I worked as a TA for several courses. Some courses fall into the domain in which my research also happens. But some other courses are not at all familiar to me.

My Institute conducts tutorial classes with an objective of addressing students doubts in that course. Only TAs attend to this class. It is of the duration atleast couple of hours.

Students start asking the questions, that are difficult for whole class (because of the reason that they communicate among themselves the solutions of questions).

For the courses that are not familiar to me, it becomes difficult to answer the questions asked by them. Students expect the answer instantly on the board and it is a norm also.

In-order to face the situation honestly, I need to tell I don't know for the questions they ask. I feel it is okay to tell my ignorance for some questions since I am not a professor or expert in that course.

If I start saying it honestly for all questions that are difficult for me, then I feel that there will be an increased disrespect on me among students circle.

Is it true that the respect for the TA decreases the more often frequency they reply "I don't know"?

Note: Attending the professor classes as TA or spending more time on the course is not solving my issue since students are asking questions that are very difficult as they collect questions from several online materials that demands more in-depth knowledge. And professor asks to conduct the classes properly. Some TAs intentionally avoid tutorials to avoid this issue. So please refrain from the answers that provide solutions to the question of: how to handle this

  • 2
    You should defer the difficult questions to the professor. They should announce a policy regarding this during a lecture. If, as a student, I had a TA very frequently tell me "I don't know.", I would respect them less, yes.
    – user9482
    Jun 9, 2020 at 13:58
  • 8
    "I don't know" is bad. "I don't know, but I'll find out and get back to you next class" is much better. "Let me figure that out and get back to you" is also ok, if a bit of a cop-out.
    – Buffy
    Jun 9, 2020 at 13:59
  • 1
    Interesting, definitely different from my US experience. I guess the question then becomes, if this is correct, what are the actual expectations of the students (which I presume you know from being one)?
    – Jon Custer
    Jun 9, 2020 at 14:36
  • 5
    An occasional "don't know" is ok. If it is regular, you should prepare better. If that is not possible, can you codevelop the solution with the class? That's also a possibility which I recommend. If that is not possible, then you should understand where your students get their questions from and try to prepare for them being asked. Jun 9, 2020 at 15:45
  • 3
    The effect, on students' respect, of saying "I don't know" today will depend very much on whether you return to that question in the next class meeting and give a good answer. Jun 9, 2020 at 16:02

3 Answers 3


Is it a true phenomenon that the respect on TA decreases with an increased frequency of I don't know replies?

Certainly not in the sense of "you have 5 'I don't know' per semester, and then you lose the student's respect. It really depends on what questions you do answer, how you answer them, and what kind of questions you are unable to answer.

If you normally provide good, instructive answers to questions with the occasional "I don't know" mixed in, no reasonable person will lose respect for you - especially if you commit to finding the answer to the questions you are unable to answer, and then follow through.

That said, it depends on what the questions you aren't able to answer are. If those are questions that could in a very similar scope also be on the exam, not knowing the answer (and not being able to derive it in reasonable time) will indeed not reflect well on you. If that is the case, preparing better for teaching the course (or teaching courses closer to your field of research) is really the only way forward. Otherwise, the students have all rights to be annoyed - what could they learn from a teacher who doesn't sufficiently master the course themselves?

I worked as a TA for several courses. Some courses fall into the domain in which my research also happens. But some other courses are not at all familiar to me.

Maybe I'm stating the obvious, but that's really not the student's problem. The students should have an expectation that their teacher is qualified to teach the course, whether it's in their area of research or not. You should not expect leniency from the students because you are teaching a course outside of your field of research.

  • 1
    Also: "I don't know, but we can use the following strategies to try to find out..."
    – Tommi
    Jun 9, 2020 at 16:18
  • Great answer. I would like to add that admitting you don't know is much better than giving a wrong answer. That should be obvious but I have seen it happen fairly often that teachers "make up" answers that turn out to be simply incorrect.
    – Louic
    Jun 10, 2020 at 7:08
  • 1
    Upon further reflection, I should say - and this is completely anecdotal - that from giving talks and keynotes in India I also had the impression that saying "I can't really answer that" carries a lot more stigma there than in Europe or the US. It would be very interesting to have an answer from somebody teaching in India.
    – xLeitix
    Jun 10, 2020 at 9:53

A good university teacher does not play the role of an authority. In most cases, universities do not teach facts. They teach skills. They teach knowledge creation. They teach problem solving. If you are an authority in the classroom, then you are not teaching those things effectively. Instead, you are teaching students to rely on you for answers.

So, yes, you should say when you do not know. It should decrease your authority. And that is a good thing. Do explain why you do not know, and how you would find out the answer. Or even better, guide students to finding the answer on their own.

Students should respect people even if they are not TAs or even if they know nothing. If your students are not respectful you should teach them respectful behaviour.

  • To your last paragraph: maybe you are confusing respect and respect? Eg I had a prof who made it clear that he knew not much about what he taught and had no interest in teaching well. We respected him as a human being (of course), but not as an instructor.
    – user111388
    Jun 10, 2020 at 18:12
  • Also, I don't think a TA should teach respectful behaviour to students. This can be very dangerous for the TA and should, if necessary, probably handled by the (tenured) prof.
    – user111388
    Jun 11, 2020 at 9:42

Most (if not even all) teachers, lecturers and professors got asked some difficult questions which they couldn't answer. I will divide my answer into several points as follows:

  1. It is always good to prepare well for the lecture and in contrast to you, I don't think it does not help. When you give a lecture or a tutorial you know all the details and questions should arise automatically. A lecturer can expect the questions before giving the lecture and a good lecturer must have answers before entering the class. Of course, it is not possible to cover all possible questions but an important portion.
  2. Teaching new courses is very common due to so many reasons (e.g. to substitute a professor who left for another position, etc). It is also normal to spend more time to understand the topic. The lecturer should just be honest with the students: "I am teaching this lecture for the first time and I will do my best to provide high-quality lectures". The students would try to find questions which of course help you to understand the topic your are teaching. They could also complain to the faculty that you are not expert (I don't think this would affect you since you said the faculty assigned the course to you with the fact that you are not expert).
  3. In any case and under any circumstance, the lecturer must be honest and tell the students that (s)he does not have the answer and that (s)he will search for it and provide asap.
  4. Authority is not a dimension is the relationship-space of teacher-students. Instead, respect is an essential one which can be gained only by honesty and hard work.
  5. As already mentioned, the students deserve to learn and if you find that you cannot ensure a certain quality of lectures (for a reason or another), it is better to inform the faculty by yourself and the students as well. If the faculty cannot ensure another lecturer and if the students find that the course is manageable under these conditions, the they will understand and support you.
  • Just for clarification, especially about 4 and 5: are you discribing how ideal students/institutions should be or is this your experience in India?
    – user111388
    Jun 10, 2020 at 18:09

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