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October 25, 2022

How to Handle Student Questions You Don’t Know the Answer to

As an accomplished tutor, you're an expert in your subject area(s). But no matter how much you know, sometimes you will be asked student questions that you don't know the answer to.

First step, don’t panic. This happens to everyone. Similar to how students are learning, we are also always learning. Not knowing an answer can feel a bit awkward initially, but it is also a great point to learn and grow– in your content area and in your tutoring skills!

Here are some tips on responding when those difficult questions come up during your tutoring sessions.

Remain calm and composed

Staying calm is crucial when responding to difficult content questions. Even though your student has put you in a tight spot, you don't need to panic or get flustered. One of the reasons students come to you is to help them become confident learners. Therefore, you should exude confidence even if you don't always have an answer immediately. This is a great opportunity to show a student how to address a difficult problem, and can help fortify a growth mindset.

How can you be calm and composed if you don't feel very confident? This article explains how to shake off Imposter Syndrome, build on your strengths, and when to seek a mentor for help and encouragement. Building confidence while tutoring may take some time, but with practice and experience, you'll improve!

Don't be afraid to be excited

As much as we stress the importance of being cool and calm when confronted with questions you don't know, this is also a great moment to show genuine enthusiasm and excitement to motivate a student to keep learning.

If the question makes a bunch of exclamation marks and light bulbs pop up in your brain, go ahead and be authentic! Excitement is contagious, and you can use that energy to spark deeper thinking during your tutoring session. Remember, this is an opportunity to learn something new for yourself and your student.

Acknowledge the student's question

Be encouraged by any questions students ask during tutoring sessions. This is a sign of engagement, which means the student is actively learning. If you get a difficult question, you may feel inclined to ignore it or change the subject. While this gets you off the hook, ignoring the question could be detrimental to the student's self-confidence and prevent them from learning how to handle difficult content questions themselves.

Instead, be sure to directly acknowledge difficult questions. For instance, if you get a science question about fusion and fission that you don't know the answer to, you can say something along the lines of, "That is an excellent question about fusion and fission. Let me think about that for a moment."

Here are some more simple ways you can acknowledge your student's question:

  • Great question! Do you have any ideas?
  • I like that question a lot but I'm not sure of the answer. I can look it up for you later and tell you during our next session.
  • Now you're thinking! My brain needs to process that question for a while. I'll come back to it.
  • Awesome question. I think your teacher in school might appreciate answering that question in class.

It's possible that the student's question has very little to do with the subject at hand. If that's the case, and you feel like answering the question will detract from the learning the student is supposed to accomplish, go ahead and say something along the lines of, "Hmm, nice question. Finding the answer to that question might be a task for a different day. Let's continue working on these problems."

Remember that you're tutoring students to help them improve academically in a particular area. You shouldn't be expected to know everything about every topic.

Be upfront about being uncertain

Admitting you don't know the answer to a question pertaining to your field of expertise can feel like a blow to your pride. This is natural. While we would all like to believe ourselves expert in an area, sometimes we run into situations where we simply need to learn more. Rather than be upset or embarrassed by the situation, this is the perfect chance to learn more about a subject. Even the most experienced tutors sometimes get stumped because the student has pinned them with a difficult question.

When a challenging question hits you, the best thing to do is to be honest and admit to yourself and the student that you're uncertain about the answer. Honesty builds trust and helps strengthen the tutor-student relationship.

Being honest is also a great way to model transparency about what you know and don't know. Students struggling with a specific subject probably feel just as uncomfortable telling you that they don't know the answer to a question. When the roles are reversed, the student can learn from your behavior, leading to more authentic and enriching learning experiences down the road.

Help the student find the answer

It's perfectly fine to be stumped by a difficult question. However, it's not okay to leave the student hanging without a response.

If you can't quickly look something up during your tutoring session to find the correct answer, then help the student leverage resources to find the answer to their question. Consider suggesting the following resources to the student:

  • Textbooks you have used in the past
  • Accredited online educational sources
  • Subject matter experts at their school

And remember that you have a host of excellent support resources through Pear Deck Tutor, including this compilation of helpful tutor resources sorted by subject matter!

Challenging questions are learning opportunities in disguise

Responding to difficult student questions helps you stay on your toes while tutoring. Think of it as a unique challenge for yourself that will push you to learn something new. For the student's sake, stay calm and composed when they ask the question, let them know that you heard the question, be honest about not knowing the answer, and then provide guidance on finding the answer.

Are you a subject matter expert who can stay composed when asked difficult questions by students? We encourage you to apply to become a tutor on Pear Deck Tutor (formerly TutorMe) today!


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Amanda Gralto
Tutor Operations Specialist

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