know” policy for my exams. On no more than 15 percent of the points on an exam, I will give about 1/3 of the points in partial credit if a student answers, “I don’t know.” This means that the honest, but ignorant student can get up to a 5 percent reward for professing ignorance. I discuss this policy with my students, pointing out that this is a last resort option, to be used only when they absolutely don’t know an answer. Clearly, this is not a way for a student to earn a passing grade without learning anything, but it is a way to encourage them to recognize and acknowledge when they DON’T know an answer.

As I have used the policy, I get “I don’t know” answers from about 25 to 40 percent of students. It has not had an impact on overall grades, but I believe the students learn the valuable lesson of saying “I don’t know,” and it lightens a frustrating part of my grading load: reading and trying to grade nonsense. My answer to the question posed in the title is yes, we should teach students to say “I don’t know” when that is the case. This policy is my attempt to do just that.

Dr. Robert Eierman, a member of the chemistry faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire for more than 25 years, recently was named director of the school’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.

Excerpted from Should We Teach Students to Say ‘I Don’t Know’? The Teaching Professor, 24.2 (2010): 5.