If I am the TA for a class, what should I do if a student asks me a question which I can't answer? While "tell the truth and say you don't know" is one approach, are there other options?

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    A simple and honest answer: I do not know, but I will search for the correct answer. – Enthusiastic Engineer Aug 20 '14 at 18:47
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    I do not understand why this question has been downvoted... – Moriarty Aug 20 '14 at 18:54
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    @Moriarty I edited my question, at first I did not ask that well. thanks for your comment and I am grateful about your comment – M R R Aug 20 '14 at 19:10
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    You don't have to build an aura of superhuman infallibility around yourself to be able to approach a class. If you teach with this attitude, things are going to go terribly wrong. – Federico Poloni Aug 24 '15 at 18:33

I agree that honesty is the best policy, and it's too bad if you're in a situation in which you feel worried about admitting you don't know the answer. You shouldn't try to bluff, by pretending you know but don't have time to explain or by giving an intentionally vague answer. However, there are ways of handling it more smoothly than just saying "I don't know" and leaving it at that. Depending on the circumstances, you can say "That's a really interesting question. I haven't thought about it, so I'll have to look into it, but let's talk about it in office hours." (Or you can promise to return to the topic in the next class meeting if it's really relevant to the course and everyone in the class will want to know the answer.) Or "These issues can be complicated. I don't know the details off the top of my head, but the place I'd look them up is Reference Work X. I'd be happy to show you where to find it after class." Or "That's a good question, but it's somewhat beyond the scope of this class. I'd be happy to investigate it with you outside of class."

The key is to respect the student's desire to learn. If you avoid the question or give an answer you know is inadequate, then you're being deliberately unhelpful. If you just give up and admit defeat, then at least you're being honest, but the student still isn't finding out what he/she wanted to know. If you respond by pointing the student on the road to an answer, even if you can't supply it off the top of your head, then you've done everything that can be expected of you.

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    And, even if you suspect that the student might be just hassling you, nevertheless treat every question as genuine and sincere, and respond as sketched by AnonymousMathematician. That is, the conscientious (and "innocent") response is also the best defense against suspected hecklers. – paul garrett Aug 20 '14 at 19:10
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    +1. In some cases, "I don't know, but let's find out!" may also be an option. Of course, you should only try that if you're confident that you can work out the answer reasonably quickly; spending too much time working on a single question not only cuts into your available time, but can also easily bore the students. – Ilmari Karonen Aug 20 '14 at 21:42
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    @IlmariKaronen I have done that and sometimes was not able to find the answer. No biggie -- just abort after 5/10/... minutes, say "This seems to be harder than I though, I'll get back to you! But now we need to continue with the other material" and all is good. I think that students can learn more from watching how you approach a problem you don't know already know the answer to than they can from watching you present a polished solution. – Raphael Aug 21 '14 at 6:08
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    +1. Or - gasp! - you might even ask whether some other student has an idea (assuming that this happens in a classroom setting)! – Stephan Kolassa Aug 21 '14 at 11:18
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    @math137: If you are repeatedly unable to answer elementary questions, then yes, the students would (and should) become alarmed. On the other hand, the solution to that problem is to learn more, not to try to hide your ignorance from the students. But it's easy for students to ask arbitrarily obscure or difficult questions, and curious students will sometimes do so; there's no shame in not having an immediate answer. Naive students may believe their instructor should know everything, but it's valuable for them to learn what sorts of things an expert does or doesn't know offhand. – Anonymous Mathematician Aug 22 '14 at 18:35

I'm a professor, so I am expected to know the answers, but sometimes I don't. This often involves some minor detail in a programming language.

So I usually say, "That's a good question. I don't want to give a wrong answer, so let me think about that and get back to you." We use a course management system which includes a discussion board, so I will usually then add, "I don't want to forget, so post that on the forum. That way everyone will see the answer." Then in the posted answer I try to explain how I found the information. I find this works well.

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It's happening a lot so in this situation I prefer to not saying I don't know the answer" but I will say good question and let us think about it and we will discuss later

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    And the students will know right in that moment that you doesn't know the answer. I never respected any teacher who couldn't admit that he doesn't know/remember something. – DSVA Nov 27 '16 at 0:25
  • Agreed. I have never really liked professors who tried to be infallible..... – NZKshatriya Nov 27 '16 at 7:07

I don't know the answer to your question at the moment, let us all try to find a solution together.

In that way, you are communicating the fact that there are always new ways to look at things and presented for the first time, it is difficult to answer.

Then, you might well be in the same shoes as the questioner and other students and one logical way is to sit and solve it together. You could invite the whole class if you wish; a cooperative effort. The main idea is to try to find a way to tackle the problem before it dies away.

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If that is course related Just tell them "we will get there", don't hurry. Go home find out the answer and give them answer the next day or so. :)

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    That is an attempt to fool the students. They are not stupid, and will probably see through it (specially if you do this often). I thin there is more value in teaching that it is OK not to know everything, but give the tools to figure out, as Anonymous Mathematician wrote in his answer. – Davidmh Aug 24 '15 at 9:07

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