The Three Worst Words My Students Say


After working with every grade level, from pre-school to high school, you can imagine I have heard it all when it comes to bad words in the classroom.  But are you ready for the worst three words that I hear coming out of my students’ mouths?

“I don’t know”

These words are like nails on a chalkboard to me, and they are something I will never let pass me by (in fact, this is generally something I address in the very first session of a class or tutoring session).

Why, you ask?

Think about it for a second.  What happens to your mind the second the words “I don’t know” come out of your mouth?  The outcome of this phrase is the same for almost everyone…not much.  When we say, “I don’t know,” we are basically giving up, shutting off our minds, and accepting defeat.  Students will often say this dreaded phrase to their teachers or parents and then wait for the correct answer.  In many situations, this may not be the worst strategy.  Often there is someone around who DOES have a better answer and can pass that answer on to the student.  However, on a standardized test, these words can be lethal. The trap of “I don’t know” can very easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy on a test whose problems are designed to look unfamiliar and needlessly complicated. The chances of students engaging in a problem after declaring “I don’t know” are probably very low, since they have convinced themselves that they do not understand the problem…so why even try?

Make sense?  Can you see where YOU are guilty of using this phrase in situations where engaging in a problem or interaction was risky or required more effort than you were willing to give?  Now imagine being faced with hours of agonizing vocabulary words, really strange math problems and boring reading passages.  You can’t really blame the students for wanting an out.

So what can be done about these bad words?  The answer is very simple.  Take the phrase and turn it into a question.  A declaration like “I don’t know” ends with a period (or sometimes an exclamation mark!), ending the thought process with finality.  A question, on the other hand, lends itself to being answered, doesn’t it? (See how I did that??)

My favorite question to ask students is, “What DO you know?”  There is always SOMETHING a student knows about the problem, even if it is as simple as, “I know that this is a geometry problem.”  This may seem a feeble start to answering a complex problem involving areas of shaded regions on graphs, but it is just that—a start.  At least the student is engaging in the problem, even if it is at the most superficial level.  Continuing to ask the same question will often bring with it even more that a student knows about a problem, such as, “I know need to find the area…I know that the area of a triangle is ½ base times height…I know that this triangle is half of this square…I know the slope of the line is 1…” and so on, and so on.

Why does this work?  Here are a few reasons:

1. The nature of aptitude tests: On content-based tests (like most of the ones students are used to taking in school), if you do not know the formula, you are pretty much out of luck.  However, if you remember from our previous discussion about aptitude tests, these exams aren’t straightforwardly testing the knowledge of formulas; they are designed to connect different concepts and have students look at a problem holistically versus mechanically.  On a problem-solving test, the process of piecing together sometimes seemingly unrelated fragments of information can very often lead to the correct answer.  Aptitude tests often have easy content and multiple ways to solve a problem, so engaging in the problem by asking, “What DO I know?” can yield enough information to get a student on the right track.

2. Increased probability of success:  Blindly choosing an answer will give a student a ¼ chance of getting the answer correct. Even if the final answer isn’t reached, this engagement at the beginning of the problem can lead to the elimination of one or two answer choices based on the reasonableness of the answer choices.  Very often, one answer choice can be eliminated almost immediately because it is way off the mark.  However, only a student who has engaged in the problem at any level will be able to see the obviously incorrect answer choice.  A small amount of engagement can take a student’s chance from 25% to 33.3%.  It doesn’t take a math genius to know that this is a pretty significant increase in odds!

3. Momentum: Starting is usually the hardest part (think about getting to the gym for the first time or picking up the phone to make that call you’ve been avoiding). The question, “What DO I know?” can be a great starting point for a student to get the ball rolling.  Simply labeling a chart or diagram with the information given in the problem itself can be enough to get the wheels turning and provide the momentum needed to keep on moving toward the solution.

4. Confidence: The thought “I don’t know” will very likely bring with it feelings of discouragement, helplessness, and frustration.   However, when a student can find even just one thing that he or she DOES know about a problem, it will cause an increase in confidence, even if it is small at first.  The more pieces of knowledge a student can distinguish, the greater the increase in confidence.  Again, even if this particular problem isn’t nailed (most students will not know EVERY vocabulary word, for example), a more confident test-taker is more likely to continue to engage in challenging problems, trust him/herself, and continue to move through the test with less hesitation (which is helpful during a timed test).  A little confidence goes a LONG way when it comes to test taking, and the more a student can focus on what he or she DOES know, the greater the chances of overcoming the overwhelm and anxiety that often come with testing.

Try implementing this technique in your own life and see if it can extend beyond the world of standardized tests.  You may be surprised to find how much you really DO know about things that may seem baffling at first glance.  If, in your investigation, you find that one thing you DO know is that you would like some assistance in this test-prep journey from talented experts, please do not hesitate to set up a free consultation with one of our specialists.  We promise you, these whizzes know PLENTY.

Until next time,

Jenni and Erin

P.S. Wouldn’t it be great if there were ONE simple tip that could reduce stress, improve brain function, and relax muscle tension during testing?  Well, there IS!  Stay tuned for our next newsletter to read about this simple but effective technique.

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