When It Pays to Say “I Don’t Know”

In response to our recent podcast called “Why Is ‘I Don’t Know’ So Hard to Say?,” a reader named Timothy McCollough writes in with a most interesting story. He teaches at a private international school in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. His courses include two sections of AP microeconomics, sociology, and “regular economics.” Because it’s a private school, he adds, “we have freer reign to set up classroom incentives and engage students as we see fit.” For instance:

In my classroom, students lose 1/4 point for wrong answers on quizzes. But for writing “I don’t know,” they get 1/4 point. (A correct answer is 1 point). The rationale is that if someone is in a medical emergency, and someone asks me what should be done, the answer “I don’t know” is much preferable to a guess. “I don’t know” leads the questioner to ask someone who hopefully is knowledgeable.

Part of why “I don’t know is so hard to say” stems from an education system based on attempting every single question, whether you know the answer or not.

P.S.: End-of-year student survey showed students strongly supported the +1/4 point IDK and -1/4 point wrong-answer system. 

 I have to say, I very much like to see this kind of creativity in a teacher, any teacher, at any level. 


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  1. Bobby G says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • Robb says:

      Actually, the worst thing to do when significantly impaled is to remove the object. The object is helping to prevent bleeding by applying pressure to the wound and removing it could (and usually does) cause a drop in blood pressure which could lead to shock and a host of other issues. Instead care should be taken to clean the area around the wound and stabilize the object. If you’re caught on a non-mobile object (like a fence post stuck in the ground) you should try to cut the object in a manageable piece, or if it can’t be done safety, call 911 and have trained professionals handle the situation.

      In the case, saying out right that “I don’t know” but I should get help from someone who does is still the preferred response. Today’s society with the internet, calculators, and cell phones is not about knowing information, but knowing how to access information

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    • Ricardo says:

      Actually, you often shouldn’t remove the thing that is impaling you unless it’s continuing to cause damage by being in you or you’ll be able to prevent the blood loss. So, you would have scored better with “I don’t know”.

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  2. dougiesgoindeep says:

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  3. Matt says:

    The model by Mr. McCollough is pretty interesting but I cannot see it working in American public schools.

    I know of a math teacher that allows students to re-take tests an unlimited number of times. His thought is that people have unlimited opportunities to apply for a Driver’s License and other important facets of adult life. He always changes the numbers on each test, of course.

    With SATs, ACTs and various other standardized tests in the United States, students are encouraged to attempt some form of a guess rather than skipping the question altogether.

    I hope Mr. McCollough sees positive results in his classroom and I also hope that he adapts to his students over time. One thing I am learning as a young teacher is to employ strategies and incentives that are specially tailored to individual classrooms rather than a “one size fits all” approach.

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    • Mike says:

      Guessing doesn’t help on the SAT. You lose points for incorrect answers. If you can’t eliminate any answer options, it’s better to leave it blank.

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      • Wendy says:

        Guessing clearly helps on the SAT if you can eliminate at least one option. Because most schools will allow you to list just your top scores, if your goal is to get a very high score (and you’ve got the funds and time to retake the test until you get it), guessing under any circumstances is worth it.

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  4. Matt M says:

    I think I understand the reasoning but to me it feels too much like a reward for quiting. Do the benefits for knowing when to say IDK outweigh the confidence one can get from attempting and succeeding at something risky? I think no.

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  5. James says:

    I’m sorry but this is really stupid. You’re supposed to learn. If you didn’t learn, that’s OK, that does happen but there is no way that you should be rewarded with a +1/4 point for that! You mean to tell me that if you studied and you attempted a question and got it wrong you get a -1/4 point but if you just sat there and didn’t even bother trying to learn something and then put IDK on the test then you get a +1/4 point?

    By the way, of course students strongly support it! It gives them points (OK, fractions of points) for zero effort. I bet if you gave them 50 points for signing their name they’d support that too.

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    • sam says:

      The idea is fine except completely irrelevant or idiotic answers should be given -25% credit. In other words it is possible to earn an overall negative test score for wasting the teacher’s time with drivel. This is more inline with how the real world works. If I mail something to the wrong address I get to pay the postage again for mailing it a second time to the correct address. If I don’t want to pay twice then I better get it correct the first time.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      This teaches students to know when they don’t know, which is an important cognitive skill. This skill is actually the foundation of good study habits, and it is uncommon among mediocre students.

      In a typical grading system, you get +1 for a correct answer and +0 for a wrong or blank answer.

      In this one, you get +1 for a correct answer, +0.25 for recognizing that you don’t actually know, and -0.25 for a wrong answer (thinking you knew, when you didn’t, or trying to guess).

      By the time the student gets to the test, the effort has already been expended (or not). No amount of effort on the test itself is going to change how well the student knows the material. Zero effort and a test full of “I don’t know” is going to give the student a failing grade.

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  6. Lauren says:

    I’m a 8-12 grade teacher (Latin, public school) and I feel like this would be a terrible system in my classroom. Many of my students tend to give up too easily. If the answer doesn’t come to them in an instant, they leave it blank and turn the paper in half-completed. Each time I give them the paper back (immediately) and tell them to think about it some more. They always complete more, and usually get about half or so right. When we go over the quiz (immediately afterward) there are always one or two students who shout out, “Oh, I thought that was the answer, but I left it blank because I thought it was wrong.” They’re so afraid of getting the question wrong that they don’t try to get it right.

    I feel like Mr. McCullough’s system makes it too easy for kids to cop out. Perhaps he gets a different caliber of student in his private school, but I think many of my students would take that option if it were available, even though they likely could have gotten more points by really making an attempt. The reasoning seems odd also – I’m not sure my students would confuse a Latin quiz, which they do know something about, with a medical emergency.

    My solution is what Matt mentioned above – I let my students retake quizzes. My reasoning is that I just want them to learn the material, and if it takes them two, or three, tries then at least they learned it in the end. It works for me and my students.

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    • Rajat says:

      You have the opposite problem Mr. McCullough has; instead of student’s blindly guessing, your students are refusing to make an educated guess. I’m curious on your student’s rationale for leaving things blank. I presume that your exams award zero points for wrong answers and zero points for blank answers. What benefit is there for a blank answer if they have a possible correct answer in mind? A chance to get some points sounds better than a guarantee to get none.

      I’m also not a fan of getting to retake quizzes. I’m no educator, but to me it encourages students not to bother trying the first time, since there is always another chance.

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      • Lauren says:

        Hey, I’m on your side – that’s why I always give the papers back and make them put the effort in. I think that somewhere along the line they have become so fearful about getting something “wrong” that they would rather not try (and thus have no chance of getting something wrong, in their minds at least) than attempt something with the possibility of getting it wrong (despite the chance of getting it right, too).

        Regarding the retakes, I thought the same initially. It turns out that there is a subset of students who will study hard and do well the first time, always. There is also a group of students who won’t put any effort in no matter the incentives. But there is a subset who mean well but sometimes mess up — the athletes who often lack the time to study, those who did try to study but mixed up the ideas in their mind, or the kids who just plain forgot. These are the kids who benefit from my retake policy. Like I said, I want them to know the material, and this encourages them to go back and learn it. This gives them an incentive to do so, plus it shows them that I actually want them to learn (it’s kind of surprising how they think all teachers are out to get them).

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    • Enter your name... says:

      Retakes work well for some students and some subjects (especially subjects that ultimately require mastery, like foreign languages, because there’s little point in going on to the next section if you didn’t learn this one).

      Lauren, why don’t you try penalizing blank answers more severely than wrong ones? It could be extra points off for “lack of effort”, or simply that the student can’t leave the classroom until there’s an answer in every blank. Then you can tell your students (who seem unduly worried about people discovering that they got something wrong) that you know sometimes they’re just going to have to guess and sometimes they’ll guess wrong, but not to worry about it: it’s just part of the rules that the quiz must be completed.

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  7. Ben says:

    Awful. Schools should be a risk-free environment. You learn best when you make mistakes.

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    • James says:

      Tell that to your flying instructor :-)

      The real world is not a risk-free environment, and one of the things that needs to be learned is how to judge the potential consequences of making mistakes.

      I’ve always thought that learning by trial & error is in fact one of the least effective means of learning, used only by those too lazy to RTFM.

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  8. Sara says:

    In my classroom I hate it when students leave blank answers. I would rather have a student guess and attempt to answer. They often attain at least partial credit for knowing some of the material. Kids often give up way too quickly and I want to challenge them to think about a problem for a while.

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    • Ricardo says:

      As a university TA, I hate it when students fill in answers that are completely wrong and hope that knowing something–anything–is good enough – a waste of time trying to fish through the mud. Of course, beyond high school, test time is too late for learning so valuing “I don’t know” is more worthwhile.

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      • Fondacey says:

        I would have agreed with you before having graduated from an American university, but after living in Sweden where their university “tests” are ‘attempts’ rather than testing for memorization skills.

        Their exams (called ‘tentamen’, akin to attempt) aim to demonstrate a competent level of understanding of the material rather than evaluations of reported answers to test questions. It’s like hurdling a bar. You don’t advance until you clear it. As a result, they continue to learn and absorb understanding and knowledge if they don’t pass it the first time.

        Is it better or worse? I don’t know.

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