Tips on the Greatest Concerns as a GTA: Saying “I Don’t Know”

Hand Raised

October 11, 2017

by Estefany Palacio
Kennesaw State University

It is your first experience with teaching and most likely you are training to become a professor in the future, that is, your time as a graduate teaching assistant (GTA). Along with your new responsibilities, you may have concerns like: Will your students like you? How will you deal with disruptive behavior? How will you present yourself in an authoritative role? How will you deal with grading issues?

One of your most pressing concerns may be how much you know about the subject you are teaching and what will happen if you have to respond to your student with “I don’t know.” First, don’t be afraid, because you are not alone. Studies show that exhibiting knowledge of the material falls under one of the top ten concerns graduate students have about teaching (Smollin & Arluke, 2013). The concern of not being knowledgeable about certain information in the classroom is very real, so how can you prepare yourself? Be proactive and keep the following tips in mind: 

Tip #1- Consider your audience

While you have gone through extensive training, and continue to do so, remember that your lectures do not have to emulate the essays you wrote in graduate school (Filene, 2005). Consider your audience–undergraduate students–and ensure that you present information in a manner that elicits questions and invites participation in the classroom. As a graduate student, the audience for your classroom discussions includes your professors and fellow classmates, which may call for a more theoretical and academic tone. As a graduate student teaching assistant, you are addressing your own students and opening a space of discussion where your students can feel comfortable about asking questions and adding their own thoughts on the material. While you should discuss theory and new concepts with your students, you need to be aware that this may be the first time your students have encountered such information, so be aware of how you present it.

Tip #2- Establish your ethos from the very beginning of the semester

From day one, present yourself to your students as you expect them to see you throughout the semester. You can choose whether you want to share with your students your level of expertise regarding the subject you are teaching. Sharing that you may not be teaching a subject in your comfort zone may help you build rapport and create trust with your students (Huston, 2009). By being open about your background in the subject, you will create an environment where your students will also feel comfortable saying they do not know an answer to a question, but they will be more likely to participate in a discussion in order to figure out an answer or solve a problem.

Tip #3- Explain the content through discussion, don’t just give out answers

When discussing content in class, make sure you give your students time to develop an answer. It is understandable that some subjects require certain information like formulas and variables to give the students a starting point, but after that, let them work towards an answer by themselves (whether individually or in groups). If you start by delivering answers instead of allowing your students come to a conclusion or identify a solution, you are creating a barrier to what can be a great discussion (McKeachie, 2002). Part of a good learning environment includes you working towards fostering a space where all can communicate and learn together, not just fill in the blanks.

Tip #4- Be honest

If a student asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, make sure you are honest and say “I don’t know.” Do not stop there, though. Engage your students with responses like “Can you rephrase the question?” “I am not sure about what you ask, but let’s think about what we know about the issue so far,” or “I am not totally sure about what you are asking, but I will look into it.” If you acknowledge the fact that you will look for an answer outside of the classroom, make sure you actually follow through and get back to the student or the class. Even though as a college teacher you may be seen as the expert, admitting that you do not know an answer or that you are not sure about the answer to a question will likely increase your students’ confidence in you (Cashin 1995). If you find that you may not know some of the answers to your students’ questions, let them know--and take it a step further by working together to find an answer.

It is important that you always keep in mind that saying “I don’t know” is ok. What is not ok is to dismiss your student’s question or to leave the conversation at “I don’t know.” Over the years, you have developed your skills in research and investigation, so use those to your advantage and help your students look for the answers to become self-motivated learners. You also have your own resources, like colleagues, that can help you. Also, guide your students to outside-of-the-classroom resources they can use to obtain help regarding their questions and interests. Remember, check back with your students to see if they understand the newly-discovered concepts and if they have found an answer to their question.

With these ideas in mind, you will be able to turn an “I don’t know” moment with your students into a learning opportunity. Of course, every subject will be different, and if you are interested in learning how to approach information you don’t know with your students, I recommend you check out the titles under the “resources” section of this post.


Cashin, W. E. (1995). Answering and Asking Questions. Idea Papers,(31), 2-8.

Filene, P. G. (2005). The joy of teaching: a practical guide for new college instructors. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Huston, T. (2009). Teaching What You Don't Know. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McKeachie, W. J. (2002). McKeachie's Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers(11th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Smollin, L. M., & Arluke, A. (2013). Rites of Pedagogical Passage. Teaching Sociology,42(1)