"I Don't Know"

Definitions we commonly use (derived from assignment sheets or tutoring culture) are words like "voice," "principles," "rhetoric," "analysis," "annotated bibliography," and so on. Even though I understand how to use them, it's difficult to teach someone else.

I have read that an indicator of whether we understand a concept or not is how well we can explain it to someone else: I would argue, then, that if we can't explain a concept we don't fully understand it. There have been times when I've said, simply, "I don't know." when I'm asked about a concepts, and, that's okay. I think it's good to run into information we can't transfer because it shows us an area we haven't learned as well as we thought. The solution, I think, is to study. There are ways to do this quickly.

Write Definitions: The practice of writing a concept in my own words, even if I don't keep what I've written, assists me when I'm put in a situation where I have to say it.

Explaining a concept to another tutor, even if it's "hey, can you tell me if I'm explaining this clearly?", can allow them to add their knowledge to ours, filling in gaps where information is lacking.

Team Tutoring: I've team-tutored with William a few times, and he's an expert (or well on his way to becoming one) on rhetoric. He teaches rhetoric so clearly and simply that I cannot misunderstand. I've since used what he's taught to help others understand.

I'll wrap this up with a story:
My dad was an Electrical Engineer and an expert on the Plumbing Code. Guys in his office would come in and ask for help about the Code: Everyone knew he knew it. My dad didn't need to memorize anything, he just knew where to find it. He pulled out his manual and turned to the right page, and that's the key: If we know where to find something, it can be just as good as knowing it because we can reference it again and again.


  1. This is an excellent point Alex. While tutoring in the student writing center at SLCC I have run into this problem on several occasions. I do not recall ever simply stating to the student that I didn't know, but I would say things like "I'm not so familiar with this, but I can help us find the answer." I may not know the answers to their questions immediately, but the great thing is that I know where to find them. During my sessions there were several instances in which I referred to one of the great books in the center, or even online to answer their questions. To be honest, I actually love when students propose questions I cannot answer immediately because not only does it allow me to think critically, but it also helps me to learn myself. I do not consider this being a "tourist." Many of said situations are more or less a memory refresher; I just hope that it doesn't cause the student to question my validity as a tutor. I think some students expect tutors to be all knowing fountains of knowledge, which of course is not the case.

  2. In instances where it's possible, I find that example works best. When we're young we aren't told what the colour blue is, we're shown. I've noticed that humans are very good at mimicry, and I've employed this tactic on a few occasions.

    Someone once asked me what a reflection was, and even though I gave her some lame definition about it being the essay of introversion, I eventually decided it was best to just show her. I walked over the bookshelf, pulled down a 1010 writing textbook, and we flipped through a few examples. I find that even if i have the best definition at hand, it pales in comparison any tangible example could provide. I just wish I could remember to do it more often.

    I like the idea of team tutoring, as it allows you to draw on an unknown well of information (like today when you helped to explain body dysmorphic disorder.)

  3. Alex,

    I really loved reading this post! Not only was your content, insight, and analysis inspired, but you provided it within a structure that made it both easy to read and enjoy. I appreciate your approach to tackling a subject that is not realized often: knowing word definitions, and applying it to our tutorial responsibilities. I am looking forward to using these same methodologies in my next meeting with my tutee. :)
    Thank you!!!

  4. I really enjoyed this post! I have encountered a few "I don't know" moments myself. Sometimes my students, especially my ESL students, ask me about rhetoric, or the concepts and "rules" to grammar. While some of the answers are straight forward, I sometimes have difficulty in explaining it clearly. I really enjoyed reading the techniques/strategies you gave in order to practice and remember information. I plan on using these techniques to see how well they worked for me in remembering and learning, that way I can clearly explain and discuss any information (rhetoric, grammar, voice, etc.) with my students.

  5. Anonymous9:29 AM


    Great post! I find that "I don't know" is probably one of the answers I am least fond of giving--I like to know, I like to be right.

    However, I am beginning to realize that it's perfectly alright to not know sometimes. Honestly, I think it can be a blessing in disguise, as the writer sees that we both are unsure, that I am not a superior in my knowledge. If the writer does indeed see this, it may help him or her to relax more, and it may allow us the rich opportunity to learn and grow together.


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